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From Jolie to Facebook: What's with society's obsession with breasts?

23 May 2013, 12:11
Over the past few weeks, two linked stories caught my eye.

One was news of Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy, which was met with much controversy from the general public.

The other was a number of reports and stories from the international feminist community which shed a light on the kind of patriarchy and double standards that exist in Facebook as a social medium.

Now, I’m not one to follow celebrities at all, but when I see a celebrity do something remarkable or horrific I take note. I first heard of Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy through a number of feminist Facebook pages, who shared a link to her letter in the New York Times explaining her decision. Like many others, I applauded her bravery. I was really shocked to hear that some people were not only displeased with her decision, but actually went on to make it a big deal.

Why were people making it a big deal? A number of reasons, it would seem. Firstly, many people believed it was a publicity stunt, and took away attention from those who rightfully deserved it – the survivors who actually had fought cancer and were forced to have mastectomies. Secondly, many said it was unnecessary, an objection which was responded to wonderfully in the following cartoon by Megan Rosalarian (found on Tumblr, as posted by Upworthy):

These objections make me wonder: what is the difference between Angelina Jolie’s breasts and the bomb strapped to the man’s chest (in the cartoon)? Let’s put it in a different way: if Jolie had an 87% chance of developing cancer of the appendix (not even sure if that exists), would we make such a big deal of it? It would be likely to evoke interest but not as much, and certainly not such an outcry. So once again: what is the real difference between breasts and an appendix?

Firstly, there’s a functional difference. Breasts feed babies. But I think that this decision, coupled with the fact that Jolie is set to have her ovaries removed as well, is a pretty good indication that she’s not planning on having any more biological children.

Secondly, there’s a visual difference. You never hear a bunch of guys saying, “Oh hot DAMN, I’d love to get my face up in that appendix.” For centuries, breasts have been painted by famous artists, because they are beautiful. Perhaps a reason why they are found to be so special is because they’re gender-specific: men have chests and nipples but not breasts, exactly. The only real visual difference is that women’s breasts are generally more raised than men’s chests.

This gender-specificity has resulted in a kind of taboo on the female breast, or as I like to call it, a ‘taboob’. Breasts, which are used to feed babies, have become sexualised over centuries. And why? Pretty much because men don’t (usually) have them. The fact that breasts are usually gender-specific is a good enough reason for those who are attracted to women (straight men, gay women, bisexual, pansexual) to like them, I suppose. Similarly, some straight women, gay men, bisexual and pansexual persons are turned on by facial hair, broad, muscly shoulders etc. in men. This analogy gets a little bit more complicated as we delve into the preferences of those with lesser-known sexual orientations, which once again leads me to believe that the taboob is evidence of a society where heterosexuality is dominant. Having said this, it still does not explain the emergence of the taboob. Why do we censor female nipples, but not male nipples? Or facial hair? Or muscles?

This idea led me to think about Facebook, and the recent controversy surrounding the double standards in its reporting policy. A recent open letter to Facebook written by Soraya Chemaly, Jaclyn Friedman and Laura Bates emphasises the unfair standards that exist in Facebook while calling on companies to boycott Facebook advertising. While Facebook allows pages titled Raping your Girlfriend, Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, and Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus, as well as a lot of actual pornography, they remove photographs of FEMEN protesters, women breastfeeding, etc. In addition to this, they remove diagrams of sexual organs (including internal organs, like the uterus). I cannot fathom why Facebook, or any other entity, can deem an educational diagram more offensive than a page inciting violence against females. In addition to this, why do they remove non-sexual pictures of women breastfeeding, but not those super-sexual pictures of Ryan Gosling topless, dripping with baby oil and biting his lip?

One of the biggest wake-up calls for me was a discussion on a photo posted by Have a Gay Day, an awesome Facebook page that offers support for members of the LGBTIQ community. The picture comprised of two photographs – one was of a transmale pre-surgery, and the other was of the same transmale post-surgery. Many people commented on it, not only offering support to the individual, but also saying that Facebook was likely to unfairly remove it as the second picture showed transmale breasts – or as I like to think of it, a ‘chest’. Someone messaged the page saying that the breasts are female breasts, asking “Does it still not have two X chromosomes?”. This is highly disconcerting for a number of reasons: a person is not an ‘it’, and gender is not determined by genetic make-up alone. But the reason first and foremost on my mind was that whether a person has two X chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosome shouldn't determine whether their chest is offensive or not. This case emphasized that the censorship of women’s breasts, but not men’s, is not only terribly sexist but cisexual-centralised (this refers to the idea that there are only two genders – male men and female women – and marginalises the transsexual, intersexed, etc.)

If Facebook wants to remove non-sexual pictures of female and transmale breasts, it should remove both non-sexual and sexual pictures of male chests. If that seems too absurd, they should stop removing pictures of women’s breasts altogether, or at least remove every sexual picture in which someone – male, female or otherwise – is topless. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the moderators should stick to their actual job and focus their time and energy on removing pages that encourage violence towards women.



Twitter handle: @sianfergs

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