Topless Keira Knightley Is Not Alone - Women Are Reclaiming Their Breasts in 2014

It’s difficult to escape breasts these days. They’re on billboards in Moscow, causing hundreds of car crashes. They’re popping up on internet ads, promising women bigger ones. There are breast shampoo dispensers and a holiday gag gift you can’t unsee called Jingle Jugs. You can even buy some from the world’s strangest vending machine. It’s not that I mind seeing breasts everywhere; after all, I have two of my own that I quite like. But it’s disheartening that breasts are often considered more interesting than the women they’re attached to – as if we’re an afterthought compared to our body parts.

But now a bevy of women, in a matter of days, have taken back the tit. We’re reclaiming the rack, whether you like or not. (And you probably do.) 

Keira Knightley revealed her breasts in a photo shoot last week to demonstrate how “women’s bodies are a battleground”. Comedian Tig Notaro, who had a double mastectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis, did a topless set on Thursday night after being catcalled from the audience. Chelsea Handler protested after her topless picture was removed from Instagram, calling the move “sexist”. And a graduation photograph of an Australian student breastfeeding has gone viral, sparking yet another international conversation about breasts, women’s bodies and race. (A similar photo making the rounds a few months ago – of a young black woman – got treated quite differently than the white Aussie student.) Women showing their naked breasts – whether on social media as part of body-positive postpartum shots, or walking the street topless as a matter-of-fact protest – has become almost de rigueur.

Willingly baring it all is a bold move at a time when so many people see the naked bodies of women, famous and otherwisewithout permission. So if 2014 ends up the year of the breast, it will be because women made it happen on their terms. They’re making clear that their breasts, or lack thereof, are not public property – that our body parts are just that: one part of who we are and how we experience the world.

When Knightley decided to go topless for Interview magazine, she said she would only do so if her breasts were shown as they are – not Photoshopped or otherwise manipulated to look bigger or better. “Because it does feel important to say it really doesn’t matter what shape you are,” she said.

“[Y]ou need tremendous skill to be able get a woman’s shape and make it look like it does in life, which is always beautiful. But our society is so photographic now, it becomes more difficult to see all of those different varieties of shape.”

Now, it’s a bit easier to go topless and talk about the beauty of all breasts when you’re Keira Knightley. Women who fit into traditional beauty standards don’t have quite as much to lose as the rest of us when they bare all in a high-fashion glossy shoot.

Notaro returned to the hospital this weekend, but after she ripped her shirt open onstage last week – “Superman-like”, according to one writer – the comic was sending a similar but much more daring message, as she performed the rest of her set largely ignoring her own nudity: no breasts is normal, too. 

The real radical takeaway lays in presenting our breasts (or lack thereof) as perfectly regular – boring, even. Handler’s outrage at Instagram over a funny picture mocking Vladimir Putin’s infamous shirtless-on-horse shot, for example, was focused on a double standard that assumes breasts’ innocuousness: “If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it’s ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?”

It’s difficult to argue that the breast tops this year’s most political body part – Nicki Minaj and feminist debates over respectability and black women’s bodiesassured otherwise – but the obsession with breasts doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Yes, it was over 10 years ago when Janet Jackson was attacked for “nipplegate” – a Super Bowl performance in which Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Jackson’s bustier, revealing a pierced nipple. (Timberlake remained tellingly unscathed by the publicity.) But it was only this year that Facebook finally lifted its ban on breastfeeding pictures, which were previously labeled inappropriate content. And breast cancer awareness campaigns continue to tell their supporters to “save the tatas”, as if saving the women attached to them weren’t a tad more important.

So this kind of nonchalant defiance that Knightley, Notaro and everyday women are offering up isn’t just important – it’s desperately needed. If we want to normalize women’s bodies, we need to present them with a shrug, not just a wink. They’re bodies, we’re people, deal with it. You don’t like it? Tough titties.

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