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Steph Wilson

The pervasive persistence of boob shame

From Madonna exposing a fan onstage to Janet Jackson’s #nipplegate, breast panic still runs wild in middle America - why are we so touchy about tits?

If you were wondering what the most offensive thing a woman can do in public is, it’s to show her breast when a man wasn’t specifically asking to see it. Whether it’s an accidental reveal, a breast in the name of activism, breastfeeding a baby, a scarred breast or even a breast intended to be attractive, but not quite meeting the prerequisites needed to satisfy male desire, these breasts are, bottom line, unwelcome. Which is a gross act of hypocrisy in itself. Breasts are constantly hypersexualized in a porn-oriented culture that will use a boob to sell a beer, but still scrutinizes mothers for breastfeeding publicly, despite the fact that it’s reasonably likely no infant deaths would occur should the beer not be accompanied by a heaving bosom.

Just last week, we were reminded of this confusing, reductive status quo when Madonna accidentally pulled down the top of a 17-year-old female fan on stage, revealing the young woman’s naked breast to the audience. The fan, Josephine Georgiou, who is over the age of consent, told Queensland newspaper The Courier Mail, "Only I get to decide if I'm humiliated or not, why would people assume I am humiliated by my own breast, nipple or body? Seriously, why would I sue Madonna for the best moment of my life? It was the best night…". And yet: the media has been calling for Madonna’s head on a plate, and for Georgiou to admit her deep, deep shame at having shown her – gasp! – breast.

Madonna is obviously not without fault – it’s not okay to pull down people’s tops without invitation to do so (although if you watch the video, it seems at least accidental), and it’s certainly not okay to participate so willingly in the sexualization of women while making a joke of sexual harassment. But, in a statement from Georgiou’s talent agency (she’s an aspiring model), President Domenick Nati wrote that, “Joséphine was honoured by Madonna's interaction with her at her concert in Brisbane. Although Madonna’s exposure of Joséphine breast was unexpected, Joséphine is not upset about the incident and will not be filing any legal action.” Meanwhile, the statement goes on to say that  Madonna invited Georgiou to her final show in her Australian tour, singing her "La Vie En Rose" and bequeathing her with flowers (by way of apology, I assume). What Madonna did might have been wrong, but in the context, there doesn’t seem to be an offended party, other than the peanut gallery hellbent on the idea that Georgiou should somehow be mortified by the exposure of her sacred teet.

We need to fully understand and comprehend that the moment wasn’t one of shame for Georgiou – she wasn’t moved to any negative emotion for the exposure of her body. If Josephine chooses to shrug at the event as though it wasn’t a thing at all, then who are we to tell her that her naked breast is a cause for embarrassment? Why do we continue to, despite the prevalence of sexualized breasts in our culture, continue to be so troubled by such exposures? Every time we see a breast we didn’t expect to, it’s as though we’re revisiting the crime scene of Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, where the pop star’s breast was “accidentally” exposed by co-performer Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl Halftime show. That was sixteen years ago, and the incident brought an America that had, only a year before, hungrily devoured Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, quivering to its knees in the absolute horror of being forced to look at a boob it had never asked to see in the first place. Life is hard in middle America.

This breast hysteria still exists, especially in mainstream pop culture, which is so increasingly odd in a world where women are hyper-sexualized, and where “sex sells” isn’t so much a motto as something that’s so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche it might take generations of reconditioning to dispel. It comes down to the idea that there are inherently “good” naked breasts and “bad” naked breasts. “Good” naked breasts exist to serve male fetish and fantasy. They appear in pornography and men’s magazine and on the wholly invasive paparazzi shots of female celebrities on vacation, sunbaking topless, or experiencing a wardrobe malfunction at some event. Breasts are also okay where they are being used to sell something, whether it’s Victoria’s Secret lingerie (kind of fair, you can’t really sell a bra without putting boobs in it), or a wholly unrelated product targeted at men, like Nandos.

We eat up images of naked celebrities hacked from their private collections, and yet when celebrities try to politicize their breasts, we censor them. Amber Rose, for instance, censored her breast on Instagram (she posted the full, uncensored image to Twitter). However, what about the thousands of Instagram accounts devoted to “boobs”? Just typing in “boobs” to Instagram’s search feature reveals this, and accounts like boobs_fucks (this isn’t even the worst one), which has 76k followers, abound, unfettered by any kind of socio-cultural panic. This might be because, unlike Amber Rose’s, the breasts on boobs_fucks don’t come with messages like #freethenipple or #AmberRoseSlutWalk2016. The breasts on boobs_fuck and analogous accounts exist solely as part of a culture that endorses nudity only insofar as it contributes to the communal male spank bank.

“It’s as though we’re revisiting the crime scene of Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, where the pop star’s breast was “accidentally” exposed by co-performer Justin Timberlake during the Super Bowl Halftime show. That was sixteen years ago, and the incident bought an America that had, only a year before, hungrily devoured Kim Kardashian’s sex tape”

It’s not just politicisation that renders a breast “bad”. In 2014, breast cancer survivor Beth Whaanga posted pictures of her scars to Facebook, setting the Internet alight with disgust and losing many “friends” in the process. This year, an ad for Lane Bryant featuring naked plus size models doing things as innocuous as yoga and breastfeeding as well as generally rolling around looking sexy, was refused airtime by networks like ABC and NBC. The ad featured Sports Illustrated cover girl Ashley Graham and other professional models, and was no more racy than a Victoria’s Secret ad. And yet. The message is censoring the commercial is clear: only certain types of breasts, shown under certain circumstances, are mandated for public consumption.

Breast panic is one of the more blatantly contradictory elements of sexism. Whereas breasts abound for male pleasure, when that pleasure stops, they become taboo. Whether we’re telling women to be ashamed of their breasts, attempting to curtail their right to bear them on their own terms, or defining what “sexy” breasts are in a sanitized, fetishistic way, it’s clear that when it comes to mammary autonomy, women aren’t entitled to it. Breasts aren’t simply skin for male sexual consumption. They’re reproductive organs that we use to feed children. They’re a convenient way to make a political statement. They can make us feel sexy--although not always in the same way men hope for. And they can just be nothing, bags of muscle and tissue attached to our body the same way an elbow or an ear is. Breasts don’t deserve the bottom line hysteria associated with their liberation. And as long as we clutch our pearls over some breasts and salivate over others, control over women’s bodies and the way women perform within them will rest squarely with that pervasive, masculine other.