Censored Cover Raises Question: Why Are Breasts “Obscene,” But Not Chests?

The cover of this month’s Dossier Journal magazine has caused a great stir. In a matter of a few hours, I’ve received five emails about it. Here’s what all the fuss is about:

Featured is an androgynous male model named Andrej Pejic, with hair and make-up usually seen only on women, sliding his shirt off his back. Some might say that the image deliberately blurs gender. Are we seeing a chest or small breasts? It is not immediately apparent.

Both Barnes & Noble and Borders “bagged” the magazine, as they do pornographic ones, so that the title of the magazine is visible but the rest of the cover is hidden. Barnes and Noble said that the magazine came that way, representatives for Dossier say that the bookstore “chains” required them to do it.

Non-ambiguously-male chests pepper most magazine racks, but this man’s chest hints at boobs. And so he goes under wraps.

What’s going on?

Explaining why it is legal for men to be shirtless in public but illegal for women to do the same, most Americans would probably say women have breasts and men have chests. Breasts, after all, are…these things. They incite us, disgust us, send us into grabby fits. They’re just so there. They force us to contend with them; they’re bouncy or flat or pointy or pendulous and sometimes they’re plain missing! They demand their individuality! Why won’t they obey some sort of law and order! Much better to contain those babies.

Chests … well they do have those haunting nipples … but they’re just less unruly, right? Not a threat to public order at all.

So, there you have it. Men have chests and women have breasts and that’s why topless women are indecent.

Of course, it’s not that straightforward.

It’s not entirely true that women have breasts and men have chests. Many men have chests that look a bit or even a lot like breasts (there is a thriving cosmetic surgery industry around this fact). Meanwhile, many women are essentially “flat chested,” while the bustiness of others is an illusion created by silicone or salt water. Some women diagnosed with breast cancer have their breasts removed, but they’re still not allowed to go shirtless. So is it really breasts that must be covered?

Clearly not. All women’s bodies are targeted by this law, and men’s bodies are given a pass, breasty or chesty as they may be.

Unless.

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 legal 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.

Adapted with permission from Sociological Images.

Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    It’s not ambiguous, it’s a man with his makeup and hair done. I know I’m not seeing female breasts. Just like if he DID have breasts and a penis. It’s not ambiguous, I KNOW it’s a dude with breasts. It’s not controversial to me. I saw a man w/ breast implants on the bus in Pasadena a few years ago and although I was really curious!….I knew what I was seeing. I like it. Just like Adam Lambert is hot with black hair and makeup. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to spend their money on it. Go see it for free down at Venice Beach. How freaked out would some people be right? LOL

    • Actually when I first looked I thought it was a really skinny flat chested woman. The hair and makeup fooled me.

      The angle of the image makes it almost look as if he has womanly hips, on a skinny woman that is.

  2. I think society plays a huge role in determining what is appropriate and what isn’t. If we were all raised with topless women in the media, we probably wouldn’t look at it as being a big deal. I, in no way, think the picture featured in this article is obscene, it is a piece of art.

  3. The media has its own laws and such but I know there is a thriving topfree movement in America today. Topfree, not top-less as “you are not less for not wearing a shirt.”

    Topfreedom is a cultural and political movement seeking to advance gender equality by the recognition of the right of women and girls to be topless in public on the same basis that men and boys are permitted to be barechested. In addition, topfreedom advocates seek recognition of the right of nursing mothers to openly breastfeed in public, and of women to sun bathe topless.

    It has started gaining more popularity with the rash of arrests and inequalities thrown at breastfeeding mothers in the past two years. Only some states have laws explicitly protecting such things. There are also states that don’t have it as illegal but you will still get arrested for it. Not to mention the utter ridiculousness that is the Federal media censorship laws. They have always been awful and I don’t think that is going to change until we have a large social change in the general public, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

  4. It is just another way our male-dominated society subjugates women. Our inability to show our breasts, even when breastfeeding, means that their sole purpose is as men’s sexual toys and should only be used as such.

    • completely agree. i mean i wouldnt walk around topless, even if it was legal, but just the thought and principle of it. Women should be able to have a “nip-slip” while breastfeeding….its healthy and natural. HEY men, your girl is FEEDING your child….allowing the baby to grow and be healthy, why find it gross and distgusting..and for all you kinky ones out there, im pretty sure once youre in the bedroom, you’ll be doing the sameeee exacttttt thing. lmao such assholes and jerks out there for men. just go away, all of you. women need to dominate the world, THANK.YOU.VERY.MUCH.

  5. RoseMary Peddie says:

    It’s not illegal in Canada for women to go topless. That was settled years ago by a young woman named Gwen Jacob who took off her shirt on a hot summer day, was arrested and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. As a result we can take our shirts off if we want. However, one still does not see bare breasts on/in non-porn magazines.

    I, personally found the picture in the article a bit odd, but I knew it wasn’t a small woman, just an artsy photo. I did not find it pornographic, and I am not bothered the odd time I see a woman with bare breasts.

  6. The same as when a man gets called a Pussy or a wuss, they are saying he is feminine, and that is supposed to be an insult, to be female. A guy doesn’t want to be labeled as “God forbid” a woman! That’s a sign of “weakness”. It’s ridiculous and heinous on how screwed up this world is. Sad part is, parents teach this to their sons, to not cry and not act like a “girl”, because it’s not good to show a feminine side.

    • Pussy refers to baby cats… Wuss is a portmanteau (wimp + puss). Nice try, though.

      • Your definition, it is lacking... says:
      • Oh totally! calling someone a pussy is all about calling them a cat! its not talking about a vagina! oh wait calling someone a vagina is also an insult…It definitely isn’t good to be called feminine in our culture.

        • Mishra Zsaglivish says:

          I don’t know exactly what your culture is, but I respect it, as I do with all culrures as for the (vagina insult) why is it considered so bad to be called one? Or say a pussy? It’s a genital area of the human body, that’s all? I find it quite humorous when men and women alike burst insults involving male and female sex organs, either way calling a male feminine doesn’t mean its vile, you know who you are and nobody knows you better than yourself, plus the male doesn’t necessarily have to be dominant always? Why can’t it be even? A perfect eqillibrium

        • Mishra Zsaglivish says:

          And one more point is, and I don’t like comparing but me for example, I take on the roles of male-metrosexual-androgynous-crossdresser-dragqueen, only exception is, is that I’m heterosexual and always have been, whether anynody tells me I’m weak, I know what my body looks like, and my appearance doesn’t determine my strength, same goes for gender bending… I switch back and forth, but I had to abandon my old culture because they hang effeminate men which meant abandoning much more, but what’s the point here, is that don’t let insults get to you alright.. its a waste of time, arguing the same and drama the same, drama is for the stage, but love everyone no matter how judging their minds may be.

    • I doubt less than 5% of north americans really believe that femininity is negative, as you seem to suggest. Infact i might say that masculinity and femininity are both in themselves poor concepts to use if humans are to achieve equal equality. Males and females are simply humans. Our genitals and body structures seperate us slightly, but we are clearly a species as one. If there ever was the idea that “women” are “weakness” and “men” are “strength” in society it would probably evolved from the truth that male evlotion has set our physical strength apart from womens. Males clearly grow up to be stronger that woman. However, we are the a very intelligent species and we know that humans are humans, not males are males and females are females. If I ever called someone a pussy or was called a pussy I would indeed I terpret it as being called weak. But the word itself has no meaning related to a specific sex for me. I believe if given knowledge and understanding all humans who can think would conclude that neither sex is weak, but rather both sexes (and shemales / hemales) are humans; and we are all capable of being strong.

  7. Thank you for this. This is why I became a sociology major. Can’t wait to go back to grad school.

  8. ONe more thought: maybe if women were allowed to show their breasts in public there would be less mystery, and girls would see that breasts come in all shapes and sizes and they wouldn’t feel so insecure about their bodies. THe only breasts that are typically seen iN media are in porn…..and those breasts are rarely natural.

    • Deborah Kuehner says:

      Good point, Rachel. I’d never thought of it that way, but it totally makes sense. In so many other cultures, girls regularly see other women’s bodies (in a public shower, for instance) but not so much, here. If the only breasts a girl sees are those of movie stars, it’s understandable she’d feel insecure.

  9. It is actually legal in New York for a woman to go topless. Unfortunately, nobody knows about it, including the police force, so you’d still be arrested and tried for it. Ugh.

  10. It’s legal for women to be topless in Austin, Texas, too. There’s a big demonstration for Go Topless Day every downtown every year.

  11. Goldmarx says:

    As long as there are obscenity laws, these incidents will continue to occur.

  12. In the city I lived in it was legal for topless women as well, though you never really saw them.. But I think you are correct it is not about chest/breast it is a fear of of the female body, the emotion it invokes and the beauty that surrounds it.

  13. Don’t leave it up to booksellers and others to make these decisions for you. Do what we did in Ontatio: make it legal for women to go topless wherever they want. All it took was one brave woman to challenge the crazy, patriarchal, puritanical law and bingo, no more nonsense, at least officially. And I assure you (or disappoint you) we don’t have droves of topless women wandering the streets. But we could if they wanted to!

  14. What a powerful piece. It is really well-written and thought-provoking. Thank you.

  15. Liev Black says:

    Easy. Women’s nipples are seriously erogenous zones. Men’s aren’t. Try stimulating the nipples of most any man during sex and you’ll get a ho hum response. Women can reach orgasm through nipple stimulation. Not many, but nipple stimulation is generally very erotic for women. It kind of blows my mind that this point is missed here.

    I think women have enough scrutiny to deal with without the sudden “liberation” of going topless. Liberation? Really? Ha. Don’t think so. Just more to be compared over. More to be nervous about, more to worry about being worthy. The “privilege” of being topless is really just another of men’s wildest wet dreams repackaged for palatability among women. The idea that having to keep our shirts on in public is subjugation of women is just weird to me. Used for breastfeeding, great. Do it myself, with impunity. But in general? Come on! It’s not even okay for men to go around topless under most circumstances, even on a hot day. It’s just too distracting. Men can’t wear shorts to work, either – now, THIS, I feel, is worth changing, as it would increase summertime office building temperatures, which is kind of necessary in the fight against climate change. Anyway. My point being, men are liberated in being clothed, as it keeps people’s attention on what they’re SAYING, and what they’re DOING. Not on whether they’re bouncing while doing it…judging comparative sizes of pecs, etc. If ONLY women’s clothes were as baggy and modest as men’s.

    • That’s simply not true. Erogenous zones vary great from individual to individual, regardless of their sex. I know plenty of women whose nipples are not sensitive, or are sensitive but don’t provide them with any pleasure. I know many men whose nipples are extremely sensitive and are a major source of pleasure. And I know women who enjoy nipple stimulation and men who don’t.

      That point was “missed” because it’s based on a false assumption and therefore irrelevant. While many laws and social norms are based on erroneous assumptions about the differences between the sexes or genders that doesn’t make for reasonable justification.

      Even if women choose not to exercise the right to go topless, having the right to do so is important. While we may choose not to because we don’t feel safe or don’t wish to endure being scrutinized or objectified for going topless, that’s a larger problem with the culture of sexism and rape that we live in.

      Having to keep our shirts on in public when men don’t *is* oppressive – a sexist double standard where women’s behaviour is restricted more than men’s.

    • You obviously haven’t been having sex with the same men I have. All of them have been extremely turned on by having their nipples played with.

      • As for my female nipples? totally and completely not even the least bit erogenous. ho hum indeed. A complete waste of time. Continued attempts to treat them as if I should be glad you are handling my boobs is, in fact, anti-erogenous. As in, you are annoying the f*ck out of me.

    • OutrageAndSprinkles says:

      Huh. Except of course, my boyfriend loves having his nipples pinched, bitten, ect, and I get nearly no satisfaction from it whatsoever. It’s almost as if people have individual sexual needs and desires or something!

  16. It took this long for somebody to ask that question (why chests not breasts?)…this issue should’ve been addressed, like, 30 years ago. I have a theory, and it may get long…and controversial.

    Okay, so we were created as a ‘nation under God’ but Christianity had a huge problem squashing Paganism and the worship of females, so probability suggests that the lack of women in the Bible could be an attempt to annihilate all forms of female superiority…stay with me…Now, since we were created as a country where people could study religion without persecution, as long as it was a Christian-based religion (how ironic), it would be safe to say that Christianity is still struggling to maintain the ties it has over the nation by suppressing everything. Ergo, public breasts equals the downfall of Christianity and the uprising of Earth-based religions.

    Might be a little far-fetched or even hard to swallow. I’m not trying to be religious or condone one religion over another, just simply pointing out that the Bible was written by men, about men, and empowering men. We live in a country that has proclaimed laws of equality yet the majority of us still hold the laws of male superiority and male dominance prevalent over all else. Eventually Christianity will become more about love than dominance but for now, its a headstrong belief that we’re afraid to challenge.

    • I am with you… However, the part about Christianity becoming more about love than dominance I think is just not going to happen. The objective is exactly what you stated it to be, why should it change? Not that I would care. One nation under G*d or not – I don’t follow any G*d.

    • Abisgraft says:

      Well, one must know that the founding fathers were actually secularists who believed that religion had no place in politics and was the bane of democracy.

  17. Definitely a double standard. Frankly, I had seen some topless men who should have covered up because they were no beauties.

  18. Many magazines come in plastic wrap. Not just “pornographic” ones. A lot of the female oriented ones, craft magazines, heck, even some food ones come plastic wrapped.

  19. There are two issues here. One, addressed in prior comments, is censorship of breasts and legality / illegality of feminine toplessness. Even if this behavior is acceptable, there’s still a strong socialized response to it that still makes feminine toplessness mean something different than masculine toplessness. We’ve been socialized to find it more distracting, and undoing that is a far more complicated issue.

    Burning Man has an annual event called Critical Tits that has explored this issue and has dealt with some of the socialization problems of toplessness even when it is acceptable. It was originally intended as a way for women to explore toplessness as an empowerment thing but once it got enough attention it had to be co-opted by men. When I’ve witnessed it (at an event where toplessness otherwise is completely normal) I’ve been appalled at the number of male gawkers with cameras out, and well-meaning men telling the women “You look beautiful,” like that’s the point. Seeing it in person instead of reading about it disturbed me far more than I had anticipated, since I thought I knew what to expect. But I wasn’t expecting to feel so unsafe and objectified, even not going topless. Censorship and decency laws are just symptoms of a far larger and more pervasive issue, one that I think can be countered on a small scale but is harder to do in larger societies.

  20. “Explaining why it is legal for men to be shirtless in public but illegal for women to do the same…”

    As several other people have noted, this actually depends on local laws. In my home state of Ohio, for instance, it’s legal for women to be shirtless in any place where a man may be shirtless. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that a woman’s breasts are not genitalia, and therefore the display of them is not indecent exposure.

    Hawaii, Maine, New York, and Texas have similar laws, as well as parts of California. There are also local laws in various cities about such matters.

    Admittedly, the majority of locations in the US do still prohibit it, and even in places with these laws on the books, women have been arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ as a consequence of going top free.

  21. Christopher DG says:

    I think Liev is wrong – men’s nipples are erogenous zones (ask any gay man, or sexually aware straight one.)

    BUT the real point here is not in fact that it’s breasts vs chests. I think the “sin” that is bewing covered up is “gender f*cking”.

    I our society boys MUST be boys and girls MUST be girls.

    Of course what this cover makes abundantly clear is that the line between the two is not nearly always as solid as some would like us to believe.

    • Thanks for making this point.

      You’re right, this isn’t a “breasts vs. chest” kind of thing. This is about the fact that all it took for a man to look like a woman was some makeup and curlers (or a wig, I don’t know if that is his real hair.) No surgery. No estrogen shots. Just makeup.

      I’ll admit, I did a double-take when I saw the cover. I read the gender as female, and it took some squinting before I realized, “Oh, that’s a GUY!”

      What’s obscene here is how easy it was for the gender-line to be blurred beyond all recognition. Breasts aren’t obscene – how many times have we seen female bodies appropriated for art pieces? Breasts aren’t obscene as long as the picture looks artsy and it’s in black & white. And that’s exactly what this picture is. But wait – those boobs aren’t attached to a lady! Le gasp!

      As a society, we’re generally okay with naked bodies, as long as they conform to what we see as a “normal” or “appropriate” naked body, and, of course, in the appropriate setting (art!) (Hence the homogeneous body type we see in mainstream (“normal”) porn.) But this, right here? This kind of gender-bending is frightening and, yes, obscene.

      What we need to do is start examining why, as soon as we are confronted with a person who blurs the gender line (bonus points for being sexy about it), we immediately label it “obscene.”

      • Hi, If you ever want to see my artwork that pushes the point on this matter check it out! I paint shirts on topless women to say “Look at this woman topless as if she is wearing a shirt” I make prints and also bring them to art events. Sometimes I find it rather amusing to see that some people dont even realize my models are topless.

        Its beyond hot here in Fl and sometimes I would love to just take my shirt off to relieve myself of a possible heat stroke! I’m not doing it to try and be sexy! I just want to cool off!!!

        I believe that this is a equal rights issue that is way overlooked!

  22. I just wrote a research paper on nudity for my english class. I’m only in high school so my thoughts were a bit all over the place and unorganized. It’s really nice to read something so concise and well written on a topic that i think most people ignore. I mean, the human body has always been considered “special”, most likely due to our own self consciousness. I think that, as human’s minds became more aware of sexuality and other uncomfortable connotations of nudity, we felt that it should be hidden.

    Then again, this particular issue deals with gender prejudices, that unfortunately are also inevitable. It’s sad that artwork and artistic expression has to suffer and be censored due to the ridiculousness and insecurity of our society.

    I think the cover is absolutely beautiful, I love images wear the visual aspects of femininity and masculinity are put to question.

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  24. I Am A Small Chested Woman says:

    Because in North America the woman’s body is obscene. This is taught in culture that breasts are a highly disgusting thing that should only be revealed in marriage.

    I like this cover-picture for a number of reasons. It exposes the faulty sexism embedded in North-America with it’s attitudes towards the female body being “obscene” while males can reveal their chests and abs no questioned asked. But because the man above had his hair like a woman’s he was condemned as “obscene” by book-stores. Had he had a male’s hairstyle the book probably would have never been bagged.

    The ultra-sexism in this country is disgusting. And it only gets worst for females who have even smaller breast than the standardized C/D cup of acceptance and shorter heights. Automatically those females are labeled as obscene and forced to cover up while their C/D cup counter-parts are allowed to wear as less as possible.

    This country has a very demonizing attitudes towards sexuality and gender. It puts men automatically on a peddlestole of acceptance and belittles females. I truly feel sorry for the ladies out there who suffer mentally because of this hatred towards them due to their smaller chest-size.

    What about women who had breast-surgery because of cancers, or who were born ‘small’? You can see the clear sexism towards these types of females in the game industry where big-breast are celebrated and small-breast are called disgusting and censored.

    Australia, America and parts of europe treat the female body as some disgusting entity. It’s a very wrongful and bad attitude.

  25. Well, technically, it’s only the female nipples that usually have to be covered, and nothing else, which makes even less sense. After all, men have nipples, and the difference is only in the size and shape of the actual breast, yet the female breasts itself doesn’t have to be covered, or all female cleavage would be considered nudity and illegal. Pretty ridiculous if you ask me. So if you edit a picture to put male nipples over female ones, that should technically be acceptable, but the result would probably be much like what this article is talking about.

  26. It’s really frustrating! This just happened on a nude underwater shoot that a bunch of models were doing. I mean, I thought that happened in old shows only but it’s happening now in this day and age? It makes me really angry to be frank. I don’t really get it. I tried to see if there was a difference like if they blurred only some of the contestant’s chest. I would have thought that they could be insecure about their body, perhaps? But it’s like literally gender oriented…..

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