Going Topless?

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women shouldn't give up the mystique and power of their breasts

by susan braudy

let me tell you why the accelerating-and alarming-trend that has women baring their breasts in public places other than locker rooms may turn out to be bad for us. up until very recently, most women wore transparent fabric that beguiled, teased and almost showed a woman's breasts.

i see this as smarter than going topless.

first, for the lascivious, the most current examples of naked breasts: paris hilton was recently photographed basking au naturel aboard a yacht. there was also an incident at the august four seasons restaurant, whose owner may be getting desperate for customers. he provided a topless caterer for a birthday party.

and of course you remember the sopranos, where naked immobile silicone-enhanced breasts of pole-dancing girls were background noise for james gandolfini.

in the 1970s, rudi gernreich made fashion history on the runway by outfitting his models in his new line of topless bathing suits. these didn't become popular except maybe on the french riviera, where i'm told only the most unsophisticated people stare.

what we have staring us in the face is a complex and historic power issue.

exposing cleavage versus revealing the entire breast is a cultural issue. as a wise old (male) civil liberties lawyer once told me, "when woman start showing their entire breasts they will give up an enormous amount of power over men." i wonder if women have slowly stopped caring.

furthermore, i wonder if women are raising the ante from using their bodies as weapons to attract and daze men to flaunting their bodies as if to say we don't care what men think.

after all, traditionally, female modesty was mostly in the service of male jealousy. a married woman was thought of as the property of her husband, who would kill other men if they dared to ogle his wife's secondary-or primary-sexual characteristics.

anthropologists say that men dress to show status, single women dress to lure men. the line is blurring, particularly in manhattan offices and at decadent museum galas. i wear jewelry, for example, for its beauty but also because i think my pieces show costliness and, to be frank, status.

historians such as james laver say we wear clothes for two conflicting reasons-modesty and self-aggrandizement. modesty is defined as the attempt to tamp down sexual allure. self-aggrandizement includes status and sexual allure.

was eve less attractive to adam when she was naked? apparently once he and she ate from the tree of knowledge they realized they were naked and made clothing out of fig leaves. indeed, it is said that at nudist colonies men soon lose any fascination for breasts of nude women.

here is perhaps the most well-known historic example of women gaining power by baring parts of their breasts. in mid-19th-century france, women hypnotized men by wearing high empire-waisted gowns that revealed most of their breasts. they teased further by rouging their mostly hidden nipples.

now don't get me wrong, i've got nothing against the human body. some of my best friends have them, although i admit i'm not dying to picture them or even think about them very much.

i guess i prefer to see girls baring their toes, sexually taboo in old china (or their collarbones, a taboo in early virginia) than their breasts, which are becoming more and more ornamental than functional in our culture.


susan braudy is the author and journalist whose last book, family circle: the boudins and the aristocracy of the left, was nominated for a pulitzer by publisher alfred knopf.

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