I must admit that the drafting of this article raised many personal reflections and questions.

It all started with the attitude of my 7-year-old daughter, who likes bikinis but couldn’t even conceive of not wearing the top a few weeks ago. When questioned, the child explained to me, despite an obvious lack of cleavage given her age, that she had breasts and that they had to be “hidden” (I quote).

You can imagine my dismay. I am the first to refuse the oversexualization of the female body, I am highly disturbed by the social pressures that prevent women from breastfeeding in public and I still do not understand the difference between men and women when it comes to the naked torso in the public arena (everyone or nobody – to sum up – here is my credo).

I asked my 7-year-old daughter if she was bothered by the fact that her 11-year-old brother was in swimming trunks – the answer was obviously no – and therefore told her that nothing had to be “hidden”.

Later, I voluntarily decided to sit by the pool in a monokini, just to show that we put sexualization where we want to put it (well, where social norms want us to put some).

I am 46 years old, I was brought up in a society where the monokini on a beach was commonplace, without any particular erotic load (I am not talking about the medical side, I am only talking here about societal standards applying to the female body – I am the first one to avoid sun exposure for obvious health reasons).

At first glance, my 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter were vaguely surprised by this lack of bikini top, then that astonishment quickly passed. So quickly that my 7-year-old daughter, who was previously clinging to her bikini top, never put it again during the holidays.

I then wondered at what age we integrate social norms – and I was also amazed by the power of a mother’s behavior over a daughter’s behavior (even though I already knew it).

My 21-year-old daughter (who studies philosophy, economics, sociology and gender studies – yes, she has very strong ideas about the treatment of the female body by our society) took the photos that you will see below, and I realize afterwards that it was unthinkable that these pictures were taken by my regular photographer, who is a man indeed.

And this is where it gets tricky.

These photos were taken by two women aged 21 and 46, with a complex personal history that makes the photographer my daughter, but at that very moment, a young woman. And in fact, the photos you will see below are the result of the crossed gazes of two women who just wanted to “take pretty pictures”.

Looking at the said pictures, I wondered to what extent the “pretty” did not exactly match the current social standards imposed on the female body.

It gets complicated if I want to answer honestly, because I can only admit that these photos perfectly conform to current social norms: even if they are not madly sexualized (well, I do not believe but I also understood that everyone had their own criteria of eroticism, seduction or sexualization), these pictures offer the idea of a body where the breast appears round, the stomach flat and the waist thin. And even though I’m not a professional model and I am a mature woman, I realize that these photos poorly celebrate an alternative type of beauty.

It becomes even more complicated and I become less coherent in my wish to desexualize the female body when I realize that my usual male photographer could never have taken these photos, because we would both have been very much embarrassed, quite simply because we would have advanced on a sexualized ground which is not ours.

Then I wondered at what age we shed social norms – and I also wondered to what extent the sexualization of the female breast was biological or social.

From a biological standpoint, stimulation of the female nipple is known to flood the brain with oxytocin. This hormone stimulates confidence, empathy, attachment, social and marital bond. We also know that it is secreted during orgasm (for both sexes) and induces a spasmodic contraction of the uterus for women, but its effects on the male sexual mechanism are not yet well understood, if I believe the Swiss Medical Review (yes, we are going a long way).

It would therefore be easy to consider the female breast as a sexual organ that must be concealed and to justify the sexualization of said breast, but it must be said that the state of academic researches on the male nipple and its link with sexual mechanics is not advanced enough. Because, if the link turns out to be strong between male nipple and sexual mechanics, it would also be necessary to cover the said male nipple. On the other hand, if the decorrelation is strong, one could understand why the male naked torso is socially accepted, unlike the female naked torso.

From a social point of view now, we know that the sexualization of the breast is a more or less elaborate social construction depending on the place and time.

As proof, some non-Western societies (I am thinking of Japan and certain African countries) hardly sexualize the female breast.

With regard to our Western societies, the size, shape and sexualization of the breast varies according to the time: flat and muscular in ancient Greece and Rome, it hardly arouses desire, small in the Middle Ages, generous during the Renaissance, seductive in the Age of Enlightenment, boyish during the Roaring Twenties, we are now at a stage where the round breast defying the laws of gravity represents the new erotic ideal – I take as proof the craze for cosmetic surgery in recent decades.

Beyond the female breast, we have to be honest: the concealed nipple is the center of attention of the public eye. We can show everything except the nipple, to paraphrase Philippe Liotard, a sociologist specializing in the body and sexuality. Because the erect female nipple is strongly linked to sexual desire in our current collective unconscious, and should I add, in our current hetero-centered collective unconscious.

However, it may be time to see the hysteria surrounding the female breast’s debate subside. After all, the male torso itself had its « Free the Nipple » moment too. It wasn’t until 1936 that American men legally gained rights to show their nipples in public.

August 19, 2021

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