The Offending Nipple

My last blog entry got me thinking more about Barbie.  One of the weird things about the doll’s body is her lack of nipples.  One of the weird things about our culture is how offensive we seem to find nipples to be.    In her early days, Barbie had nipples.  Wow.  I didn’t know that until I typed in a search:  “Why does Barbie lack nipples?”  It seems that the public may have been the reason Barbie’s nipples vanished.  Public, what gives?  Would Barbie having nipples make our children want to have sex at a much earlier age (like porn, peer pressure, and a constant stream of media images of sex likely do)?  Who’s afraid of the Big, Bold Nipple?

Whether it was the Mattel execs or public decision, Barbie lost her nipples.  (For those interested, you can customize your dolls to have nipples.)  In some cases, Barbie has even lost her vague vulva.  A couple of my daughter’s Barbie dolls have plastic molded underwear, obscuring any genitalia and making it weird when the dolls try to shower.   There’s also the vague penis on Ken dolls.  I don’t know about recent ones, but the Ken and other male 12″ dolls I had when I was a child had this strange lump where genitalia should have been.  Imagine if a Ken doll had a penis and testicles and if a Barbie doll had a vulva.  They’d have sex and teach children to have sex!  Gasp.  Shock.

Yeah, my vaguely genital-ed dolls had sex anyway.  My Barbie dolls sometimes even got pregnant after said acts.  Shocking.  I didn’t have sex even though I imagined my dolls did.  I was imagining what grown-ups could and did do.

Another example of our culture’s nipple-phobia can be seen in Facebook’s policy on breastfeeding photos:
“We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies.

“Photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate the Facebook Terms. These policies are based on the same standards which apply to television and print media.”

In other words, no exposed nipples.  Even if there is a child in the picture about to or just finished breastfeeding, exposing a nipple equals pornography.  However, Facebook has violated its own policies in this regard too many times.

Then there are the other cultural shocks regarding breasts/nipples:  Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction, for example.  This incident led to an apology from the artist and widespread vilification of her.  More recently, there was a photo of Amanda F. Palmer published by the Daily Mail about her breast (and nipple) “escaping” its bra during a performance; clearly the folks at the Daily Mail failed to do much research on Ms. Palmer.  This incident sparked a response from the artist (link warning:  it contains nudity and swearing) that was far from apologetic.  I could discuss how the different responses by the artists in these two incidents created different results, but it would have to take in a large number of variables (the era in which the incidents occurred, race, age, career differences, etc.) and would make for a large blog entry.  It would also take away from my main point, which is that our culture finds nipples wholly offensive.

Nipples are from where breast milk comes to nourish our children.  Nipples are also sources of sexual pleasure.  I understand wanting to limit exposure of nipples in a sexual context in public.  The problem is that our culture doesn’t limit sexualized images in public.  We cherry-pick things that are offensive, while allowing a large swathe of sexual imagery to remain for everyone to see.  I also understand that it is difficult to find the balance.

I will speak as an artist.  If I am doing a reading in a public place such as a public park, I will choose pieces of my work that are sensitive to the audience I might encounter.  Some artists may not agree with this.  However, I am an artist and a mother.  I am not going to read about the most mind-blowingly wonderful sex my narrator has ever had in a public park where children are present.  However, if I were doing a reading in a rented hall or a place of business geared to adults, I may well read such a piece of work.

It is a difficult balance.  On the one hand, we are encouraged not to care what others might think or say about us.  On the other hand, there are times when we do need to take others into consideration before we speak or act.  It is the fine line between being a rude person and being a caring person.  

And nipples.  Context is important.  While I do believe children should have sexual information that is appropriate for them and for their ages, I do not want this constant stream of sexualized images in the media (on billboards, in shop windows, on TV, in films, everywhere an image can pop up); not to mention the fact that many media images are more misinformation than information. I’m not suggesting we repress all sexual images, hide them away in dark back alleys.  I am saying we need to find a better balance that takes the audience into consideration as well as the needs of the person producing the images.  (Realistically, I see a huge difference between artists and corporations.)  That clothing shop doesn’t *need* to show a young, scantily-clad woman with a pout and a sheen of sweat on her body in order to sell clothes.   We’ve just been told for so long that “sex sells,” we’ve forgotten what else sells.

I’m not afraid of the Big, Bold Nipple.  And it’s not all about sex.

2 thoughts on “The Offending Nipple

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