Pointless Shame: The English-Speaking World's Issue With Women's Breasts

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A reflection on the useless taboos that surround female nudity.

The tragic story of Amanda Todd is making the rounds. In seventh grade she met a guy online who told her she was beautiful and successfully persuaded her to flash her breasts during a video chat. He contacted her months later, having somehow figured out her identity, and tried to blackmail her with a screenshot. She shared her story in a heartbreaking video, chronicling how the photograph of her breasts was circulated among peers. It prompted merciless bullying. "Between the cyber-bullying and real-life harassment, the girl had a meltdown, began drinking, doing drugs, spiraled into depression, cutting herself," Rod Dreher writes," adding that "she has a poignant line about how that one image, on the Internet, lives forever." Watch for yourself:
 

It gets worse.

The Canadian teen reportedly killed herself last week.

"Melodramatic, emotionally troubled, even suicidal teens are nothing new. What got to me about this was the role technology in the hands of a malicious person played in driving this girl to murder herself," Dreher wrote. "Do you know Nietzsche's idea of Eternal Return? That we should act as if everything we do would have to be repeated forever. These days, simply as a precaution, teenagers should be taught to act as if everything they do will be online forever. Grim, but there you are."

2.

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?

Bullying is as troublesome culprit in this case as whatever pretext prompted it. The stigma against female nudity is nevertheless something that costs women the world over very dearly. And it benefits none of the places where it prevails. Think of earth as a great natural experiment, where certain parts of Scandinavia think nothing of co-ed naked saunas, and certain parts of the Middle East require women to cover themselves in head-to-toe burkas on the street. How many Americans, Canadians, or Brits believe societies that enforce female modesty are better off? Or that countries where immodesty is most stigmatized are more moral or functional?

Yet we stigmatize the human body.   

3.

It is appropriate to castigate the photographer who captured images of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless. For lucre, he needlessly humiliated someone, knowing the pain that it would cause. But there's more to the story. The coverage of the episode is perfectly summed up by the cover People magazine chose:

Kate's nightmare photo.png

Given prevailing social norms, perhaps this was a nightmare for Duchess Middleton. If so, that would be an understandable reaction. But what does it say about our culture that it's plausibly a "nightmare" for a physically attractive 30-year-old woman to be seen topless at a private home with her husband? I wouldn't dream of criticizing any Duchess Middleton reaction to this. In a similar position I might well be very upset at the invasion of privacy. What I couldn't help but imagine is how awesome it would've been had Middleton called a press conference on a nude beach, arrived topless with a thousand women, and told the assembled press, "The photographer who invaded my privacy had no right to capture those images, but I face that nightmare on a daily basis. And no one gives a damn until one of them photographs me topless? Grow up. I am unashamed of my body. In fact, I rather love it, as all these woman love their bodies. That makes some immature people uncomfortable. And it is their problem, not mine. If you're sitting at home obsessing over photos of me topless, or giggling and pointing on the streets, it's you who should feel embarrassment and shame, not me. I refuse to do it anymore."

Ours is a society where that People cover makes sense, and that speech would never happen. We're doing it wrong.

4.

Note the subjects that are not being discussed here: sexual intercourse, hookups, abortion, religiosity, secularism, moral relativism. The impulse for many social and cultural conservatives will be to reject what I've written. I am interested in having that conversation and teasing out our assumptions. To preemptively clarify what I'm saying, permit me to remind you about Janet Jackson:
  


Above is the infamous Super Bowl halftime show that ended with her breast exposed for a split second. What bothered me about the ensuing controversy wasn't that some parents found the halftime show inappropriate for their kids, and complained about it through formal and informal channels. After all, the lyrics and choreography are rife with sexual innuendo and simulated sex acts.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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