Aspirational toplessness


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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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.