Why Are We So Afraid of Female Breasts?

July 25, 2016 at 8:44 pm

The taboo against female breasts is sexist, discriminatory and promotes rape culture


I was tanning at a topless beach in France when I first realized how ashamed I was of my breasts. One of my best friends – a French exchange student I was visiting after our high school graduation – and her French mother were lying next to me bare-chested without a second thought about it.

There were men in Speedos and women of all shapes, sizes and ages walking around in nothing but bikini bottoms all around me. Some of the women were young with small, perky breasts; some were old and leathered with breasts that hung down to their belly buttons, flat as pancakes; and some had such perfectly round, bouncy breasts, I felt embarrassed to look at them. But the one thing they all had in common was an air of something between self-confidence and indifference.

No one was sucking in their stomach, arching their backs, or trying to hide imperfections. They were just letting it all hang out, eating nectarines, applying tanning oil, building sand castles, or jumping in the waves, with no self-consciousness, like nothing could be more natural.

I must’ve taken my bathing suit top on and off three or four times before I gave up and just kept it on. I felt awkward keeping it on, as I was literally the only one wearing one as far as I could see, but I felt even more awkward with it off. Whether it was my bikini top or paper-white breasts exposing me, everyone knew I was an “uncultured” foreigner.

And that got me thinking about my culture and it’s hatred for female breasts. I wondered why women on American beaches freaked out when one of their nipples popped out of their bathing suits after being tossed around in a wave, while their boyfriends, fathers and brothers stood right next to them, nipples uncovered and erect, with no one even noticing.

For me, the conditioning began as a young teenager, as soon as my breasts ceased looking like boy breasts and began to look like those of a woman. We had a pool in our backyard where my girlfriends and I liked to tan topless. My mother allowed it until about 5 o’clock when my stepfather came home, as long as there were no neighbor boys around peeking through the fence. If there were, we’d scream with feigned outraged (and secret delight) and cover ourselves with towels.

The shame lasted well into adulthood, when my male relatives would act awkward and embarrassed and make their way into another room every time I breastfed my newborn baby – the most natural and imperative reason to bare one’s breasts.

The Inequality of Nipples

Male toplessness became legal in 1937. Nearly 80 years later and female toplessness is still illegal in almost every city in America.

It’s not only beaches and swimming pools where this blatant, yet largely unquestioned, sexism and discrimination occurs, but every public place a man is allowed to be topless and a woman is not – running, hiking, biking, mowing the lawn, washing the car, hanging out in the yard and in photos on Facebook.

According to Go Topless, an organization working to legalize female toplessness across America, there are only 15 cities in the U.S. where it is legally safe for females to take off their shirts in public. However, because the social taboo is still alive and well, most women in those cities don’t exercise this freedom.

I came across a woman here in Asheville, North Carolina, just this weekend walking around bare-breasted. While most locals have learned not to view this as an unusual statement for women to make from time to time, tourists are often mortified, averting their children’s eyes, and turning to walk in the opposite direction.

“Maybe if they get used to seeing me like this, they’ll appreciate me for something more,” said the woman, named Hope, who says she walks the streets topless not only as a statement for nipple equality, but for general equality between the sexes.

“I’ve done construction out here, I’ve done exterior paintwork, I’ve done roofing … and I loved it, but I got paid less than all the men,” she said. “I should get paid equal for equal work.”

“If you’re going to let women in the work force, let them in the workforce. Appreciate their work. Don’t appreciate them for just their body. And it takes this ridiculous measure of showing your body for them to appreciate you past your body.”

“So I don’t like this. I’m embarrassed by it. I get comments. But if just one or two or three men appreciate my courage or come up and ask me why I’m doing it, it’s worth it.”

Hope says she’d traveled to places like Morocco and India and has noticed that the most sexist countries in the world are those that teach women to cover up their bodies the most.

Ending rape culture and the objectificationg

“The nipple’s been hidden for so long in network television, in magazines and other normal American media that now when it’s just peeking out for a minute people are freaking out,” says Lina Esco director of the film Free the Nipple.

“Topless men are everywhere, but if you look for a topless woman in a city like LA, there’s really only one type of place you’ll find them,” Esco says, as the film cuts to a silhouette of a topless woman lap-dancing in a strip club. “Even though it’s technically legal for women to be topless in most states, restrictions from local municipalities and businesses have relegated topless women to sexual environments, and the same thing is happening online.”

Until recently Facebook and Instagram had a strict “no female nipples” policy. Thanks to feminist activism, they’ve loosened those restrictions to allow photos of women who’ve had a recent masectomy or are breastfeeding, along with nude art. “But a lady nipple just hanging out?” Esco says sarcastically. “Well that’s just downright pornographic. And if porn is the only place we do see topless women, no wonder we have trouble overcoming how women are constantly being objectified.”

In an article published by the Huffington Post, Esco notes the average American child sees over 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV before they turn 18, but not one female nipple. To show how serious they are about protecting children from the body part ideally responsible for nourishing them in their infancy, the FCC fined CBS half a million dollars for Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, even though she was wearing a metal ‘nipple shield.’

“What’s more obscene – a murder or my nipple?” Esco asks in the film.

A guy once told Esco he wouldn’t be able to stop looking at her breasts in a sexual way if she went around topless. “What if I’m sitting in front of you for like five hours? Aren’t you going to get tired of looking at them?” she asked. “Maybe that’s what America needs.”

Esco’s theory has been proven in sexually liberal hunter-gatherer tribes where women walk around not only topless, but often naked, and where the word “rape” does not even exist in their language.

Join the movement

  • Petition Facebook, Instagram and any other sexist social media outlet that allows photos of male nipples to allow photos of female nipples too.
  • Participate in a local rally on Go Topless Day on August 28, 2016.
  • Donate to Go Topless, to help them take the case for gender equality all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Petition your city council to change local laws, and if they don’t, take them to court like these brave people:

Free the Nipple activists Brit Hoagland and Samantha Six are suing Fort Collins, Colorado, after the city recently implemented the strictest public nudity ordinance in the nation. Previously the local law referred to female toplessness as “public indecency” and criminalized the entire female breast. The new law now refers to female toplessness as “public nudity” and is punishable by a $2500 fine or 6 months in jail.

The new law criminalizes girls as young as 10 years old for going shirtless in the same places boys are allowed to, which Hoagland said potentially protects pedophiles.

“They also totally refuse to acknowledge how intersex, non-binary people and trans people are hurt by these sexist ordinances,” Hoagland said.

One city council member said the city would turn into a “strip club” if women were given the same rights as men, an attitude that perpetuates the hyper-sexualization and objectification of female breasts.

“It’s dangerous to ignore unequal treatment in the eyes of the law,” Hoagland said. “Without equal protections and treatment, violence towards the marginalized is accepted and expected … letting the issue go encourages some of the most dangerous parts of our culture: whorephobia, slut shaming, body shaming, misogyny and rape apologetics.”

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