Aspirational toplessness

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I recall an innocent time, many moons ago, where topless magazine covers were relegated to that dusty corner of the truck stop mag rack alongside other bagged classics as Hog Shooter and Soldier Of Fortune Monthly.

Well, that might be exaggerating a little, but until recently you could rely on women’s magazines to keep a lid on their cover models’ busts. But if Glamour Magazine’s apparent predilection for getting their cover stars to whip the girls out is any indication, we’re entering a brave new era of bare (ish) bosoms.

Last year reality TV star Lauren Conrad greeted readers in a coy lakeside pose, wearing naught but flower-sprigged hotpants. On this month’s cover, Kate Hudson wears an under the shoulder boulder holder of her own design: her forearm as makeshift boob tube.

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Is nothing safe from norks?

On the surface, Glamour’s choice of under-dressed cover star seems a little odd; after all, runs the accepted commentary, women’s magazines are meant to appeal to women, and surely topless celebrities - no matter how modestly topless they are - are strictly the domain of men’s magazines?

(Apparently in this rush to apply a gender nakedness binary to the publishing world, everyone’s forgotten the tendency for high fashion magazines to go topless, in particular V, which loves nothing more than fashioning it's oversized logo into a victory-shaped censorship bar.)

Pop cultural commentators, on the other hand, seem keen to see this as heralding a brave new era of “aspirational” toplessness.

At The Cut, Kat Stoeffel posits that “With the Female Chauvinist Pigs–era boob jobs on the decline, a new breed of topless women is making having one's totally average tits out seem aspirational.” That argument has some sway when you consider, as Stoeffel later suggests, Lena Dunham’s modest and decidedly normal breasts making regular appearances on Girls.

But I would hardly call Lauren Conrad or Kate Hudson, nor their busts, “decidedly average”; tying their retouched and heavily styled cover shots to Dunham’s frank approach to nudity seems like a stretch.

There is something, arguably, in the notion that women are now going topless (or sheer, or sans shirt) “for other women”. I’m all for divorcing women’s agency, when it comes to self expression, from the tiresome omnipresence of the male gaze; we should dress to please ourselves, and should that happen to be in a crop top or sheer blouse, so be it.

(This also harks back to the “should women be allowed to go topless like men” argument that continues to rear its head, most recently in last year’s sweltering New York summer, where it turns out it’s perfectly legal for women to get ‘em out.)

Over at the Huffington Post, Emma Gray sees the trend in a more sinister light: “The bare-breasted covers are appealing because they allow us to see more of the ostensible bodily ‘perfection’ women's magazines showcase so much closer up. It's something that lady-mags have been doing for decades (see any issue of Cosmo), just with more skin. Having cover models bare even more makes the images that much more aspirational - here's the boob ideal in addition to the face and skin and arm/thigh/waist ideal.”

I’m more inclined to agree with Gray. While it would be terrific if topless women’s magazine covers indicated a swing towards a world in which women of all shapes and sizes could swing free, the reality is that there is a far narrower spectrum of what’s considered “attractive”, and more depressingly, “acceptable”. Why else would the sight of Lena Dunham’s bare B-cups on HBO, the land of uncovered bosom, cause such a fuss? Media ideals tell us that her body is not “acceptable”, thus the baring of it is considered brave.

Look at Conrad and Hudson’s covers, on the other hand: what’s visible of their bare breasts is perfectly formed, expertly lit, not too saggy, not too small, natural looking, and just the right shade of sun-kissed white skin. As Gray puts it, “We've been taught that those bodies -- and the public images that celebrity women have constructed for themselves -- are what female beauty is. We're attracted to and interested in examples of that perfection, no matter how unattainable it might seem.”

And perfection, even if it appears to be part of a brave new world of bosom baring, isn’t revolutionary in the slightest.

20 comments so far

  • I don’t agree that toplessness is something “aspirational”. Nowadays, it’s difficult to shock or surprise people. So, I suppose that the goal of having women with barely-covered breasts (as opposed to openly displaying them) on magazine covers is more likely related to a marketing strategy — to become a head-turner and hook people’s interest.

    Commenter
    MainSail
    Date and time
    March 13, 2013, 6:45AM
    • Mainsail
      you say its difficult to shock or surprise people. I must disagree the amount of people in this country being shocked and horrified at the slightest thing has risen to new heights. nary a day goes by without a "shock horror" headline being trumpeted somewhere through some medium or another. We are breeding a generation of people who can't wait to be offended so that they can get on their soap box and express their outrage.

      Other than that I agree with you

      Commenter
      Jeromey
      Date and time
      March 13, 2013, 10:21AM
    • @ Jeromey

      What kind of "shock horror" headlines?

      I think that it's difficult to come up with eye-catching promotional ideas and ads that are 'orignal' and 'creative' enough to draw attention. I know that not "everything has all ready been done" ... but it seems that way.

      Personally, I still get a kick out certain beer commercial (see below for link). Now, that is original, creative, FUNNY, eye-catching, and above all, memorable. And no nudity was necessary.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8R5LSs1a6c

      Commenter
      MainSail
      Date and time
      March 13, 2013, 10:46AM
  • As a woman I don't mind a sneaky peek at bosoms from time to time. Especially if they're photographed tastefully and not too explicit or in your face (ie, for women, like the shots above). As a card carrying member of the itty bitty titty committee sometimes its nice to know that not every single glamorous woman has massive boobs and that little ones can be sexy too. ;-)

    Commenter
    om
    Date and time
    March 13, 2013, 9:21AM
    • Glad you feel good.

      I'm still waiting for a cover that makes me feel sexy for who I am and not simply because of my above average measurements *sigh*

      Commenter
      Melbournite
      Date and time
      March 13, 2013, 1:42PM
  • Barely covered breasts are fine on the front of a magazine, but just don't dare try to use them for their intended purpose in public.

    Commenter
    JEM
    Location
    Melb
    Date and time
    March 13, 2013, 10:39AM
    • So what are you saying ... ultimately we should all cover up modestly least we offend someone from some section of society?, that we cannot express an aspiration for attractiveness, vitality and health?

      If you like the image and what it represents you are more likely to buy the mag - and my taste or that of anyone else out there is not something that 'the polemic' has any right to dictate.

      Commenter
      Steve
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 13, 2013, 11:39AM
      • More boobs for everyone. What's not to like?

        There is no rational reason for objecting to the display of female breasts in any public place or media.

        Commenter
        Chris
        Date and time
        March 13, 2013, 1:46PM
        • Women are being raped in India for being on a bus; shot in Pakistan for daring to get an education; blown up in Afghanistan for being police officers; enslaved in Somalia; and are victims of honour killings and acid attacks in the UK of all places for not marrying the man chosen by their parents.

          Meanwhile we have such earth shattering articles in Daily Life about why women are topless on magazines meant for other women and what is the perfect breast.

          Could the editors of this section of the Age/SMH please try to do some articles on the oppression that daily threatens women's lives and safety worldwide instead of some of the superficial, materialistic stuff I have been reading lately.

          I am sorry, but this obsession with some glaringly First World Problems is why I have switched off third wave feminism.

          Commenter
          Andrew
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 13, 2013, 2:45PM
          • OUCH!

            Commenter
            Jeromey
            Date and time
            March 13, 2013, 3:11PM

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