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:
"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."
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.
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:
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.
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.
Would I want my seven-year-old watching it?
I would not.
What boggles my mind is that most people never would've been upset if it weren't for the nipple slip. They were perfectly content sitting through five minutes of sexually suggestive content with their kids, only to freak out at a nipple, as if the exposed body part itself was the problem. I can imagine a lot of uncomfortable questions that show might prompt from a seven year old. "What's a nipple, daddy?" is a question I'd much rather tackle. We've all got them, after all (save our mannequins, which are less anatomically correct than in France or Spain or Argentina).
When I was twenty I spent a summer studying in Paris. I'd somehow persuaded Florida State University to let me tag along on their summer abroad program. I ate little but baguettes and pasta so that I could afford a weekend trip down to Nice and Monte Carlo with some classmates.
It's there that I set foot on my first topless beach.
At first my female classmates sunbathed in the American style. 45 minutes later they said to hell with it, took their tops off, and left the guys feeling slightly awkward and titillated for about 5 minutes, when everyone's notion of normal re-calibrated. That's how fast the mental adjustment happens.
Most people have the same experience at nude beaches. It feels weird, and soon enough ... it doesn't. In places where women must wear head scarves, exposed locks can turn heads. In New York City, exactly no one thinks bare heads are sexually provocative, and New Yorkers have their heads turned on beaches in Rio until they don't. Sexual attraction is a force of nature. It is a proper function of civilization to bound it. Though shalt not rape is a useful norm. Treat others as you'd want to be treated is a useful norm. It is shameful to let people see your breasts is a useless norm. Those who think otherwise at once give men too much and too little credit -- too little in that the site of bare breasts is not enough to corrupt men; too much in that no matter how women dress, there is no getting around the fact that many men will lust after them.
Amanda Todd's story is a lot more complicated than an inane, pervasive taboo against exposed breasts. She felt foolish partly because a stranger she trusted betrayed her; she was bullied partly due to violating taboos against promiscuity, not just nudity (taboos that could themselves be the subject of a long critique). But it remains the case that her story wouldn't have been possible save for the flawed norms that make a big deal out of nudity, cloak it in shame and conflate it with especially transgressive promiscuity. Along with the bullying and slut-shaming that helped drive her to suicide, that norm deserves to be attacked. Yes, let's caution our kids about its existence. Let's also teach them that it's incorrect, that the human body is nothing to feel shame over, that the bullies are not merely unkind, but wrong on the merits. Let's raise kids who don't grow up to be offended by nipple slips, topless beaches, or mothers breastfeeding in public, and are therefore less vulnerable to youthful mistakes, rogue photographers, and slut-shaming.
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.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
A federal judge in Kentucky held the Rowan County clerk in contempt of court on Thursday. Federal marshals escorted her to jail immediately after the hearing, the AP reported.
Davis had refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a federal district court order, citing her Christian faith. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry.
As my colleague Garrett explained yesterday, Davis’s appeal was doomed to fail from the start. The Supreme Court denied her request for an emergency stay of the lower court’s order on Monday. Davis continued to refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples after the highest court weighed in, prompting today’s hearing.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: according to the series’ elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’ insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.