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.
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