Why Are We So Scared of Breasts?


If you spent any time browsing the Daily Mail‘s eponymous sidebar this week, you may have chanced upon two stories about breasts. The two women attached to these breasts, Miley Cyrus and Beth Whaanga, were treated very differently by the publication. One had her “racy” mammaries blocked by a little black box, while the other had her photos shown in full and was lauded as “brave” by commenters for “baring all”.

The difference? Whaanga’s nudity exposed surgical scars from a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. Her photos were posted on her Facebook page as part of the cancer awareness-raising Red Dress Campaign, and 100 of her “friends” promptly deleted her. The Mail rightly came to her defence. But where does this leave Miley and her equally blameless areoles?

As a society, we’ve got our knickers in a twist about nudity. Specifically, female upper-body nudity. Where should it be allowed? On TV, but usually only after 9pm. We can’t be naked in Tesco, but Adele Stephens on page three of the Sun is more than welcome. We can be topless in the bath, unless it’s the big kind, in the Leisure Centre, with other people in it. No breasts allowed on Facebook – unless it’s to raise cancer awareness. Breastfeeding in public? We’re not sure how we feel about that.

It’s easy to argue that nudity is all about context. While you might be happy for your children to see a Caravaggio on a wholesome trip to the National Gallery, you may be less keen for them to flick through Nuts magazine. Yet when it comes down to making laws or social media policies, judging “context” is far from easy.

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The image-sharing website Pinterest recently loosened their no-tolerance policy to allow nudity in “art” images, following complaints from artists and photographers. Facebook, however, stands by its policy that “breast or genital” nudity is, in its nature, “pornographic”. Yet they have made an exception for Whaanga, assuring her that her photos will not be removed.

I once posted a picture on Facebook of a burqa-clad Muslim woman bearing her breasts at a protest. She had less square inches of flesh on show than your average woman wearing a jumper and jeans, yet I received a warning from Facebook moderators, who removed the image. This, too, was an awareness-raising photo – yet Zuckerberg and co. (in their infinite wisdom) decide which causes are worthy of a little breast-flashing, and which are not.

Women across the world have protested for the right to be topless. In New York City, topless protests led to police agreeing not to arrest topless women in May 2013. Meanwhile, in the same month, European protesters from pressure group Femen protested topless in Tunisia against the state’s patriarchal regime.

The Femen protesters were arrested and later were allowed to leave the country, while the NYC victory still leaves the rest of the country with their tops firmly on. In a country where gun-wielding is constitutionally encouraged, women are still fighting for the right to bare breasts, protesting annually in 30 US cities on Go Topless Day (24 August this year).

Perhaps it’s time to admit that context doesn’t have the power to make our breasts offensive. Breasts are breasts, and pornographic content should be identified by its participants’ actions, not by the exact pieces of flesh on show. As it stands, we still allow a normal part of a woman’s body to shock and horrify us. Are we really living in a world where it’s unacceptable for women to show their breasts unless they’re riddled with scars?

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