Mammary glands, we all have them. However, I take issue with our social norms and the ingrained ‘Sex-specific veiling’ regarding them. In many women’s lives, certain legal or societal rules of dress are necessary to avoid derogatory names, harassment, violence and/or punishment from the law.
I disagree entirely with these rules, for the simple reason that it points to an underlying belief that women must adapt their appearance to circumvent male lust, rather than expecting men to exercise self control, and view women as people instead of a collection of body parts.
Often, the message portrayed is that women can expect to be ogled and harassed by virtue of simply having a woman’s body. I started thinking about this when I was uncomfortably hot in Italy once and noticed seemingly more comfortable men, some with significantly bigger breasts, wandering carefree. In our society a topless woman is considered sexual and indecent, and possibly punishable by law in public, while a topless man is not.
We have all seen the hairy moobs of summer, yet we know that even a flat-chested woman wouldn’t be able to go topless in public in the same places that men can. There is no significant anatomical difference and it’s very obvious that it is not the appearance of the chest, but the sex of the owner.
The only difference is the association with sex. Except breasts aren’t sex organs; they are secondary sexual characteristics, just like beards and deep male voices. However, they have become completely hyper-sexualised by the very fact that they are covered and only seen by men in sexual contexts.
The truth is you could take any body part, sexualise it and make it taboo in the same way. In some places a woman’s entire body qualifies, sometimes there are specified rules for hair covering, and famously in the Victorian era it was scandalous to show an ankle.
Apart from being downright insulting, this objectification has wide-reaching and damaging effects, from issues of body image and confidence to the increased threat of harassment.
I have heard several reasons for maintaining the status quo, including ‘men would never get anything done’. While this is often meant to be humorous, it still echoes the same ‘adapt to how men view you’ idea. The attitude that expects women to adapt their appearance to over-sexualised images of themselves in order to be ‘decent’ also underlies societal attitudes which hold female victims partly accountable for assault, harassment and rape depending on what they were wearing. This shifts blame from the perpetrator and portrays these attacks as a ‘natural hazard’ that women can expect and must work to avoid rather than violent attacks by criminals. There have been too many ad campaigns telling women how not to get raped, rather than targeting those who would commit the crime.
It is so pervasive that even breastfeeding in public is seen as inappropriate, with nursing mothers asked to leave transport, restaurants and other public areas. Facebook recently came under fire for removing the pictures from breastfeeding support pages because they constituted ‘indecent images’. This is not a lewd, provocative or sexual act. There appear to be significant numbers of people who cannot cope with the actual purpose of breasts because they have been conditioned to see them as nothing more than sexual cues and for the purposes of sexual gratification alone. I’ve known several breastfeeding women who’ve come across this attitude, one while in a ladies changing room. They have even been told it’s inappropriate because ‘there are children around’. Perhaps these people wish their kids to wait until they can see breasts in a seedy magazine portrayed in their rightful context.
I suspect that if women were free to go topless in normal everyday contexts without being harassed or arrested, it would no longer be ‘inappropriate’. Women’s bodies would not be seen as more ‘indecent’ than men’s and wouldn’t be objectified to the same extent, nursing mothers would feel more confident and supported in public, we would be better at targeting harassment against women because we might stop blaming them for it. Lad’s mags would lose much of their allure – which would curb the objectification as well. Many societal ills arise from this particular neurosis and I am convinced the world would be a better place with the freedom of public toplessness for all.