Breasts on the cover of a magazine? That’s years and years old news. But nipples? And in a newspaper that prides itself on its “journalistic standards”? You’re in the territory of taboo. So why did the New York Times feature this photo on its front cover last week?:
Slate’s The XX Factor claims we should all come to three possible conclusions:
“1) Anyone who objects to this is a Puritan, and Americans really need to get over their prudery, like, yesterday…
“2) It’s grossly inappropriate to sexualize breast cancer, which is a serious and deadly disease…
“3) Boobs are gross, and think of the children…
There you have it, folks. Pick one and start defending it with your life.”
Another Slate editor takes the other side, writing, “Marcotte writes that her heart is with those of us who despise Puritan prudery, but a puritanical society is exactly what equates “breast” with “WTF traffic.” The Times picture doesn’t strengthen the taboo—it dismantles it.”
But what if the reality falls somewhere in between?
The first argument says this photo “sexualizes” breast cancer. And it’s right: A savvy media brand like the New York Times knows that a photo of a nipple (especially with the strap suggestively slipping down a woman’s shoulder) will get plenty of “WTF” traffic: People click out of curiosity. That’s how media works — post a provocative headline/photo (yes, because breasts are somehow still controversial…) on an attention-grabbing topic (cancer) and you have a formula to get eyeballs on your website. Which means interest from advertisers. The NYT is guilty as charged — but that’s a huge oversimplification of their intent.
Pairing this sexualized photo with cancer highlights the utility and fragility of breasts. As my boyfriend put it, some men only ever see boobs represented by the media as a sexual object and only think of them that way. But though breasts separate girls from boys, they also serve another important, utilitarian function (feeding babies) and are exquisitely vulnerable (breast cancer is the most common type of cancer and effects 1 in 8 women). In this way, while the photo evokes an immediate sexual connotation it quickly adjusts the perception with the content it represents and even makes readers think twice about their knee-jerk reaction to it. Breasts are beautiful and complex, and women have a very special relationship with their own pair.
The New York Times is not innocent of catering to WTF traffic. But by doing so, they aim to challenge the knee-jerk perception of women’s bodies — likely among the “WTF” readers who most need some new perspective.