What Makes a Body Obscene?

Sociological Images is weighing in on the controversy surrounding Dossier Magazine’s Andrej Pejic cover.   (And I am sure Dossier Magazine is deeply disappointed that everyone is making such a fuss.)

The article discusses what the fundamental difference between chests and breasts is, and why one can be seen and the other must be covered.

I was reminded of something that happened a few years ago.  A friend of mine, a British comedy writer named Mark Oswin, had a web site devoted to his work.  It was called “The Digital Comedy Nipple.”  (I don’t think the site exists any more.)

The splash screen for the page was a disembodied nipple— just the areola with no skin surrounding it.  My first reaction was that it was a bit obscene.  Then I realized that I was not sure, without the context of the chest surrounding it, whether the nipple belonged to a man or a woman.  (Most likely it belonged to one of the male writers responsible for the content of the site, but I never did find out.)  It was jarring to find myself looking at an image of something that was either forbidden (if female) or fine and dandy (if male) and that there was no way to know.

Lisa Wade, in her Sociological Images article comes to a similar conclusion about the ambiguity of chests and breasts:

It’s not true that women have breasts and men have chests. Many men have chests that look a bit or even a lot like breasts…  Meanwhile, many women are essentially “flat chested,” while the bustiness of others is an illusion created by silicone or salt water.  Is it really breasts that must be covered?  Clearly not. All women’s bodies are targeted by the law, and men’s bodies are given a pass, breasty or chesty as they may be.

Unless that man’s gender is ambiguous; unless he does just enough femininity to make his body suspect.  Indeed, the treatment of the Dossier cover reveals that the social and legislative ban on public breasts rests on a jiggly foundation.  It’s not simply that breasts are considered pornographic.  It’s that we’re afraid of women and femininity and female bodies and, if a man looks feminine enough, he becomes, by default, obscene.

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