Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘cultural norms

On Boobs, And Showing Them Or Not

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Via Conor F., a sad story about Canadian teen Amanda Todd, who was persuaded by an Internet suitor to flash her breasts during a video chat, then blackmailed by said suitor and subsequently bullied by peers when the photo was leaked. She killed herself last week:

Conor rightfully rails against the prevailing takeaway that teenage bullying + lack of web literacy are the major issues here.

As a parent I’ll warn my kids about the permanence of the Web, its perils and how to avoid them. I’ll particularly want any child of mine to understand the potential consequences of naked images of their bodies winding up online. It’s prudent to teach kids how to navigate prevailing social norms, whatever they may be. But don’t stories like this one demand something more from us than cautioning? When a child is bullied to the point of suicide partly because a photo of her breasts was circulated to her friends and family, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why the Anglosphere retains social norms wherein being seen topless is regarded as horrifying and shameful?

And he goes on to give a few more examples of our inanity regarding women’s breasts (Janet Jackson’s nip slip, the recently leaked topless photos of Princess Kate) and to stress how silly and detrimental these attitudes and reactions are. On all of that: I concur. But I’d just like to add a few sentences about why I think the western world stigmatizes naked female breasts so much. After all, men have breasts too. After all, they’re just lumps of fatty tissue, grafted on to the human female form to serve a very utilitarian purpose.

In some places, this seems to be recognized. I’m no expert on cross-cultural attitudes toward exposed female breasts, but it seems that in certain societies, most people recognize female breasts for what they are: A body part designed to allow mothers to nurse their young. Sans any codified cultural significance, they might as well be an ear or an asshole or thumb. They’re just a part of the average anatomy, evolved to do a particular thing.

The trouble started when — unlike the ear or asshole or thumb — this particular part of the female anatomy was deigned to be erotic. I don’t know how or when this happened, and I’m not inclined to look it up right now, because that’s not the point. Maybe erotic is the wrong word, even, because by virtue of being so closely connected to notions of motherhood (and motherhood so closely connected to sex), breasts are kind of inherently erotic, in the broader sense of the word. Sexualized, then? Or sexually desirable? Word quibbling aside, you of course know what I mean. At some point, and for some reason, female breasts — and the bigger the better — were deemed to be Hott. And when breasts started being Hott, and stopped being just a part of the body that spewed milk for offspring, we women lost our claim to them. Men desired female breasts, and thus female breasts became For Men.

When female breasts in general became For Men, it logically followed that any particular set of female breasts became for a man — a boyfriend, a husband, a future husband — and hence the taboo against showing them to just anyone. If breasts were something For Men, then of course the ‘owner’ of a particular set of female breasts would want to jealously guard them for himself. And any woman who exposed her breasts wouldn’t just be acting out of her own agency but acting in violation of her man and, therefore, clearly a wanton whore. If breasts were something men desired, then — by the logic of Puritanism or controlling female sexuality or what have you — they were something women needed to keep pure by keeping hidden.

Once the cultural taboo against ladies showing their breasts was established, the reasons they shouldn’t do so multiplied. Now well-meaning people could argue that women shouldn’t expose their breasts because of the cultural norm against doing so. Cultural taboos are self-perpetuating in this way. But while of course not all men think this way, and of course even those that do might not do so consciously, the taboo against naked female breasts persists today because men still think women’s breasts belong to or exist for them. No serious de-stigmatization of topless ladies will happen here until this changes.

The odds of it changing I find highly unlikely.

Not having any particular desire to receive attention (good or bad) from strangers, I generally adhere to social norms when it comes to breast exposure. But I take two exceptions:

1) As someone whose breasts are not pendulous*, I don’t need a bra for support, and thus very often go without, especially in the summer. Why? Because it’s hot outside, and bras make you hotter; or sometimes just because I forget to put one on. This means that the outline of my nipples are often visible. I can’t tell you how many times people have pointed this out to me and, upon learning that I am in fact aware of this fact, expressed surprise/dismay/concern that I’m not more concerned about people who may be offended by the sight of the outline of my nipples. It’s absurd. Why should I be physically uncomfortable just to keep up the illusion that I don’t have a body part we all have? If people are offended or put off by the revelation that I have nipples, it rather seems more their problem than mine, no?

2) I don’t understand why I should worry that someone may briefly see my boobs while changing clothes. Most of the time, I keep the blinds on my bedroom windows open. Most of the time, the amount of time it takes me to change shirts and/or bras is pretty brief (although the time frame is not so much the issue here). It seems silly to me to have to open and close my bedroom blinds every time I’m going to change tops, on the off chance that some passerby may be looking up at my second-story window and – heaven forbid – see my breasts. My boyfriend — who considers himself a feminist, bless his heart — takes exception to my open window policy, and will often go and close the blinds himself if he’s in the room. Which is mildly irritating but fine, I guess, if he’s so inclined to stop whatever he’s doing and go do that. And yet so perfectly illustrative of my above point …

Anyway, I bring both these things up not because I think I’m some sort of rebel for not giving a shit in said instances, but because I think the prevailing expectation that I should give a shit further illustrates our ridiculous assumptions about boobs, that’s all.

* For Grace M., with whom I have an ongoing quest to use the word “pendulous.”

Written by Elizabeth

October 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm