I started to think about this in the summer, when I read a news story which went like this: in Italy a woman was sunbathing topless on a beach and when rubbing suncream on her breasts, was confronted by another woman who told her to cover up because her bare breasts were ‘confusing’ her teenage sons. The police were called and, although being topless is not illegal in Italy, the sunbathing woman was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’.
This reminded me of a conversation I had had with a friend while I was staying in America. My friend related how she had been in a bar one night and had felt disgusted at the sight of a woman who was obviously not wearing a bra under her top. The top was not see through, but the sight of the shape of a natural breast, and moreover the message that this bra-less woman was deemed to be sending out, had my friend morally outraged. She concluded that the woman must have been a prostitute.
In the case of the sunbather, I feel so disappointed that the mother did not take the opportunity to explain to her sons that there is nothing confusing about breasts, they are simply one part of a woman’s body and that while of course they may look good, feel good and play a sexual function, they are, essentially, there to produce milk to feed babies. However, instead of educating her sons, she victimised the sunbather and reinforced the message that breasts are dirty, to be hidden away and kept from view.
In the case of my friend, appalled that a woman would chose not to wear a bra, I could not believe that this is what womankind has come to. Gone are the days when we would burn bras to protest against their real and symbolic constraining of the natural female form, now the natural shape of a breast is seen as dirty and lewd.
Meanwhile, facebook has a big problem with breasts, especially nipples. Not men’s nipples of course, only women’s. A topless male is fine; a topless female corrupts. For months now, I’ve been hearing about photographers having their images removed from facebook when breasts are shown. If the nipples are censored, it seems that’s acceptable. I’m not talking sexually explicit, page three, pornographic images. I’m talking high fashion, tasteful, artistic images of the likes seen in Vogue, where the woman’s chest just happens to be naked and in shot, not like the images of Nuts or Zoo, where the model is holding a sexually provocative pose and showing her breasts as a means to encourage sexual arousal. Presumably, the removal all images showing breats on facebook is done under clause 3.7 of the facebook ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ which states that “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”. It is hard to know whether the images are removed because they are deemed pornographic or simply because they contain nudity, but I’m assuming it’s the latter because the images are clearly not pornographic. They are not sexually explicit images whose primary purpose is to create sexual arousal. So if it’s because the images contain nudity, then why are topless pictures of men not removed? What are facebook telling us here? That the naked female chest, especially the nipple area, is obscene and dirty? These would be the same breasts, the same nipples, that many of us suckle from as babies and go on to feed our own babies with.
Which of course leads us on to one of the more damaging elements of this issue, which is the impact that all of this has on breastfeeding. A UK Department of Health survey found that 84% of people find breastfeeding in public acceptable if done discreetly. Therefore, it seems that the onus is on the mother, when feeding her child, to be discreet. Heaven forbid the general public should see some flesh or, shock horror, a bit of nipple when a baby is getting it’s nourishment. (It seems our nipple-shy friends at facebook also find breastfeeding obscene and will remove images of women feeding their babies under, you’ve guessed it, clause 3.7; you can join the protest against this by joining the group ‘Hey facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!’). And so now there are a great number of tent-like products available for new mothers to buy to hide their baby and breasts under when they’re feeding. As if you haven’t enough to buy / worry about / carry around when you have a baby, apparently you should also lug around a contraption with which to shield the world from your shameful act of nature.
And now, apparently, legs are in danger of becoming equally disturbing. On Monday (1st November, 2010) the Italian town of Castellammare di Stabia will undertake a vote to establish whether to ban the miniskirt, under anti-social behaviour legislation. Yes, showing your legs is anti-social. A local parish priest has argued that the measure will also help to reduce sexual harassment. Forget having a culture that recognises that women’s bodies are not merely sexual objects and that refraining from sexual harassment is the responsibility of the perpetrator and not the victim. Oh no, just cover up ladies! This is harking back to the days when it was acceptable to question a rape victim on what clothes she was wearing at the time of attack, or whether she had red lipstick on, to determine whether she was “asking for it”.
The over-sexualisation and, ultimately, demonisation of women’s bodies undoubtedly comes from society’s obsession with sex and the mainstreaming of women being regarded as purely sexual objects. In this respect, Kira Cochrane’s article on pornography is very thought-provoking. Subconsciously, we are being encouraged more and more to automatically associate a woman’s body with sex, in a way which we do not do with men. In doing so, we are both putting women’s bodies up onto a pedestal, where they are seen as desirable in a way in which men’s are not, but also shameful, in that they are always associated with sex, which we too often associate with shame. Boobs are just boobs, they’re bits of flesh, just one part of a woman’s body. Some women have big breasts, some have small ones, some don’t have any. Can we please stop making such a big deal out of them? If you think “sex” every time you see breasts, then you need to re-train your brain. The problem’s in your head, not on her chest.