Associate Professor Prudence Layne writes in a recent newspaper column about public nudity and the cultural double standards Americans must confront pertaining to breasts.
Does nudity upset you? Cover your eyes and don’t subscribe
By Prudence Layne – firstname.lastname@example.org
Breasts feed and excite. Apparently, however, they also offend, at least when intentionally bared in some public places.
Music sensation Rihanna is case in point. The native Barbadian made headlines again this summer when the Council of Fashion Designers of America named her its 2014 Fashion Icon and she showed up to the June award ceremony in a mesh number leaving little to the imagination.
Neither the first nor last celebrity whose breasts will cause a stir, Rihanna is the star of our time who confronts our sense of decency, decorum and double standards about women’s bodies, sexuality and their private-versus-public behaviors. Instagram recently threatened to ban her for violating their decency codes before RiRi took her bared mammaries to Twitter.
Her social media protests and assertion of her right to bare and bear breasts stir and extend the conversation in the public sphere about whether she has “gone too far.” Yet Rihanna’s provocative approach has broader implications for women as well as men, our relationships to our own figures, and the way we comment on other people’s bodies and actions, notably as it involves our perennial national debate on public breastfeeding.
Rihanna inspires more than commentary about her style. Commercial enterprises like Dove are heeding the call for products to promote realistic and celebratory representations of diverse, everyday bodies. Most recently, ESPN The Magazine released its 2014 body issue, featuring male and female celebrity athletes of all hues, shapes and sizes, like Venus Williams, Michael Phelps and Prince Fielder.
Their willingness to pose nude for the magazine has been called “brave” but perhaps the credit for courage must go to the enterprises that finally celebrate the beauty, strength and diversity of the human body.
The deservedly positive reception ESPN The Magazine received further illuminates the discrepancies of the United States’ standards of public decency and decorum, which are stricter and more prudish than those of our European and Caribbean counterparts, who seem equally confused about the mixed messages Americans promote when it comes to sexuality and the public display of the female body.
Nudity on many public beaches there is greeted by a nonchalance too many Americans reserve for Miami’s South Beach and the pages of Maxim and Sports Illustrated – but not for a mother breast-feeding her hungry child in a public space.
Not only has Rihanna inspired debate about what gets bared, when and where, she also forces us to think about age, parenting, propriety, profit and the lagging laws governing social media, our society in general and the use of the female body in particular. Nor is hers to the only voice on this front.
Kris Jenner, veteran momager of the Kardashian-Jenner empire and a bevy of beautiful daughters, deflected recent criticism about her then-underage daughter Kylie Jenner baring her pubescent aureoles for a magazine and on the catwalk. Scout Willis, daughter of Hollywood stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, also joined Rihanna’s protest of Instagram’s policies that prohibit nudity when she tweeted several pictures of herself walking the streets of New York City bare-breasted and carefree.
Bare-breasted approaches to life and fame may bring benefits for stars like Rihanna. They help diffuse the frenzy among paparazzi to snap candid moments for sale to the highest bidder. It seems unlikely that TMZ would pay exorbitant amounts of money for pics that caught the star in an uncompromising position. What else could we possibly learn about the star she hasn’t shared with the “RiRi Navy,” her legion of more than 89 million followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media?
Agree or disagree, this is the way Rihanna & Co. have chosen to control the public consumption of their images by living out “loud,” as Rihanna proclaims in her 2010 studio album of the same name, under their own terms and within the parameters of what they define as public and desired sharing.
But what of the everyday, lactating moms, or short, fat or physically challenged people with no means to fight requests to shield their undesirable bodies and behaviors from public view? Could Rihanna’s approach and others like it work for the everyday person? Whether a woman exposes her breasts simply because she wants to or because she needs to feed her hungry child, shouldn’t any woman, including those of ordinary fame, have control over the use of their bodies?
For those afraid to confront personal attitudes about these challenging questions, the simplest response to the behavior they deem offensive would be to close their eyes and do not subscribe.
Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English & coordinator of the African & African-American Studies program at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (email@example.com) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.