Swedish breasts in the news

The story about the young Swedish women fighting for the right to bare their breasts at swimming pools made it to the top three on digg today. As my friend Lisa pointed out, the story's popularity is in agreement with the axiom:

Sweden + breasts = lots of hits.

The movement certainly has a catchy name: Bara Bröst. It's a clever a play on words because it can mean just breasts but also bare breasts. Some of the brave women have begun to document their thoughts and experiences online: KristinK, Bara Badare.

One of the arguments for allowing women to go topless is that men and women should be treated equally, and that if men are allowed to swim without wearing a top, so should women. In a liberal democracy like Sweden, it's hard to argue against equality. The law is pretty clear too: it is illegal to put in place a policy that treats people differently on the basis of their gender.

Some of the activists pushing this agenda have also made the point that people are only upset about seeing breasts because breasts have been sexualized by society and popular culture. These young women would like to foster a society in which people are a bit more desensitized to the sight of breasts in public. I'll agree with this argument.

Swedes are the Puritans of Western Europe.

With respect to how much they cover up, Sweden has moved a lot closer to America in recent years. Women go topless seldom in Sweden, even though there is no law against it. Compared to bathers in Holland, France, Germany, or Italy, Swedish beach-goers are prudes. Where it is customary to go naked, such as in the sauna, there are almost always separate facilities for men and women. The main Swedish television channels show very little nudity. And it's forbidden in Sweden to display a woman's breasts in any advertising (although men's chests are OK for some reason). The argument behind that policy was that women's bodies should not be used to sell things. Women who referred to themselves as feminists were responsible for that law.

So it is gratifying, if a bit surprising, to see Swedish women standing up for the right to show their breasts. It is a fitting tribute to the true spirit of feminism.

What I do find odd is that some of the women involved in fighting for the right to bare their breasts are doing so in the hopes of desexualizing women's bodies. This effort will meet with limited success.

Women's breasts are inherently sexual in nature.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued convincingly that the human female evolved breasts specifically for the purpose of attracting men. The argument goes something like this: when our ancestors began to walk upright, females needed to evolve a means of attracting males that differed from those sexual signals that are useful only among species that walk on all fours. Something showy in the front, perhaps? Yeah, that works. No other primate species displays such a great degree of sexual dimorphism in breast size. No other primate species stores such a large amount of fat in the breasts; this fat doesn't seem to be needed to for strictly functional purposes, and is there whether or not the woman is nursing. The human female's unique breasts are a primary sexual trait of her gender. Along with other attractive traits like curvaceous hips, clear skin, and symmetrical faces, men are going to find breasts attractive.

That said, I think over-sexualization and over-sensationalization of the human body is damaging too. Forcing women to cover their breasts in a way draws more attention to them. What is customarily hidden from view will naturally be all the more intriguing for its scarcity. In Victorian England, even the sight of a woman's ankle was considered scandalously provocative. Obviously things are a bit more relaxed today, but we still have our own form of Puritanism; we've only moved the line a bit between what's no big deal and what's scandalous. Imposing the most conservative standards of modesty on everyone doesn't make sense, but that's what we'd have to do to please anyone who might be offended. Prudishness is not just a harmless bit of cultural baggage though. It is psychologically demeaning to people, because ultimately, it aims to convince them that they should be ashamed of their own bodies. I find it much more offensive that some people believe it's their duty to impose their prudishness on others.

Although women are no doubt sexual creatures, it is surely frustrating for some women who feel that their value is diminished by right of the fact that some men view them primarily as objects of sexual desire. However, the respect these women seek cannot be codified into law. Prohibiting bare breasts in advertising, for example, will not cause men to stop finding women (or their breasts) desirable. Nor is this what most reasonable women want. What they want is to be seen as whole people, with more to offer the world than just their bodies. Of course we are animals, but we are also uniquely capable of rising above our baser instincts. The way to do this is not to deny these instincts, but to accept them — both the strengths and the weaknesses. So the solution is not to deny that breasts (or hips, or whatever) are sexual in nature; but to accept the fact, and move on. Respect doesn't mean ceasing to be a sexual creature. Respect means caring about others and taking their views into account. What seems like flattery to one person might be insulting to another though, so one size definitely does not fit all.

I've been to nude beaches in France and to nude bathhouses in Germany. I've also seen the many Muslim women in Sweden who out of modesty chose to wear the veil or burka when in public. It's clear that there is a great deal of variability in cultural standards when it comes to what parts of their bodies people are comfortable showing in public. The world is full of people who accept without question their own particular prejudices and reject with equally unquestioning moral indignation the differing views of others. Prudishness with regard to nakedness is a good example of this sort of fundamentalism. When people of different cultures come together in the same bathhouse, you can imagine that not everyone is going to be completely comfortable with the clothing choices made by everyone else. It can be a challenge to make rules that foster an environment in which most people can feel comfortable.

It's also often the case that some people will have to be made uncomfortable, at least for a while, in order to bring about a justified change. The end of racial segregation in the U.S. was just such a period of uncomfortable transition. Changes that grant new freedoms to one group of people inevitably impose some uneasiness in other groups of people. So it is with topless women in Swedish bathhouses.

The women swimming topless in Swedish bathhouses are evidently willing to make some of their fellow bathers uncomfortable in the name of exercising their freedoms. I wonder if they would also support allowing men and women to bathe naked. Or would that make them uncomfortable?

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