Alice Snedden: We need more non-sexual depictions of women’s bodies in the media

The ‘Free The Nipple’ movement seemed to me a low-priority feminist issue at first, but it’s representative of a much larger concern.

Watch Alice Snedden’s Bad News – Women’s Bodies and other episodes in the series here.

As a teenager, it would have been my absolute worst nightmare to show my breasts to anyone, let alone show them on screen. They were my deepest shame, because when I was a kid and I finally got breasts, they were different sizes. Different enough that I would say my left breast is my right breast’s goal weight.

It caused me a lot of anxiety, and I often sought comfort from my mum about it. However, as fate would have it, my mum’s breasts were perfectly symmetrical and she had no idea that it was normal for them not to be. I used to imagine my parents having late night discussions about it, like, “Ugh, shit, that fifth kid, something went wrong there, she turned out a bit messed up – they warn you not to have a baby when you’re old, and they were right.” ‘Cause my mum had me when she was 44, and it really shows in my right breast.

To think that now I’m happily getting my breasts out on the world wide web makes no sense to me – if my 15-year-old self could see me now, she’d be mortified. But thankfully, I’ve evolved. When I was 15 the importance I placed on my breasts was completely driven by my concern that they were the number one determining factor in how attractive I was. I understood, from consuming the media around me, that most of my sexual worth was tied up in my breasts and whether or not men would like them. I thought of them only in terms of how sexually attractive they made me to other people. I didn’t have an opinion on them outside of that, and that’s because I didn’t see depictions of breasts that weren’t sexual. Almost all of the imagery I saw (that wasn’t breastfeeding posters in doctors’ waiting rooms) was through a male gaze. And the male lens was sexualising.

The “Free the Nipple” movement was really the first time I paused to think. When I first heard about it, my initial response was that this should surely be low down on the priority list for feminist issues. But once I started reading about it, I understood that “Free the Nipple” is actually symbolic of a much larger issue. The reason nipples on a woman are sexual has nothing to do with women. It’s exclusively to do with how men perceive women. Breasts are sexual, because they are the object of a man’s sexual desire and therefore taboo in an everyday context. What this means is that women are once again being defined by how men see them and not by how they want to be seen. This isn’t to say that breasts can’t be sexual or arousing – those are some of the best times – but it’s a trap to insist they can only ever be this.

It may seem contradictory to say that breasts shouldn’t be viewed as sexual but also sometimes they can be sexual. But all it really comes down to is women getting to decide how they want to be seen. Women being able to determine when they want to be objectified and when they don’t. It’s allowing women to decide how they want to be in the world. They can be sexual or not, but ultimately it’s their choice.



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