Just a day after my fellow blogger Julie wrote about acceptable and unacceptable breasts, I found myself on the subway observing a young woman baring her midriff in a way that I found disturbing. Julie and the barer set me thinking: What is it about the baring of the female body that summons up complex, often contradictory feelings in all of us?
Allow me to explain that Julie compared reactions to a model's near nudity in a perfume ad with a bare breast feeding a baby on a parenting magazine's cover.
The subway barer in question was wearing unusually informal clothes for work: jeans with probably false rips, which probably cost a mint just for that studied "casual" look, along with a pink T-shirt a size too small emblazoned randomly, in silver, with the word "Breasts" and the names of European capitals.
How do I know she was underdressed for work? She was on a commuter line at quitting time, carrying a brief case and accompanied by a man who was very obviously from her office. She was flirting with him outrageously, grimacing seductively and performing a nearly lewd dance on a subway hand-pole, almost in the face of her office mate, who looked on with what seemed to me stolid -- and unwarranted -- disinterest. Perhaps he was very married.
What was disturbing? OK, I found her attention-seeking a bit much. But that's not it.
She was slim, attractive and had a tight, small body that could have been a model's. Except for the bare midriff, which showed a slightly protruding stomach. At first I wondered whether she was pregnant -- just barely showing, if so.
Then it hit me.
Julie's model stood naked in half light with a bowler hat covering her breasts. She was, in essence, promoting the notion that she possessed the equipment needed to perform what the nursing woman of the parenting magazine did with alacrity: nurture a child, be a mother. The advertiser is highjacking that message to proclaim that the perfume will allow its wearer to convey to a man the atavistic biopsychological message -- ingrained in us since we lived in caves -- that she is a desirable mate.
The woman on the subway was saying something similar: look, here's my uterus. I'm sure she would be horrified to hear this. She probably was flirting without quite intending to lay out such a graphic message to the public at large. Yet there it was.
I am of two minds in my reaction.
The Torquemada in me wants to banish and ban all this display of nudity. Pornography comes from the Greek pornographos. This word combines two ideas. First, porne "prostitute," a word rooted in a much earlier term meaning "something purchased," which probably referred in antiquity to female slaves sold for prostitution. Second, graphein, "to write."
In the modern meaning pornography conveys the notion of salacious writing or pictures that are deemed to be obscene, which itself means "offensive to the senses," from the French obscène, in turn probably derived from Latin obscenus (ob "onto" + cænum "filth").
Legally, in the United States we define obscene as material that "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would regard as appealing to "a prurient interest," subject to many and changing refinements and qualifications -- all emanating from the need to balance social taste with the First Amendment.
Clearly, the obscene is not meant to be, or should not be, seen in public, according to society, and its subject matter often reduces women to objects, instead of thinking, feeling people. The model and the midriff barer could arguably be seen as promoting the objectification of women in a pornographic, obscene way.
But why -- speaks up my other mind -- am I getting my knickers in a twist?
When women choose freely (no one put a gun to Keira Knightley's head, did they?) to display physical attributes that are beautiful, they are performing art. Some day, the ad will be in a museum -- as all well-designed advertising will be -- alongside the Venus de Milo and her disturbing chopped off arms.
When the woman on the subway decided to bare her midriff I'm sure she never thought -- or did she? -- that she would prompt a little essay about her. I assume that, yes, she probably would plead guilty before a jury of her peers of premeditated, attempted seduction of the man with whom she traveled. So? All's fair in love.
Besides, I don't really wear knickers. (Real men don't wear knickers, right?)
In the end, call it art or call it obscenity, human nakedness calls out from us the most sublime and at the same time terrifying responsibilities and ideas: childbirth, commitment, bonding.
Childbirth, frightening enough, is at least a temporary experience, something women forget (else we would all be only children). Then think of trying to master the art of sharing daily life with another for, as the World War II phrase had it, "the duration." It's enough to make Peter Pans and Wendys out of all of us.
Yet nakedness also takes our breath away, expressing the possibility of nurturing and love, of unity and companionship, of beauty and solidarity. We are marvels to behold, with all our imperfections, and we can barely survive without one another.