Of women and breasts: ambivalence and contradiction

“Cover up your bosom if you use it to defend your rights or if you are sunbathing at a public park—But if it’s about selling cars (like the Mercedes S500 with its 8 airbags), go naked to lure lecherous, deep-pocketed fools.”

This is how the self-righteous dispossess women of their own bodies. They spit on those shameful Femen, who dare to show their breasts in public, and yet they leer at the breasts of those whose bodies are presented as yet another commodity.

Advertisement for the Mercedes S500.
Figure 1. Advertisement for the Mercedes S500

On the tenth of February this year, three topless Femen activists demonstrated in front of the Paris Justice Court against former IMF President Dominique Straus-Kahn, who was appearing . Strauss-Kahn had been charged with pimping, and the activists’ naked torsos displayed slogans denouncing clients of prostitution. The three activists have been ordered to appear before the court next December on charges of public indecency.

Figure 2. Femen activists arested by the police. Source : Joseph Paris, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Generic.

But France is by no means the only country to repress toplessness.

Brazilian police arrested the actress Cristina Flores in fall 2013, while she was posing topless on the beach for a photo shoot. It seems that Brazilian authorities can’t stand the sight of a naked torso. They probably muster all their courage during the carnival (during which full female nudity is tolerated), in order to endure those bare nipples dancing happily with the music. Thankfully, we can imagine that the money spent by the tourists who came to enjoy the show is a consolation for their grief.

In the United States in 2008, the police on a beach at Spring Lake, New Jersey, arrested Jill Coccaro because she refused to cover up. She was found guilty of violating a borough ordinance prohibiting public nudity, and was ordered to pay an $816 fine. After appealing the case to the New Jersey State appellate court, which ruled against her, she appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court and to the United States Supreme Court, which both refused to hear her appeal. She still would not pay the fine, explaining that she "refuse[d] to pay the fines for an act that is legal for a man, but not legal for a woman," and was sentenced to sixteen days in jail.

When women are taken to the court in France and in the USA for leaving their breasts uncovered, and when going topless is considered an offense in Rio de Janeiro, we can reckon that Molière’s Tartuffe is a shrewd depiction of modern humanity, which, under the guise of chastity, betrays its pretended beliefs to satisfy its desires.

This outraged prudery is not only hypocritical, but sexist as well. To the best of our knowledge, a man has never been arrested for displaying his bare nipples in front of deeply shocked bystanders. Even though women’s breasts are statistically larger than men’s breasts, they are still anatomically similar. How can we then justify that they are subjected to such censorship? In 1965, the Grasse criminal court ruled that :

“In France, under the present moral context, the spectacle of a woman displaying her fully naked breasts in the streets, even if close to a beach, will be likely to provoke public scandal and to be considered indecent by many”

The moral context seems to have evolved. According to Mr. Ribaut Pasqualini, French lawyer:

“ A [...] jurisprudential movement has slowly occurred. Sexual organs have been restricted to the genitals only.”

The three activists’s summoning to court, therefore, remains an unsolved mystery. In a society which has been pervaded by marketed nudity, why are women who decide to show their breasts raising moral hackles?

We took this question to the Paris City Hall, which took the initiative last summer to teach citizens how they should dress according to their gender:

“Of course, you can’t go naked in Paris public parks. Men are prohibited to wear thongs. You can nevertheless enjoy the sunny weather wearing shorts or a swimming suit, both tolerated. And you, Ladies, remember that going topless is prohibited: clothe your perfect body with enticing accessories like bikinis and one-piece bathing suits. The important thing is to suggest!’’

Two posters by the Paris City Hall.
Figure 3. Posters by the Paris City Hall. The first one says "In parks and gardens, don't forget to cover the bottom". The second says "In parks and garden, don't forget to cover the top and the bottom".

No surprise-- women must keep their tops on. Be aware, though-- if you are a man, your bottom runs counter good moral standards. You should cover it up with briefs. These binary instructions are far from being clear for transgendered people: if you are a man who was assigned female at birth and have not undergone hormone therapy, will you be forced to wear a bikini? More generally, how can City Hall justify such a difference in treatment between men and women? They quietly forgot to answer that question, but told us that they were applying an instruction given by the Préfecture de Police :

“Any clothing that would make visible genital parts or breasts constitute a sexual exhibit, punishable by a term of imprisonment of one year.”

We contacted the Préfecture in order to know which laws or rules they were using to justify the prohibition against female toplessness. They declined to answer on the grounds that they were unfamiliar with Kinea. Apparently in a democratic country like France it is necessary to write for a widely distributed magazine if you want to know more about the laws you have to abide by.

You may have thought that that society had already reached an insurmountable level of nonsense, but in October 2014, Facebook also asserted its support for gender inequality regarding nudity. The social network is full of men’s naked torsos, but the Facebook page of Un bracelet contre le cancer, an organisation which fights against breast cancer, has been blocked because it published a picture of a topless woman. This was part of an awareness campaign to encourage women to get tested: each day of October, the organization would publish the picture of a women, sick or healthy, young or old, topless or fully dressed. Facebook had received an alert from an outraged user and blocked the account of the organization, invoking its extremely precise terms of service: Facebook can limit the display of “certain body parts”. This is reminiscent of what happened to the American photographer Michael Colanero, whose project (Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting) was subjected to Facebook censorship. An artist had painted the naked torsos of women who had survived breast cancer, and the pictures were banned from the social network.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

Sociologist and anthropologist Christophe Colera explains that women’s breasts have been turned into a taboo because of their “sexual dimension” :

“We can wonder if this is not a proof of Darwin’s theory. Indeed, women today have breasts much larger than what is necessary to feed a child. Some say that it can be explained by the fact that men have always tended to choose women with large breasts. Here, the sexual dimension interferes in natural selection.”

Perhaps women’s breasts are sexualized because men have always been attracted to them. Still, is that a valid reason to prohibit women from going topless? In the name of human rights, occidental society is raising itself against the wearing of the Islamic veil, which many perceive as a symbol of male domination. However, occidental women are not permitted to show their bosom in public (except on some beaches), while men can go topless in the street without interference. In both occidental societies and muslim societies, women are supposed to hide a part of their body which is considered erotic and likely to arouse men’s desire. The sexual connotations associated with women’s breasts do not suffice to explain the selective censorship they are subjected to: Women’s bare breasts used for marketing purposes have their rightful place in our society, but the naked skin women are using for their own sake is judged likely to disturb public order. In other words, the breasts of an objectified woman are morally accepted whereas those of an empowered woman are considered a threat to morality.

The attitude of our occidental society towards women’s bosoms reveals a system of thought with an insidious influence: we fight against the wearing of the veil but we condemn the activists of the feminist organization “Les Tumultueuses” because they went topless in a public swimming pool. Women’s bodies are readily accepted when they are objectified, but are banned when women claim themselves to be subjects.