There's a set of women's clothing retailers that market their wares to sporty women who, if the catalogs can be believed, are kayaking one minute, rock climbing the next and then jetting off to Nepal for a little yoga. That is so not my style, but these retailers sell comfy little dresses that you can just throw on and look casual and stay cool in hot weather, unlike Anthropologie, where you buy a dress that looks casual in the dressing room and then you show up at the grocery store looking like you confused it with a garden party.
Anyway, I was paging through the Athleta catalog, one of the sporty retailers described above, and came across this description for one of their dresses: "Built-in support that helps thwart the headlights." The catalog features other garments that claim they "turn headlights to lowlights." It took me a while to realize that "headlights" means nipples, specifically nipples whose outline is visible through a shirt. Obviously I need to be more in tune with the urban dictionary, but that's not my subject today.
I certainly don't have an issue with any woman's sense of personal modesty. I also don't have an issue with slang terms for breasts--I have read the Flashman novels, after all. I don't even have too much of an issue with a catalog aimed at strong, independent women, using a coy euphemism for nipples. It's silly, but not worth working oneself into a rage. I do have an issue with general prudishness. Why is nudity, plain nudity without a sexual context, so offensive in this country?
When I was about seven years old I had a Dover Books coloring book of classical ballet. In the Sleeping Beauty pictures--copies of drawings from the 18th century--the ballerinas wear costumes that expose their nipples. I was a little surprised, but since Santa had given me the coloring book, I decided it must be OK and that nipples once were considered appropriate for public display. My sense of delicacy, which didn't want to color in the nipples, got into a battle with my developing OCD, which couldn't bear to see a picture not colored in properly. I was correct in my assumption that this was how people dressed in the 18th century. Not everybody, of course, and probably not anybody in America, but certain daring ladies of fashion did wear dresses that exposed their nipples as evidenced by the 18th century fashion plate below, and the portrait of Pauline Bonaparte.
Eventually Queen Victoria came along and nipples were kept firmly in check, along with the rest of the female form, as voluminous skirts disguised any suggestion that women have working parts below the waist, and tight corsets controlled the upper half of their bodies. Indeed, even pianos famously wore skirts, and "legs" was not a word to use in polite conversation and was replaced with the more ambiguous "limbs."
Queen Victoria herself was painted wearing some daring necklines but the prudishness of the Victorian era lingers to this day.
During the women's movement, women allegedly burned their bras, or at least stopped wearing them, as they were uncomfortable and created an unnatural and extremely silly silhouette.
I assume that secondary to bra-spurning, nipples were visible in the seventies and that people just got used to it. Now the nipple is under attack again. In 2004, the nation had a collective heart attack when Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" exposed her entire right breast, for a split second, at the Super Bowl.
A few years ago, I read an article that ranted about the new T-shirt bras as being prudish and anti-women. This surprised me, as I was an enthusiastic purchaser of tee-shirt bras. The author's point was that T- shirt bras were specifically designed to prevent nipples from being visible through thin cotton tee shirt material. I was a little dismayed to discover that I had unwittingly been participating in a backward movement to bring shame to the nipple. I can't find a link to the original article I read, but here's a similar one: The Tyranny of the T-Shirt Bra.
Not only must we now put a foam barrier between our nipples and the outside world, we still have yahoos who complain about public breastfeeding. It's curious that in a germophobic society like ours, women are still told to nurse their babies in public bathrooms. I have some sympathy for men. It would be embarassing for most men to accidentally blunder into a women's locker room. For some of them, a sudden exposure to public breastfeeding must feel something like that. However, there is no excuse for one woman to hate on another woman for public breastfeeding. We have babies and babies need to be fed. If nipples are exposed for a split second during this process, we need to be grown up about it and not make a fuss and start spluttering about bathrooms. One response to the anti-breastfeeding prudes is this brilliant beanie.
As Jerry Seinfeld said, " What? So what? It's a nipple. A little brown circular protuberance. What's the big deal? See everybody's got them. See I got them." The sight of one will not hurt you, it will not corrupt your children.
Nowadays, women expose their knees and they wear trousers, things that the nipple-barers of the 18th century would have considered shocking. The leggings-as-pants trend has inspired tongue-in-cheek criticism such as the Am I wearing pants? flowchart, but no serious outcry that I've been aware of or fashion backlash in the form of a new trend for hoop skirts. Why then, are nipples so reviled?
If some women prefer to keep their nipples well-shielded, that's perfectly fine. It would be foolish and misguided to take a stance against personal modesty and that is not my intention in writing this post. Some women feel more comfortable in a bra and prefer to wear them and modern bras are certainly more comfortable than the ones that predate the women's movement. Other women find bras to be uncomfortable, particularly in the summer, and if they prefer to go braless or wear dresses that don't come equipped with nipple armor, they should be able to without encurring the disapproval of society.