Brandi Chastain is, to understate the case, an accomplished soccer player. She is best known for her game-winning goal, a penalty kick, against China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. After scoring the winning goal, Chastain whipped off her jersey and fell to her knees in a celebratory pose male soccer players often strike. The sight, not of Chastain’s bare chest, but of Chastain’s sports bra became an international subject of debate, her spontaneous act defining for a time, her career, but also opening the conversation of women as athletes. Male soccer players routinely show bare chests without commentary, so why the furor about a victorious, but not seductive, pose? Chastain’s “sports bra seen round the world” (Jere Longman, NYT, 5 July 2003) offered more coverage than does the top of many a cheerleader televised during professional sports broadcasts. The bare female body and the bare male body occupy different spaces in our communal cultural imagination. Chastain’s removal of her shirt, not to seduce or titillate, but to celebrate a victory, was outside of the norm. Once she had donned a soccer uniform, Chastain was an “athlete,” no longer a “woman,” so it was shocking to many to see the sweat-soaked bra revealed.
Authorized nudity is acceptable, but unauthorized partial nudity, not designed to pleasingly display the beauty of the female form is unacceptable. The practice of putting little girls in two-piece bathing suits that cover their nipples–at an age when girls’ nipples look no different from that of their male siblings and peers–is part of our early indoctrination into this double standard. There are no soccer or basketball games in which girls or women spontaneously play shirts and skins. Standards of dress and beauty take much spontaneity out of the lives of women.
In Germany and Sweden, and in many areas of Western and Eastern Europe, men and women, old and young, wear tops or not, as they like at the beach and at public swimming pools. Grandmothers and grandfathers’ bellies spill merrily over the tops of bikini bottoms and tiny Speedos. Let the rebellion spread West! Why should women concern themselves with stomach fat after child-bearing or from medical causes (or beer-drinking) when many men do not concern themselves with stomach fat from medical causes or beer-drinking? Public pools and beaches should be zones of tolerance, where everyone present can let it (almost all) hang out.
The higher standard of beauty applied to women in the U.S., and against which it is incredibly difficult to rebel, is costly to women in terms of time and money dedicated to the pursuit of beauty. Appearance continues to define women in the U.S. in ways which it does not define men. Though I have staged some minor rebellions–no nail polish, no makeup whatsoever when I was younger–I too am guilty. No matter how I detest the neologism “mani-pedi,” and avoid nail salons, I fall prey to other travails and delights of fashion and vanity. Painting a wall the perfect color is satisfying, and so is putting together an outfit suitable to the occasion, and in which I feel comfortable and attractive. Despite assiduously refusing to subscribe to fashion magazines, I am a person to whom appearance matters. I have internalized dubious external standards. This internal divide is a source of stress. Though I do not aspire to wearing batik muumuus, and am comfortable with my generic sporty style, I wish I just didn’t care! Circe, who is almost always nude, had more time available and became an accomplished sorceress. She may not, however, have risen to her iconic, mythological station had she not seduced Odysseus.
Of all organizations, the ultraconservative Whig-Cliosophic Society of Princeton University (don’t ask, Google, or go to the MUDD Archives for primary source material) recently featured a panel that debated “Are women limited in our society? Does Freud’s claim that “Anatomy is Destiny” hold any weight today?” What is your view?