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.
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 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.
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 Salon.com: “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.