Thursday, June 16, 2011

Suddenly nipples

Our society has a hard time with nipples.  Less so in the UK and much of Europe, where it’s not that much of an issue, but the US in particular seems to face extraordinary and daily anguish about nipples.  Male nipples are alright, of course.  It’s only female nipples that are obscene.  It’s fine for women to walk about without a shirt on… providing they cover their nipples with stickers.  The US Supreme Court upheld a rule made by yokels in some hick town or other to force strippers to wear the stickers too. Note that this isn’t a law about protecting women from objectification.  It’s not about protecting women at all.  It’s about protecting the men who might otherwise be driven stark insane at the obscene prospect of seeing a nipple.  Unless it’s one of their wife’s nipples, presumably, which are not obscene.

If you *ahem* ‘accidentally’ show a female nipple at the Super Bowl, it will cost you $550,000.  If you’re breastfeeding in public – making use of the actual primary biological function of your nipples - be prepared to have strangers verbally abuse you with little restraint.  Men and women alike will feel entitled to tell you what they think of you. 

As if all this isn’t weird enough, it’s always fun to look at borderline or extreme cases to throw the idiocy into sharp relief:

  • Thomas Beatie is a man who used to be a woman who carried a child to term.  He posed topless in many pictures with his nipples exposed. Many celebrity women pose naked while pregnant but always with their nipples covered because they are obscene. Beatie’s nipples are not obscene, for some reason. Are they not female (and therefore obscene) nipples because he has a beard?  And doesn’t shave his armpits?  He has sufficient ladyparts to construct a baby, but his nipples are definitely male and therefore acceptable.
  • This is an anecdote, but seems plausible: there was a show in the US about plastic surgery on transsexual women. The ‘before’ shots showed uncensored ‘male’ nipples, but the ‘after’ shots, following breast augmentation, had censored nipples.  The only part censored was the only part that hadn’t changed – the nipples – which everyone had already seen anyway.
  • This case turns the idiocy up to eleventyone.  Andrej Pejic is a model famous for being androgynous.  At work, he frequently dresses in traditionally female costume. He appeared on the cover of the magazine Dossier in this pose, with a vaguely Monroe-like styling.  Barnes and Noble deemed his nipples obscene and demanded that it’s copies of the magazine be wrapped in opaque plastic.

The problem, of course, is not these outliers. It’s the fact of the inequality between what men and women are allowed to show.  The extreme examples are just cases where society has become confused by its own double standards.

The double standard exists for very much the same reasons women in many countries and cultures are required to wear burkas: it’s purely a control issue.  Men want to control who can see and interact with ‘their’ woman’s body.  In case we think that the burka is the most extreme example of this, I’ve occasionally wondered whether foot-binding in China, which went on until the middle of the 20th century, wasn’t the pinnacle. It looks to me like a particularly fetishised version of the same thing: women with bound feet literally couldn’t walk very far or do very much because of their unspeakable deformities. Talk about exercising control over someone. For once, this was propagated not by religion but by some notion of social class.  Poor women needed to work so couldn’t have bound feet. Binding the feet of ‘your’ women was a mark of social and economic class.  That’s right, tortured women were objects of envy.

We’re so obsessed with this idea of who’s looking at our birds that the sight of a couple of square inches of every female’s flesh ended up as a taboo.  We don’t call the nipples of animals we milk commercially ‘nipples’, we call them ‘teats’.  We also call the drinking attachments on babies’ bottles ‘teats’ rather than ‘nipples’ (at least in the UK: I’ve occasionally heard them called nipples in the US).  We can’t even mention female nipples, let alone display them.

As it happens, there are lots of places where it’s legally fine for women to be topless.  The UK (as I understand it) is one of them.  It’s also widespread through Europe and there are places in the US where female nipples are not – at least legally – obscene.  Few people take advantage of this fact in the UK. Given our police officers’ well-known unfamiliarity with the law, it’s unlikely that anyone who did would go far without being arrested anyway.

It’s not entirely surprising that prudery is linked so strongly with religion. If there was ever a mechanism that could convince people en masse that it’s right that they’re discriminated against by fostering societal shame in return for, say, half the population wanting to take their shirt off on a hot day, it’s religious indoctrination.

Fun observation: websites always get a lot of mealy-mouthed males commenting on issues like this.  Many insist that it’s not the nipples but the fact that female nipples reside upon breasts that’s the problem.  Breasts are considered sexual objects and so…. well, you see in what question-begging direction this preposterous argument lies.  What if we cover up the breasts and show only the nipples then?  Won’t peephole bras solve the problem? The issue isn’t and has never been about what’s actually on display: it’s about arbitrary rules imposed on half of society for the purposes of control.

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