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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Of breasts, pornography and good intentions

I am sure most of the people reading this can recall reading about or watching at least one incident of wardrobe malfunction when a model’s dress slipping off to reveal her nipple for two seconds made it to the national headlines for two months. I am sure most of the people reading this can also remember cracking ‘boobies’ or ‘tits’ jokes at some point in their lives. But the big question is, would you ‘bare it all’ if it was for a good cause?

An online women’s magazine in New Zealand (http://www.nzgirl.co.nz/) had, some time ago, initiated a campaign called ‘I’ve got a lovely pair’ to raise breast cancer awareness. For every 50 pictures of breasts posted by women, NZ Girl claimed to donate $1000 to breast cancer research. The website, targeted at women in their 20s and 30s, experienced an unusually high number of visitors the night they initiated the campaign, resulting in the website crashing down.

Only a couple of months ago, the US based GoTopless campaign had created a similar controversy by organising a day long event/protest in which women asserted their right to be topless on a beach just as men can be by going, well, topless. Unsurprisingly, a large number of male photographers turned up on the site of the campaign.

Any woman baring her breasts has never escaped controversy be it a mother feeding her baby on the bus, a supermodel going topless on the cover of a glossy magazine or the good old ‘bra-burners’ whipping them out for equal rights! The threat remains the same – the possibility of all these actions spilling over into the realm of pornography. But can the opposite be true – that is, pornography being threatened by these actions? Arguably so.

Though NZ Girl came under the fire from several of its readers and feminist groups for using images of women’s breasts to increase their website traffic, it is worth holding back for a moment to notice the wondrous multiplicity of the pictures of breasts posted by women, and men, on the website. Numerous images of small breasts, large breasts, bare breasts, breasts covered up in bras, saggy breasts, breasts with birthmarks, breasts having undergone surgery and men’s breasts were posted on the website.

It is refreshing to not only see pictures of what would be otherwise strictly called men’s ‘chests’ under the classification of ‘breasts’, but also to note that these breasts are not the voluptuous, equally sized, well rounded, pornographically glowing breasts; in fact, each pair tells its own story. And the campaign line goes very well with this plurality – I’ve got a lovely pair!

Now whether or not men are going on to the website for the mere attraction of ogling at women’s breasts is a different story. Do men find women’s breasts sexually appealing? No doubt, most of them do. Do women consider their breasts to be sexual assets? Once again, most of them do. It might be extremely difficult to unlearn the sexual deposit in breasts made by culture but it is certainly not impossible to rescue them from the idea of that perfect pair of mounds of flesh meant to be ogled at for sexual pleasure/arousal.

There is a glimmer of hope in campaigns that show off women’s breasts because they have started to take up space in the new media that has been, for quite long, the reserve of pornography. I would love to know what you think about campaigns like these.


  1. Good article and interesting question. For myself, I'd prefer women to engage in social and political campaigns without needing to take their clothes off to do it.

    Breast cancer awareness campaigns have, obviously, a natural relationship with, well, breasts. But ultimately, it's using women's bodies to raise awareness, and in the society we live in, that leads to objectification, whether we like it or not.

    At the same time, by presenting images of scarred breasts, or mastectomies, that go beyond the conventional images used to objectify women, that objectification is greatly challenged, and I have more time for that.

    To answer your first question - would I bare all for a cause I believed in? No. Because I would feel like I was automatically undermining myself and my own credibility as an activist.

    If there are similar campaigns in which men strip to raise awareness, I'd be interested to know about them. But it still wouldn't be the same. Campaigns where women bare their breasts attract attention because our culture has commercialised and commodified the objectification of women. This isn't the same for men, and a campaign showing men's testicles to raise awareness of testicular cancer, for instance, would be unlikely to generate attention in the same way - especially in attracting viewers to site in the way women's bodies do!

  2. I am completely torn on this issue!

    It is refreshing to see breasts which we are more familiar with instead of the perfectly equal and rounded breasts that the media tells us we should have.

    But at the same time, I know a lot of the traffic generated to that site will be from people who want to oggle.

    I can't decide whether the campaign is just conforming to the way that a woman's body is used to attract attention. It seems like the campaign is a celebration of breasts in all their varieties but sadly I think that this message will not be picked up upon by the vast amount of viewers to the site.

    I can't help but think that sadly, if they did not show photos of breasts then the campaign would not have had half as much traffic as it has.

  3. Thank you for your comment. I share your sentiment about being torn on this issue. I can't ever make up my mind. Even while writing the post, I started out with a negative but changed my view midway! The reason being that while writing it, it occurred to me that there is some good potential in the campaign regardless of the intentions of the online magazine in initiating the campaign. But you are entirely right about the website traffic and that's what worries me - the use of women's bodies to attract attention!

  4. @Sarah - I completely agree with you. Personally, I would never take my clothes off for a particular cause for all the reasons that you mention. And you are absolutely right about men's campaigns as well - there are hardly any and if there are any, they haven't attracted attention like this one did. The only thing that I was trying to explore was whether such campaigns, unintentionally, do help the cause of 'de-objectification' of women's bodies. For now, we can only hope so!

  5. i am not a feminist , so probably my stand point wont please you. When i say i am not a feminist, i dont mean to say that i dont believe in equality .I am a humanist. I really dont understand why feminists are not ready to believe that "breasts" are sexual oragans gifted to women. Whats wrong in having a sexual oragan, and whats wrong if men are attracted towards it? I seriously dont understand.To all the feminists out there, lets face the truth. Men who will support you on your face for such causes, will talk about "your" own breasts behind your back ..or oggle at bare braets of a star or a model.Media portrayl of "perfect braests" is definitely something wrong, but to talk against it, i dont think that one needs to organise a camopaign baring breasts...instead women should shun the use of such products which promises to enhance braest size..or make it perfect..etc..There can be a massive campaign to shut down such companies or T.V channels which promotes such advetisements. But baring it all is a useless step, and indecent too. Why can't the so called feminists understand that such camapigns will corrupt the young minds? i REALLY AM EAGER IF WORDS LIKE ETHICS, MORALITY, DECENCY ETC.. EXISTS IN A "FEMINISTS" DICTIONARY.

  6. Hi Arshiah,

    First of all, thanks for your comment. I expect you to read my response with an open mind as I did yours.

    1. Anatomically breasts are not sexual organs. Stimulation of breasts may be sexually pleasurable but so is stimulation of thighs, neck etc.

    2. I never said there is anything wrong in men being attracted to breasts. Attraction is a good thing but reducing a woman to just a pair of breasts is a wrong thing - and hence the argument that it's wrong to ogle at breasts or talk about women in terms of their breasts alone. It's not a truth that we have to face but an attitude that we have to speak out against.

    3. Maybe baring breasts is not the answer to the 'perfect breasts' that we see in the media everyday. But that's just soemthing I was deliberating upon in this post. I would be happy to know why you think baring breasts would not work in this situation (except that you think it's indecent).

    4. I agree with you when you say that there should be a campaign against companies that make money out of breast enhancements.

    5. Lastly, as I told you once before, not all feminists think alike and feminism is not a single thought. There can be many variations. But if you want to know anyway, I, as a person, am always doubtful of concepts such as ethics, morality, decency etc because they tread dangerous and wobbly grounds.


  7. so u do agree that men are attracted towards breasts.And you also argue that it's wrong to ogle at breasts or talk about women in terms of breasts alone. Than dont you think so that women should keep their braests covered up? i think this would be a perfect solution to all the breasts problem. Like ,MEN WONT GET TO STARE AT IT... A woman wont be judged on the basis of her breasts, and anyways exposure of breasts to sun can cause cancer and other diseases..Whats your take on covering of braests? A feminist would argue for the freedom of women to keep her braest uncovered..it's alright with me ..but my freedom of keeping my breasts uncovered should not be a source of disturbance or distraction for the rest. If it is , than i should keep it covered up. I am eager to know if you find any benefits in covering up breasts..Also i would like to know from you why is it wrong to ogle at braests? I mean in todays world the concept of right or wrong does not exist..as people always come up with a question like.."who are you to decide whats wrong or right, whats moral whats not,..etc..?

  8. I would like to know, how can we ever know if this campaign in Newzealand was organised with a good intention. How can we ever trust on the "good intention" arguments of anyone in this neoliberal period were everyonr has become so greedy?

  9. Ok, here are your answers -

    1. What you are suggesting is a classic case of reversal of the accused and the accuser. Women should not be accused for what men do. This is the same as suggesting that girls in Abdullah and IG Hall should not go out on the university campus because boys tease them - something that I don't agree with and hope you don't either. Similarly women should not be told to keep their breasts covered just because men 'ogle' at them.

    2. As for your question 'why is it wrong to ogle at breasts' - I already explained it in my previous comments. It's not because it is 'indecent' or 'morally wrong' but because it is demeaning to women. It steams from the same attitude that reduces women to sexual beings and does not recognise them as 'normal' human beings.

    3. I never said we can find out whether the campaign had good intentions nor did I speak in favour of the campaign. I was merely deliberating upon a possibility.


  10. Certain points i would like to make

    1) Men will ogle at breasts if we leave it open.This will never change.

    2) restricting a female from mobility cannot and should not be considered parallel to restricting her from keeping her breasts uncovered.
    Women ,offcourse, have the right to move .

    3)If men ogle, they definitely should be the one to be accused but women cannot be the accuser either. It's very simple ..if you leave food uncovered there will be flies hovering over it.

    4)U still did not tell me about your opinion regarding covering up of breasts. Please delibrate upon it too.

  11. Hi! Sorry for the delay in reply, I didn't have access to internet.

    Responses to your points -

    1. There are two parts of this answer - a) I never said looking at breasts is a bad thing, so I don't think it matters that much if it doesn't change; b) but reducing women to the status of mere sexual beings by focussing on their breasts as the only worthwhile things they have is demeaning. All breasts, no brains! And that needs to be and can be changed.

    2. Covering oneself up and mobility are two very closely related issues, though not always directly. Remember men dressing up as women in Bollywood films to gain access to women's quarters during ladies' functions like sangeet and mehndi - a good example of how mobility and clothing are related!

    3. By comparing breasts to food, you are assuming breasts to be something that is 'eaten' (read sexually consumed). You are going round and round within the discourse that posits breasts as only meant for sexual appeasement. You need to come out of that discourse and think about it with a blank mind.

    4. I think I already replied to this in my previous comment.