Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Question of Nipples

Yesterday, while cruising the google news feed, I came across the headline: “Facebook reinstates Playboy Model.” Interesting. So I click. The link takes me to the Edmonton Sun online, where I am confronted with the image of a beautiful, bountiful-breasted woman holding a photograph of herself , clad in white undies, on a bed. This woman’s name is Anissa Holmes, a Montreal-born model/actress who had her facebook profile and fan page shut down for being “too sexually explicit.” According to Holmes, the pictures posted on facebook featured her in bikinis and bathing suits, but she was never “nude” in them. To clarify, her nipples and vulva were not showing in any of the pictures. The logic: No nipples + No Vulva = not explicit.

Wait a second, so does it figure that showing nipples/vulva is a necessarily explicit, vulgar, and inappropriate act? Facebook seems to think so, as evidenced in their persisting ban on images of women breastfeeding. In a response to public outcry on the breastfeeding ban, spokesperson Barry Schnitt affirmed that:

"Photos containing a fully exposed breast (as defined by showing the nipple or areola) do violate those terms (on obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit material) and may be removed,"

So, ladies, according to Mr. Schnitt our boobs are at all times, and in any situation, potentially pornographic. Exposing them for any ends is an explicit act that warrants censure. More specifically, Mr.Schnitt places the nipple and areola as the qualifiers of “obscene.” Which means walking around with tassels on your breasts is a novel way to reduce the pornographic nature of your breasts. Right.

Facebook’s justification for banning boobs (most specifically nipples) continues to be the “think of the children” clause, the premise of this concern being that children might become traumatized by finding these nipple pictures on the internet. I was not, for one, aware that my nipples had such power ( a magical power that men’s nipples seem not to have, as men often parade around, nipples exposed, with little concern for the well-being of our children). Moreover, from what I have seen in National Geographic magazines, and learnt from Anthropology class, many other women around the world seem tragically uninformed of the traumatizing power of their nipples.

Bitch Magazine
, in response to facebook’s ruling on boobs, has proposed that babies should be blindfolded during breastfeeding. After all, who knows what psychological damage babies might incur from seeing a nipple up close at such a vulnerable age? In fact, perhaps it is best that we simply eliminate the nipples from the breasts all together, which would prevent any further any instances of obscenity.

This has all been a long-winded, sarcasm-dripping prelude to my central point: Facebook’s censorship of nipple pictures is a prime example of the ways in which Western media sexualizes women’s bodies to the point that it is very difficult for us to see them as anything other than erotic. Bodies—how we dress them, attend to them, approach them---convey multiple meanings. We use our bodies to communicate, to provide, to experience. To have women’s breasts (and indeed bodies) reduced to the sexual is to commit a grave assault against human subjectivity and experience. It causes us to see what may be an act of nurturing (breast-feeding) as “obscene.” Audience members at a dance piece may focus more on the women’s bodies—their subjective sexual desirability or lack thereof—rather than the message that the dancers communicate through the movement of their bodies. A PhD student and TA (Teaching Assistant) may stand in front of a class to introduce her research topic, only to be whistled at by a student in the back row. The sexual objectification of women stunts our ability to perceive women and their bodies as anything other than erotic. Women (including myself) internalize this objectification and fear the implications of our sexualized bodies. We too, begin to fear our breasts (Will showing cleavage prompt sexual harassment? Does this shirt show my nipples, and if so will people think I’m a slut?) and we project these fears onto other women (that girl’s shirt is too low, her skirt to short etc).

So, that said, Mr. Schnitt and the Facebook team, please stop accusing women’s nipples of being obscene. Our bodies are not pornographic. They are not sexually explicit. They are ours, and we’re going to celebrate them for all the positive, amazing things they can do (like breastfeeding!)

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