Thoughts on Celebgate: why are nipples such a huge issue?

I’m imagining the hackers responsible are standing ~100 yards to the right.

What is it about nudity that tantalizes us so? In the wake of “Celebgate,” I’ve been thinking a lot about our cultural obsession with naked bodies we weren’t asked to look at. We fixate on them. We can’t get enough. Why?

Is it because we’ve become so detached from our own bodies that the sight of them in their natural state is now equal in our minds with sex? Because, let’s face it, our bodies do a lot every day that has nothing to do with sex. And those bodies, with their pubic hair and nipples and skin and genitals, are with us all the time that we’re doing non-sexy things. Under our clothes, hiding. While we sit at our desks or eat lunch or make phone calls or do laundry or whatever. They’re not being sexual most of the time when they’re clothed, and they’re not even being sexual lots of times when they’re naked–like in the shower and when we sleep naked (which many of us do, right?).

So these bodies we live in, literally every second of our lives (except in dreams, I suppose, and the occasional out-of-body experience)… How did we get so mentally separated from them that when we see them, we go berserk? Why is it such a big deal to all of us?

The leak of private nude photos of celebrities last week (notably Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton) by hackers, in what’s being called “Celebgate,” was inexcusable. I do not in any way condone the stealing and disseminating of private photographs, or the viewing of those photographs. Invasion of privacy makes victims feel unsafe and exposed–vulnerable to the world. That’s not ever ok. But what I want to know is why it’s such a big deal to us, the masses, when we see a celebrity’s body uncovered in the first place.

Of course there’s a measure of curiosity. Especially with celebrities, whose faces and bodies are presented to us as the ideals to which we aspire (either to be or to lust after), there’s a natural desire to see the whole package and measure it against our expectations and our own bodies. And yes, of course, we are sexual beings by nature and when we find a person attractive we tend to imagine them naked. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

But for the most part, celebrities’ bodies are already somewhat familiar to us. Some celebs show more skin on red carpets and in their work than others, but we know their proportions and shapes from watching them on our TVs and big screens regardless of how much or how little clothing they wear. When we find out that there’s an image of a nip slip on the internet, why is it that we click the link immediately? We’ve seen nipples before. It’s unlikely that these particular nipples are going to break the mold somehow. Besides a general question of size and color, they’re not going to blow our minds, right?

So then why the hubbub?

I don’t think we should look at them, not because they’re “no big deal” but because we should respect the wishes of the people who choose to keep their nipples private. As Alecia Lynn Eberhart pointed out last week on Luna Luna, it’s not like we can’t find millions of images of nipples on the internet that were taken and disseminated with permission–why not go check out those nipples? And other, associated, body parts?

I realize and acknowledge that there is a mystique to the naked body hard-wired into our brains. As sexually reproducing creatures, we are triggered visually into arousal, so the naked body does in fact have a power to hijack our brains and get our bodies interested in copulating. (This is why, I’ve always thought, porn is such an important genre of media to examine–it bypasses our neural circuitry by flipping the nude-bodies-and-sex switch and turning us on without consulting our brains, and therefore has a different kind of interplay with us than other types of media. That’s super interesting.) But there’s something else happening here, with Celebgate. Jennifer Lawrence’s nipples and the excitement and fury and zillions of blog articles about all of it are on to something deeper.

Furthermore, there is an illicit thrill, always, in looking at what somebody else wants hidden. We are a species that loves to go through one another’s drawers and text messages, after all. I guess it’s the underlying cause behind why we’re so desperate to keep our bodies hidden in the first place–thus making the thrill so illicit when they’re uncovered–that bothers me.

The way we’ve been taught, in Western cultures, for thousands of years, equates the naked body immediately with sex. And we’ve been taught that sex = taboo. Sex = private. And usually sex = bad. Particularly for women, who bear the heavier burden of guilt because they were for so long required to maintain our innocence or forfeit our cultural and reproductive value, sex is has long been the ultimate transgression. One slip-up and women move directly from virgin to whore, no stops along the way.  Jennifer Lawrence, who has earned herself a shining star at the top of the A list for being a not-particularly-sexual female, was shunted off into the virgin/girl-next-door image years ago, and has been kept there by the media and public opinion, both of which so dearly love a convenient box to put people in. But now that these images have surfaced and her body (read: sexual body) has been unveiled, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. Is she a virgin? Or a whore? She can’t be both! *head explodey*

So we shame her, even if not directly. We shame women like her who have taken private nude photographs for their own personal use and enjoyment. We tell them not to let their bodies be uncovered and photographed, implying that if images of their bodies are leaked, it’s their fault for taking them. Not the fault, so much, of the hackers who feel some sense of twisted entitlement to their bodies (which is a whole other article) and break the law to find and leak the pictures. We must put these women into their appropriate box so we can clearly see their relationship to sex and morality. Uncovered body? Slut. Modestly covered body? Paragon of virtue.
But when did bodies become so completely, inescapably equated with sex? My answer would be the moment we said that sex was bad. The moment we begin to believe that the things our bodies are capable of, but which they spend relatively little time doing, were morally incorrect and capable of staining us, was the moment those bodies also became shameful. We go around with this idea that the bodies we live in are unacceptable because they can be sexual, and that idea is so deeply embedded in us that we can no longer contemplate the idea that our bodies exist for other reasons, too. That Jennifer Lawrence has a body, and that body has always had nipples, and those nipples are even at this moment hanging out, probably not doing anything, and that this is perfectly ok.I think it’s high time we start publicly questioning this set of assumptions. I’m thankful to live in New York City, where it’s legal for women to walk around topless, and I’m always overjoyed when I see a woman exercising this right. Sadly, I don’t exercise it myself because I don’t think that as a culture we are quite ready for bared nipples–every time I see a woman walking around topless, I see that she’s being followed by a gaggle of men with cameras, and I want to try to explain to them how, if they truly want to see more boobs in public, they are defeating their own purpose by leering. And I don’t want to have to deal with that. (Also, I get cold really easily.)But I do think that we can collectively shrug our shoulders and go, “Meh,” when we find out that somebody’s nude photos have been leaked. Instead of immediately finding them or commenting on them or taking part in the cycle of shame that prevents us from being able to just chill out about bodies and sex in general, let’s just be like, “Nipples. How exciting. Yawwwwwwn,” when anybody brings it up. Question why this is a big deal for anyone aside from the people whose privacy has been hacked.

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