Some weeks ago my fellow tweep, writer and philosopher Dr Damon Young, posted this cheerful image of himself naked from the waist up on Twitter, and on his website.
It was around the time many of us were becoming highly exercised at David Koch’s unfortunate take on public breastfeeding. Breasts were a thing, or even more of a thing than usual because if it’s a thing you’re seeking, you can’t go past breasts.
This coincidence of Damon and David stirred my outrage, albeit for very different reasons. I’ve addressed my Koch angst here.
If Damon can plonk images of his torso all over the interwebs, I railed, without fear of any consequences other than some good-natured joshing, why can’t I? Because no matter how much anybody tells me I can, I don’t think it is actually so.
Damon’s image is unadorned, taken, I imagine, as he paused in his progress from bedroom to bathroom, his mind occupied, I later discovered, with his BMI. There’s nothing vain or self-conscious about the photo: he’s a bloke in his shorts wondering if he needs to take better care of his physical vehicle.
And here we careen into the first thing a woman can’t do that a man is allowed. If I were to post an image of myself in exactly the same state of ordinary (as opposed to contrived) deshabillé, clearly preoccupied (and not with showing myself off) I would likely bring torrents of nastiness down on my head. Why? How long have you got?
Most obviously, because I’d be transgressing the cultural expectation that when a woman shows her breasts she’s got to be sexy about it. We learned that from the Koch situation, with this male commenter making no bones about it. A woman shouldn’t just let her tits hang out, especially at the dinner table, if not for erotic purposes. That is, our tits are only for display when they are being usefully employed in sexually titillating somebody. Standing in your hallway, in your knickers, concentrating on something other than how desirable you have contrived to look in that moment, is likely to be regarded as disgusting. How can she let herself be seen like that?
Nobody says that about Damon, I’m willing to bet.
For a couple of weeks I yearned to post an image of my naked torso on Twitter and this blog, because why shouldn’t I? I was, though, both infuriated and appalled by the powerful ambivalence I felt at the prospect of thus exposing myself to the public gaze. I bet Damon didn’t go through this either, I fumed. I bet he blithely stuck up his picture and thought no more about it. I don’t begrudge him or any man that freedom: I want it for myself. I want to feel as safe as a man does about just being in my body, as it is, but when it comes to publicly revealing myself, I don’t.
I then had a Twitter exchange with Helen Razer in which we contemplated our breasts, confiding to one another and thousands of other tweeps, that we both believe them to be our best feature. Neither of us posted twit pics, however, as people do with their favourite kittehs and puppehs. We also discussed our skin, our feet and our arses, but no other body part, for me at least, has the same frisson. I’m a breast woman. The word alone stirs complex and mysterious emotion in me, all of it good. It’s not until breasts collide with society that they become problematic. Left alone, stripped of imposed culture, they are, quite frankly, gorgeous.
It’s my considered belief that Western culture is alarmingly dysfunctional when it comes to breasts. Author Sarah Darmody explores this normalised peculiarity in this readable piece, titled “Why are we so embarrassed about breasts?” Having lived in the UAE, Darmody is asked what she thinks about life in a society where women are forced to cover up. “What, you mean Australia?” she retorts.
Breasts are fetishised to a degree that is maddeningly unfair. The rules about which breasts may be displayed and how are so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that to consider transgressing them fills a woman like me with something close to terror. For example, I will not usually go out of my house on a cool day without a bra or layers, in case my nipples expose themselves, hardened, as if with desire, through my t-shirt. This is falsely described as modesty, a commendable quality in a woman, I’m told. It feels like enslavement. It feels like repression. It feels like a shocking waste of my energy.
At the same time I don’t want to send the message of sexual availability hardened nipples signify, because that is a false message and I don’t need to deal with the repercussions. A woman’s day is full of such decisions, made largely unthinkingly, in robotic obedience to received wisdom we absorbed with our infant formula or mother’s milk. There are brave women who make it their business to thwart the ingrained conventions. It’s my goal to one day join them.
Damon’s self-exposure will do nothing to detract from his reputation as an erudite, intelligent philosopher, author and commentator. On the contrary, the image reveals another side to the scholar, one that is endearingly human. Were I, a female scholar, to publish exactly the same image of myself, I suspect I would incur all kinds of lewd and derogatory commentary, and I wouldn’t endear myself to anybody. Especially not my family who would be appalled, and likely wouldn’t find it possible speak to me for some time without averting their eyes.
If a female scholar, or any female exposes her breasts on the Internet, will that become the first thing anyone remembers about her? I suspect the answer is yes.
I’m very fond of my breasts. They’ve served me well, they’ve given pleasure to me and to my lovers, they’ve kept my babies alive and thriving, they continue to please the eye. They aren’t twenty anymore, but I’m told they still have a bit of phwoar factor. Be that as it may, the kind of exposure I’m talking about doesn’t require phwoar: I wasn’t planning a page three spread. I just wanted to do what Damon did.
Well, as you know, I didn’t. I feel like an abject coward. I still can’t even think about doing what Damon did without hot horrible squirmy feelings. If I did what Damon did I fear I would be doubly condemned, on the one hand for revealing my breasts at all, and on the other for revealing them in a non-sexy way, and with complete lack of concern for how they and I look.
It’s taken me weeks to even write this piece, not least because I understand that in the personal and universal hierarchy of women’s needs, the fact that I don’t feel free to do what Damon did isn’t in the top layer. Nevertheless, it does speak to the more urgent problem of how women are gazed upon, and how that gaze affects our way of being in the world.
Neither do I want to extrapolate my personal squeamishness to “women,” but there is no denying you hardly ever come across similar representations of a casually comfortable topless woman leaning in her doorway in her knickers.
Whining is unattractive, I know. But I don’t care. I want what he’s got. I want it really, really badly.