body image · equality · fashion · Uncategorized

The Tata Top, Normalized Bodies, and Feminism

Sam wrote about “Nipple Phobia and Padded Sports Bras” way back in the early days of the blog. There she lamented the ubiquity of the padded sports bra (indeed, the padded bra more generally). Where we used to be able to find lots of unpadded bras and sports bras, nowadays it’s a real search.

Part of the reason for this, hypothesized Sam, is that we are caught in the grips of nipple phobia. We don’t want to see them or show them.  As Sam said, they’ve become what the visible panty-line used to be — an unsightly reminder of the natural bodies that actually live under our clothing.

Enter the Tata top.  This bikini top got a lot of press last week on-line.  From a distance, if you’re a white woman with an average sized chest wearing the light-tone Tata, it looks from afar as if you’re going topless.

Tata bikini top for light skin and pink nipples.
Tata bikini top for light skin and pink nipples.

I say if you’re a white woman because the medium tone and dark tone Tatas are not yet available. They are expected to ship in mid-August.  I say if you’re “average sized” because at present the tops are only available in small (A-B) and medium sizes (B-C). Anything larger than a C-cup is also on backorder, with this apology to larger women from the creators: “LARGE CHESTED LADIES…WE UNDERESTIMATED YOU BUT IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!

The Tata top is supposed to help fight breast stigma, topless inequality, and nipple phobia.  According to this Daily Beast article, it’s meant to help fight gender inequality. That makes it sound like a feminist statement if there ever was one.  The article continues:

The underlying goal of the bikini, however, is meant to desexualize the idea of female nipples and eliminate gendered double standards. Why should it be laughable, or even uncomfortable, for a woman to bare her breasts in public?

“By censoring an image of a woman’s chest and not a man’s it doesn’t end with removing that image from your platform,” Graves and Lytle conclude. “Whether you like it or not you are confirming that YES, a woman’s nipples are indecent and are something that need to be kept covered. You are endorsing that train of thought. You take yourself out of the business of providing a forum for free thinking and place yourself in the position of deciding what is immoral and what isn’t.”

So why, then, is there such an outcry among some feminists about this top?  Well, there are a number of reasons. The most common is that the first iteration — marketed to and for women with bodies that are white and slight — sends an unmistakable message about normative bodies.

The Jezebel article ends with this remark: “Like many aspects of modern-day feminism, right now, this one’s only available to women with light skin and disposable income. But the inventors of the Ta Ta Top promise that more colors are coming soon.”

The medium tone Tata top, available in mid-August.
The medium tone Tata top, available in mid-August.

The various attempts on the website to apologize, first to the “large-chested ladies” whom they “underestimated,” and then to women with “medium” or “dark” skintones don’t really succeed in overcoming the oversight. To the women with different skintones, they offered not so much an apology as a promise that the medium and dark tops will arrive and an excuse as to why they aren’t yet available:

Will you have other skin tones?

Absolutely but first we need to prove a market! Investing money and ending up with one TaTa Top is funny. Investing money in three tones and ending up with 2,000 TaTa’s is slightly less so. The more we sell the more tones and more styles we will able to offer. Take our TaTa Top poll to help us decide which direction to take next.

The dark-toned Tata, available in mid-August.
The dark-toned Tata, available in mid-August.

This is not a new issue by any means.  The “What’s Your Nude?” campaign raised awareness about how difficult it is to find “nude” bras in brown skin tones. See “Not MY Nude: Why I Started the Brown Bra Scavenger Hunt.

The “What’s Next?” poll on the Tata website focuses on extra small and extra large sizing and the turns to fashion, with four different piercing choices.

I also heard some people raising the usual questions about initiatives that raise their profile by aligning themselves with charities to support the already over-supported cause of breast cancer research. It might sound callous to roll one’s eyes whenever yet another thing promotes itself by raising money for breast cancer research, but the pink ribbon thing has many detractors, who complain about “pinkwashing”:

The term “pinkwashing” was coined by Breast Cancer Action in reference to companies that either promote breast cancer awareness without donating at all, are deceptive or not transparent about where any funds raised go, or put a pink ribbon on a product with known or suspected links to cancer.

For the ins and outs of the debate, see this Forbes article on “The Pinkwashing Debate: Empty Criticism or Serious Liability.

By far the most interesting comment came to my from fellow feminist philosopher Kristin Rodier, who took issue with the claim that linked body exposure to freedom, and who very quickly asked about the range of sizes available. In order to further elaborate the point about exposure as freedom, she sent me Kelly Oliver’s paper, “Sexual Freedom as Global Freedom.”

The paper focuses on the Western “rhetoric of liberating ‘women of cover.”  Oliver argues that we in the west have reduced women’s freedom “to freedom to to dress (especially in revealing clothes for the eyes of others), governed by market forces of fashion and consumerism.”  She further claims that “this view of women’s freedom is used to justify military action elsewhere, and to reassure Western women of their own freedom at home. The rhetoric of liberating women elsewhere conceals women’s oppression here at home while at the same time reassuring us that we are liberated.”

How does the Tata top fit into this picture?  By purporting to address the issue of women’s oppression through a top that mimics maximum exposure of women’s upper bodies.  We may not (yet) have a achieved full gender equality because men can go topless while (for the most part) women cannot, but the Tata top is here to save the day.

As reported on “Ladies, now you can free your nipples without going topless.”  This focus on freedom belies a very Westernized perspective that, indeed, doesn’t even apply to all Western women.

I think the original limited offerings of this item only to light skinned women with pink nipples and A-C sized breasts demonstrates well whose nipple freedom “we” as a society will tolerate. Not everyone’s exposed skin is equally welcome, and when non-normative bodies are exposed, there is a different social meaning, a different kind of statement being made. It’s not just “fun.”

I get the impression from the website and different articles I’ve read that the company is not quite sure how to market the top.  The equality card is one angle. But they also claim to be wanting to normalize the breast and nipple so that they’re de-sexualized. Somewhere on the site it talks about normalizing the sight of women breast-feeding in public, which certainly is a worthwhile cause.

But the website isn’t wholly on board with the desexualization of the breast, and in fact when I first went to the website last week it included a “warning” that said: ““Disclaimer: Wearers are cautioned to be prepared for the onslaught of pick up lines it is sure to elicit.” That message, which seems to celebrate the top as an expression of sexuality, has since been removed (or at least I couldn’t find it when I went back).

I also think that the top is likely to have more applications as a novelty item than as an item that plays a huge role in achieving gender equality.  I think the size and skintone gaffes, as well as the more pointed perspective expressed in Oliver’s paper about how Westernized this idea of freedom through revealing clothing, raise serious questions about the top’s capacity to promote an inclusive feminist agenda.







10 thoughts on “The Tata Top, Normalized Bodies, and Feminism

  1. As a man who hasn’t really thought about these things at all, I can only reveal my true thoughts on these subjects (at my own great peril):
    (1) In general, I find women’s breasts sexy and I do not believe that will ever change. So desexualizing the breast? Not possible, to my mind, but I also don’t know why they have to be desexualized;
    (2) I believe that women should be able to go topless anywhere that men are allowed to go topless and that they should not have to risk being ostracized or considered “on the make” by doing so. The truth though is that I will look. Sorry;
    (3) I think it is ridiculous that women should not be allowed or that anyone should be against women breastfeeding in public. To my mind, that’s just insane;
    (4) The sellers of this bra or top are clearly about making money, like most businesses. So of course they’re going to conduct market research, test the market, etc. before expanding. So I don’t really see a problem with testing the small-breasted white girl market first, if their research revealed that they might have the best chance of selling to this market. Every business does this. To criticize this is to criticize the politics of the marketplace itself, which is a much larger topic. But if you are only analyzing this business from the perspective of whether it is operating for the sole purpose of advancing feminist casuses, then you’re right. It’s not. It’s a business, and its purpose is to profit, because that’s what businesses that are not not-for-profit corporations exist to do, at least for the most part; and
    (5) I am doubtful whether selling these tops actually does advance feminist causes. First, I don’t think the female breast can be desexualized completely in Western culture. Or at least not quickly. Secondly, I honestly don’t believe that they’ll be able to sell enough of them to make it such that enough women wear them everywhere or even in select places like the beach, to make it then no big deal if a women goes topless instead. So I think they really are novelty items which will prove to be nothing other than an occasional statement at best, but more likely they will be worn as gags by women who actually want the added attention the bra will surely bring. In other words, it is not really a desexualizing or perhaps better expressed, a liberating product at all. In conclusion and to be blunt, the product will likely be used in the real world in a way which further sexualizes women who wear the product in every way that women are currently sexualized. Hence the reason for the earlier warning in the ad about added attention, which the ad makers thought correctly would appeal to that segment of the market who might actually buy the product, which was then removed as it did not fit well as a part of any scheme to market the product – really to legitimize the product – as something that advances feminist causes. To try to sell it as a sexaulaizing product would be its doom as it would then become a novelty item at best. So the marketing scheme is actually quite clever. They’re selling a sexualizing product under the guise of it being a desexualizing product And cigarettes by the way are good for you. 🙂

  2. This post gave me a lot to think about and I think you bring up some important nuances that haven’t yet been tackled. Thank you.

  3. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just go topless. I mean, isn’t this basically saying “This way you can look like you’re topless, because EQUALITY… but don’t worry, you won’t ACTUALLY be topless!” If the point is to be able to be topless, why are they SELLING A TOP. And if you’re the customer, if you’re willing to have everyone think you’re topless, why don’t you just DO it? I honestly do not understand.

    1. I take it people choose this option in places where it’s illegal for women to go topless. It’s not illegal in Ontario, or New York, I think, but in much of the United States, it is.

  4. In other countries around the world women’s breasts are not seen as sexual objects. It’s mostly here in the US and other places where there are huge debates about things like breastfeeding and pornography etc. Funny though how many of those same people who are against breastfeeding in public will also let their 8 year old daughter dress in a bikini, short shorts, crop tops, etc in public, wear make up, idolize the Justin Biebers of the world and not see anything wrong with sexualizing their children.

    I think this is another gimmick item that should be sold in Spencers and given as a gag gift for women who are “over the hill”. Like the t-shirt with the skinny body and pink bikini on it…

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