THERE was a time when skin was tanned and love was free and bare breasts dotted the sand as far as the eye could see.
Jo Slinkard's were among them. ''You would go to beaches and everybody would be topless so you went topless, it was the fashion,'' she says. ''I'm a '70s girl, we didn't care about showing off.''
Topless or not?
We ask women on Sydney's northern beaches whether they sun bathe topless or not.
Slinkard, now 60 and a nurse manager, still enjoys getting her kit off. Her daughter Jacqueline Stone, 25, would never dream of shedding her teeny blue bikini on Dee Why beach, where barely a bared boob can be seen.
Stone says she has too much ''self-worth'' to expose her nipples. Slinkard reckons she's just shy. ''It's just one of those things that are taboo,'' says human resources student Ceci Vazquez, 20, watching the waves in a black bikini top and bright pink bottoms.
It's a similar sign of the times down Sydney's coastline. On Bondi's south end, where monokinis were once the rage, nary a nipple is on show. Tamarama boasts a bounty of man boobs but few of the female persuasion.
Tanning on the sand is Cara Petrovski, 19, who will wear nothing less than her strapless brown and blue bikini. ''I like that bit of mystery, it's like saving yourself,'' she says. ''If I was in a private place, chilling by a pool, that would be fine. For me it is a respect thing: respecting your body and respecting everyone else around you.''
Clotilde Lienhart, 23 and a Hillsong volunteer, is all but topless in her barely there bikini. But modesty stops her short. ''It's something about the nipple. I would feel vulnerable. People are watching and I don't want to be seen like that,'' she says. ''It's a private area, I guess.''
It's as if covered nipples are a new show of chastity, says Associate Professor Gail Hawkes, a sexuality expert at the University of New England. ''Maybe this is a form of protecting your virginity. You keep your nipple private for your lover not the public.''
There is growing ''uneasiness about the public display of breasts'', she says, on beaches and at public pools, where TV host David Koch reckons breastfeeding women should be ''more discreet and modest''.
The Australian Nudist Federation sees something sinister at play. ''When breasts go away from our beaches there is something wrong with our society,'' said federation president Greg, who asked we not publish his surname for fear of embarrassing his 19-year-old daughter.
''This is a litmus test of the modern sickness of the society we live in, that it's either not trusting or not safe or not confident.''
He blames the nipple no-show on US network television, in which nudity is rare.
The Waverley mayor, Sally Betts, who recalls going topless on beaches in the 1970s, says young women today are more conservative and conscious of skin cancer. And yet many still sunbake in bikinis. Or dress provocatively on Friday nights in the city.
''It's a complete paradox,'' says a 48-year-old topless high school teacher on Dee Why beach, who does not want to be named.
''They don't go topless but they will wear G-strings in a second.''
On Tamarama, wearing a snug blue-and-white string bikini, Kelsey Martin, 23, says many young women are too insecure to drop their tops. ''I think it's a beautiful thing to be free and to feel naked but in our culture there is such a pressure to be perfect or to look a certain way that I don't think girls feel free,'' she says.
''I think tanning topless is so about body image and the way you see yourself.
''Everyone is beautiful, but people don't think that.''