Time and again, events like the Timberlake / Jackson “nipplegate” scandal remind us that in the Anglosaxon parts of the world, the exit of the human female’s milk ducts is something so obscene that it must under no circumstances see the light of day, or of a camera. To somebody who moved into the Puritan realm only 17 years ago this is still very puzzling, as in continental Europe, for instance, the sight of this small round anatomical detail is common on beaches, in cinemas, and in art galleries. Needless to say that mannequins in French shop windows typically have nipples (see below) while their sisters here in Oxford don’t have any. Why do Anglosaxons have a problem with the simple fact that the Homo sapiens female has nipples? Why do they try to hide this aspect of the human anatomy from their children (BBFC slams a 15 age limit on anything that includes a visible one)?
Let’s investigate some of the possible explanations. You can’t get pregnant via your nipples, so I wouldn’t count them as genitalia sensu strictu, and thus they shouldn’t be covered by the same rules as the more centrally located organs of both sexes. I’ll admit that they are erogenous zones, but if the Anglosaxon rule is that all erogenous zones of the female have to remain invisible, women would also have to cover their earlobes, lips, etc, and would probably end up with a dress code that even the Taliban would approve of. Very conveniently, this rule would still allow the male of the species to walk down the high street in nothing but speedos.
Maybe it’s not about the excitability of the female but about the excitement of the onlooking male? This part of the problem is a vicious circle: if the sight wasn’t so unnaturally rare, its effect on the excitable young males would be smaller. Witness the recent report about a UK aquarium which allegedly “had to” fit a bikini to a mermaid figurehead in one of the displays, as the admiring schoolboys were causing traffic jams. Against this theoretical explanation I have to object on the grounds that I, for one, can find a beautiful face just as attractive and exciting as a well-rounded chest, so the logic of “what excites the male must be hidden” would again lead us to the Burkha.
My scientific analysis shows that we are left with exactly zero good reasons that could justify the Anglosaxon nipplephobia without also condoning the complete cover-up ideology of the Taliban and their friends. Recently, the GoTopless movement in the US has held another demonstration in support of this point. I understand that for the occasion the men put on bikini tops while the women went without. The Guardian printed a comment by Julie Bindel about the event, accompanied by a photo of a topless woman – from behind. One has to respect the state secret at all costs, it appears. (Ostensibly, they wanted to show the other photographers at the event, who were mostly male. However, I seem to recall that at most events the majority of the photographers are male. Something to do with the shape and size of those long lenses, I suspect.) What the Guardian did not mention was that the movement was launched and is supported by the Raelians, which is a bit problematic for me as they support Intelligent Design.
Anyhow, intelligently designed topless demos notwithstanding, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. As Viv Groskop reported in the Guardian recently, “hooter hiders” are tent-sized garments designed to hide breasts and babies (and most of mum, too!) during breastfeeding. Apparently, these monstrosities are already widely used in the US and are now taking over the UK. Even in connection with the process it was designed for (sorry, the process it evolved for), the nipple must not appear in public. At the risk of repeating myself, this reminds me of the burkha again. Are we quite sure that it’s safe to allow males to gawp at women’s faces, hairstyles, arms, legs? Maybe the explanation for all this is that the Taliban won the war, and nobody told me?
PS sorry, but I just had to get this off my … err … chest, after all these years of silent suffering. Rant over now. Normal science / culture service will resume as soon as my blood pressure has returned to safe levels.
PPS 2012 updates: