I assume, if you're reading this, that you are most likely a human being with eyeballs in a head on top of a torso with nipples on it sitting on a butt attached to some genitals and legs and feet. Or some approximation thereof, give or take a few limbs/eyeballs/genitals as needed. In that case, congratulations! You have a body. And your body is—truth!—naked under your clothes right now. Look to your left. Look to your right. Literally 100% of the people within your line of sight are also naked under their clothes! And if, for some reason, some of those clothes happened to come off, or go invisible, or get burned off by acid rain or the erotic ray-gun of a lecherous sex-doctor, you might accidentally behold your neighbors' nakedness. And do you know what would happen then? Literally nothing. Nothing would happen to anyone. (Except for that sex-doctor. We gotta get that dude off the streets.)
And that's why our culture's nudity taboo is STUPID. And it's not stupid because I'm some latent nudist who wants to go out and run around flapping my bunz all over town. I profoundly don't. Nor do I particularly want to drink in the sight of grampa's freshly buffed testes while standing in line at Starbucks or whatever. I'm fine with people keeping their clothes on in public 99% of the time. But the issue here is twofold: 1) When people's clothes come off—in public or private, whether by accident (Janet Jackson) or on purpose (Kate Middleton)—we react like fucking maniacs; and 2) This taboo is gendered and unfair, and women bear the brunt of it.
In the wake of Amanda Todd's suicide (after schoolmates distributed photos of her naked chest), Conor Friedersdorf has a super-smart take-down of the English-speaking world's nudity taboo over at the Atlantic today.
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.
The idea that free speech—abstract notions that we create with our bodies, our brains and mouths and fingers— is protected, but accidentally letting people see those same bodies is stigmatized and criminalized, is so counterintuitive it's a joke. Our bodies exist. You can tell, just by looking at almost any human being, what they probably look like under their clothes. But when our suspicions are confirmed (there ARE boobz under there!) we lose our shit.
The boobs taboo is completely insane. You can tell it's insane because it's insane. You can show 90% of a breast and everyone's fine—I could go on Fox & Friends right now with just band-aids over the middle part (AND MAYBE I WILL) and the FCC would be all, "No big! Now show me some more surprising household chores I can do with lemons, Gretchen Carlson!!" It's cool. Put Ice Loves Coco on in primetime. But if you reveal the remaining 10% of your breast (or 5% or 20%, depending on aereola-size—another perfectly sensical distinction, obv), you transform, suddenly, into some sort of creeping cultural blight who must be shamed 4 life and fined a one-million-billion-dollar Scarlet Woman Tax. This fact is unacceptable. And it hurts women in the following ways:
1. The topless taboo only applies to women. Downstairs-genitals, fine. Whatever. Cover 'em up. I mean, it's not the most logical thing in the world (kids also have genitals! NOT THAT I'VE CHECKED), but at least penises are just as stigmatized as crimson lady-orchids, so there's no double-standard. But when it comes to chests, this is a woman's burden. Women's chests are so stigmatized that even women without breasts have to cover up in the pool. A dude, meanwhile, could probably get fucking breast implants and still go swimming topless (as long as he otherwise presented as masculine). As the great Caitlin Moran says:
"You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?' If they aren't, chances are you're dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit'."
Yes. Some total fucking bullshit. Because a naked woman = porn. Clothe those things! Put cloth on them!
2. Since this taboo is a woman's burden, women are the ones punished for it. Taboos around nudity are deeply tied to problematic objectification and exploitation. If a woman shows her breasts to an intimate partner in a consensual encounter, and that partner non-consensually photographs and distributes that woman's breasts to the public, the woman is still blamed and shamed. Sure, she might be pitied too, but the implication still echoes around more conservative circles: Well, she shouldn't have been doing that if she didn't want to face the consequences. Women shouldn't go around having bodies all willy-nilly if they don't want those bodies to be exploited!
3. By associating women's bodies inordinately with lewdness, sexuality, and shame, we associate women themselves with lewdness, sexuality, and shame. Here's Friedersdorf again, on Janet Jackson's Super Bowl nip-slip:
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.
Bodies are not inherently sexual. Women's chests are just chests—like men's chests but floppier! If anything, lady-chests should be more familiar and less shocking than dude-chests, seeing as most of us spent our first year or so with our mouths literally latched on to one. In fact, that makes the determination to sexualize and stigmatize boobs at all cost extremely creepy. You're basically calling your own baby-self a pervert. Stop it, weirdo.
4. All of this trickles down to the kids. Attention, stupid people who are outraged at the sight of a nipple: You have nipples. "But but but what about my children? My children shouldn't have to see nipples!!!" Yes, they should and they do and they have. Because last time I checked, YOUR CHILDREN HAVE NIPPLES. (Not that I've checked your children's nipples, specifically. That would be inappropriate.) This whole system raises girl-children to believe their bodies are shameful, and boy-children to think that girl-children are sluts for showing their shameful bodies. Children cannot, objectively, be scandalized by naked bodies, because children are naked bodies.
I don't have any puritanical notions about censorship—I don't particularly care about sexual content on TV (and I certainly don't think it's worse than violent content), as long as kids have access to open, honest information about what they're seeing. (Sex education in school would be a good place for that! Or...no? Just abstinence? 'Kay.) But conflating nudity with shame and dirtiness makes no sense and helps no one.
Friedersdorf lays out a beautiful fantasy for how Kate Middleton might have responded to her topless photo "nightmare," if we lived in a sane and civilized utopia:
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."
Well said, Imaginary Kate Middleton. Well said.