Somehow breasts have become something to be covered up, or if we choose to display them too much (not even fully) we can be seen as irresponsible, too free and easy. Seriously, what is going on? As women we are expected to be virtuous. And yet even if we manage this quality, it is still ok for others to be voyeuristic. It’s seen as ok and acceptable in many ways for a man (not all men I know, don’t shoot me) to enjoy gazing at a woman’s breasts. Within this expectation there can also be a kind of blaming of the women, for example if you have big breasts of course men will look a them. How is this even ok in any way?
The Wikipedia description of breasts: The breast is one of two prominences located on the upper ventral region of a primate’s torso. In females, it serves as the mammary gland, which produces and secretes milk to feed infants.
And the Collins dictionary: A woman’s breasts are the two soft, round parts on her chest that can produce milk to feed a baby.
They sound like points on a map, or rocky prominences on a landscape, not at all like a woman’s sacred body, don’t you think? Both descriptions state that they are for feeding with milk. If they are so sacred in this offering then why are they so scandalised that we need to hide them away or they need to be somehow concealed? Surely this censorship is more about other people and society than it is about the woman herself?
This whole topic is incredibly complex and is so wrapped up in global political history and power. I’m focusing on Kerala and using this as an example, this same scenario applies in many places throughout the world and the whole issue is relevant for women everywhere. (There are some links to other articles included in case of interest).
The whole of this was inspired by a visit to a museum in Fort Kochi, Kerala. There was lots of detail about the history of Kerala which was fascinating. Amongst this was the history of the erstwhile Kerala royal family. There were photos of the family from pre 1949. The women were mostly wearing simple a cloth or mundu from the waist down, exactly like the men, and were bare breasted. This makes sense given the warm climate. Interestingly the lineage of the Royal family was matriarchal, so women were viewed as essential to the survival of the family and society. Given the dress code that is now present in society in Kerala and throughout India as well as in many other parts of the world I wondered how this had changed to what we see today. I began to think a lot about how we view breasts and women’s bodies in general.
Historically there was no sari worn at all in Kerala. Instead there was the mundu. This is a simple cotton cloth with gold edging which is now worn today as a sari. Everyone wore a mundu from the waist downwards, and there was no upper garment for men or women, neither was required to cover their upper body. There is a great deal of information and discussion about this. Some sources state that in a lot of places women were not allowed to cover their upper bodies, they had to pay a tax in order to do so and that only the higher caste women were permitted to cover their breasts. This is contradicted by the historical dress of the royal women.
In the east bras did not exist until relatively recently and women routinely went without covering the chest because breasts were not seen as anything particularly sexual and definitely not forbidden. Meanwhile in the west corsets were getting tighter and tighter and breasts were either plumped up or squashed flat depending upon the fashion of the day, thereby creating some kind of ever increasing forbidden fascination. If you hide something away or say it’s forbidden it immediately becomes very appealing. The more you hide it, the more fascinating it becomes. And so we become obsessed.
Jayita Indukumar states that historically Kerala was unknowingly home to the most radically modern and feminist society in India and quotes a poem from her grandfather “‘immoral women slipping into blouses will be the doom of society, as evidenced by a hike in the price of rice’. So you see, women seeking to cover their upper bodies was a concept that the society inside Kerala took some time to digest. It was a regressive trait at first glance; women should have the right to do as they please with their bodies.”
There was in the past a ‘breast tax’ (mulakkaram) in Kerala. This is talked about a lot and this article gives more context that it was in fact a general tax of which there were many for the lower castes in society. History is vague and it’s challenging to get a definitive point of view about the details of the tax. There is the compelling story of Nangeli who, in the early 19th century is said to have cut off her breasts in protest at having to pay the tax, she presented her breasts on a banana leaf to the tax man and died shortly after. You can read more about Nangeli and the related issues here. This tale may well be based in fact as it is said to have happened at a place now named Cherthala, known previously as Mulachiparambu, which means the land of the breasted women.
Much more recently in 2018 breasts in Kerala made the news with a maaruthurakkal samaram, or bare chest campaign by Diya Sana. She states “objectification of women happens in everyday life—be it a skimpily clad model, an item song dancer, a breastfeeding mother, a ‘modestly’ dressed female colleague or classmate”. It’s clear that the dress code and attitude towards women is now becoming more recognised as a general attitude towards women rather than just their body parts.
From another perspective we have Meenakshi describing a protest in 1956 where a group of women wanted to cover their breasts and were going against tradition and the local law in order to do so, she says “When the 23 women reached the temple, there were others who had begun the rituals without blouses as was the custom. Among the women wearing blouses, two dropped their thaalam and ran away out of fear. Some of them were very young. “We were aged between 16 and 32. I was scared too but I held on bravely. And we ended that decades-long anacharam by doing so. From the next year on, women performed the rituals wearing blouses. And people of all castes entered the temple. At last, we learned to live together as humans,”
There are so many conflicting accounts of women forced to be bare chested versus wanting to remain uncovered, of this being a caste issue and yet the royal family wore the mundi covering themselves from the waist down only. The change of expectations and attire seems to be somewhat (although perhaps not entirely) linked with the arrival of a more western take on christianity to the area in the mid 1800s (interestingly there were already christians in India centuries before this). The western christians sought to ‘tame the natives’ and enforced laws to ensure that the dress code met their own expectations. Aradhana Mathews explains “Society during those times did not immediately sexualise the female body (a fact that the men of Victorian England could never fully understand). In addition to equal clothing standards, women also enjoyed both physical and sexual autonomy. Royal women would negotiate treaties and lead soldiers into battle, being a widow was not a tragedy and remarriage was a commonplace event.”
As Meenakshi said, why can’t we learn to live together as humans, breasts or no breasts? Can we have mutual respect for everyone, just as they are, without judgement and without feeling we need to dictate or control? To bring things right up to date, even now on social media a nipple is censored. This is presently the topic of much ongoing discussion. It’s crazy, we are so caught up an all of these stories that we can easily overlook what is really important as well as what may be the underlying issues.
A few days ago I was returning on my bicycle from an early morning walk on the beach. It was 745am. A man followed me on his motorcycle and openly asked me for sex. He was persistent and seemed to not understand why I wouldn’t consent immediately. (He eventually disappeared when I said I would take a photo of his number plate). When I thought about this afterwards I realised that all of this is connected. This attitude that women’s bodies are a commodity, that they are something to hide away, this applies even in the west not just here in the east. The hiding away leads to a kind of forbidden titivation and eventual total frustration. If as in the past breasts were the norm in everyday life, not something to be grabbed or secretly peeped at then surely after time this sense of shame and perhaps fear (for some women) or of needing to conform would begin to shift and be replaced by true empowerment and sense of self. Seriously, a debate about nipples, are there not more important things to concern ourselves with in the world? And whilst I and many other can handle harassment, why should we have to?
The judgement or the ongoing attitudes of society mean that we cannot in some situations be fully and authentically ourselves, fully expressive and free, so we learn to survive by containing and dumbing ourselves down. The breast issue is a massive metaphor for what is actually going on throughout the entire world. The suppression of the feminine. The feminine is what keeps life flowing. It is birth, nurturing, nourishing, the body and natures cycles and the very ebb and flow of life herself. It is absolutely misunderstood and things have gone so far now in the suppression that it will take time for this wisdom and freedom to return. I believe that the freedom to be fully ourselves, to allow this feminine force to rise once again to the fore, to explore and create and flow will one day return, it is returning. We will not stay quiet.
This is about so much more than our beautiful breasts. When we disallow or demonise something sacred we remove its power. When we create division and confusion we create fear. Where there is fear it is easier to manipulate and control. Why would we want to manipulate and control? Power, money, greed. You cannot get much more feminine than breasts. You can not get much more powerful than a group of women.
Let us consider and honor all women, seen and unseen. Let there be a gentle nurturing of all women everywhere that have this feminine quality and power, whether they are aware or unaware, let us hold them in our hearts always.
If you’re interested to read more about the history of women in Kerala I highly recommend Swatantryavaadini. She says “Imagine my indignation when I realised that a whole generation of sharp, articulate, fearless women were rendered completely inaudible and actually invisible by a fairy tale masquerading as the history of reformisms in twentieth century Kerala.”