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Are breasts scandalous?

Did you know that bikinis used to be completely scandalous? When they debuted in 1946, their inventor Louis Réard couldn’t find models willing to wear them. Réard named them well — after an island atoll where the US had recently been testing atomic weapons, in the expectation that the tiny bathing suits to create a similarly earth-trembling level of shock.

I suppose it’s hardly surprising — women’s bodies, and especially breasts, are often treated as scandalous. Janet Jackson’s Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” seems like ancient history, but Rolling Stone earlier this year detailed how it led to a full decade of controversy, including fines and court cases.

There are tabloid articles aplenty of “nip slips” and other incidents of accidental celebrity nudity, as if what’s revealed when a strapless dress succumbs to gravity is more important than an actress’s talent or a singer’s voice. The Huffington Post even has a whole section on wardrobe malfunctions.

But why? Is it because we assume that wardrobe malfunctions must be titillating, no matter how accidental they are — and that because they titillate, the women involved should be called out and shamed? Is the idea that breasts are inherently sexual, even when the women in possession of them aren’t trying to do anything of the sort, and that their display must therefore be regulated? Is the idea that women need to be controlled because other people project sexuality onto their bodies?

That dreadful logic would certainly explain why women have been banned from Facebook for posting pictures of themselves breastfeeding. I might consider buying it for a few seconds if our society wasn’t perfectly okay with putting huge pictures of mostly-naked underwear models on billboards.

I can only conclude that media of all sorts seems to be obsessed with policing when it is or is not acceptable for women to be unclothed. It would seem that when women are naked for their own reasons, it’s unacceptable — yet when they’re unclothed for other people’s consumption, it’s perfectly all right. That’s an unreasonable standard if ever I heard one.

But back to the scandal of bikinis. This ridiculous standard for acceptable female nudity is one of the many reason I love these bathing suits, designed for women who have had mastectomies – in this case, single mastectomies. In addition to being functional, attractive, and totally badass-looking options for post-mastectomy swimwear, they toy with our ideas of what constitutes nudity and decency in the small but hotly-contested terrain of women’s torsos.

Are the women modeling these bathing suits more or less naked than your average underwear model? Are women’s chests inherently indecent, or is that only true when there are breasts involved? If you might have felt comfortable telling Janet Jackson to cover up, what would you say to these women?

I love that these bathing suits force us to ask these questions. And I love that they demonstrate the absurdity of policing women’s bodies in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Are breasts scandalous?

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  1. Can you provide the link to the bathing suits for women who have had mastectomies? I don’t see it! Thanks!

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