Thelephobia & the problem of the nipple

Female cadaver, NCIS S2E4
Cadaver (Mariela Santos), NCIS S2E4

While watching old episodes of NCIS recently, I was surprised by how fake one of the cadavers appeared. Usually, props and makeup on the show look pretty realistic considering it’s an older program. Then I realized what made this body look so artificial: The woman had no nipples. That’s right: no nipples, no areolae–just pale, bulbous blobs protruding from a patulous thorax.

Timberlake exposes his girlfriend’s nipple on live television
Singer Janet Jackson performs with singer Justin Timberlake during the halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII in this February 1, 2004 file photo.

This is hardly the first time I’ve noticed a conspicuous absence (or fear) of nipples. Remember “nipplegate”—when people (and the FCC) were freaking out about Justin Timberlake exposing then-girlfriend Janet Jackson’s nipple on live television?

Need another illustration? Take the evolution of the Starbucks Siren as an example. First the vulva and belly disappear, then the nipples and navel, and finally the breasts.

Starbucks SirenFeminists have complained for years about the sexualization of the female breast. It is pretty ridiculous. When I was younger, a friend of mine worked at Wal-Mart. Even though it was against corporate policy, the only place the store manager would allow her to breast feed her baby was in a bathroom stall. Maybe he was into lacto/milking porn. Maybe he thought her male coworkers  would leap onto the break room tables and start spontaneously masturbating.

Anyway, back to NCIS: Why did the network think it was okay to show parts of the breast but not all of it? Here’s a picture of the female breast I got off Wikipedia. The network didn’t mind showing the majority of the structure (They also did’t mind showing a woman’s chest cracked open and her exposed insides.), but the areola and nipple are apparently special. What makes this part of the breast so special, so obscene? Anyone?female breast

Here’s my hypothesis. I call it the problem of the nipple. The nipple is functional. Sure, there are other functional parts of the breast as well, but they’re all tucked neatly away inside the body. The majority of the breast is just fat and connective tissue. Men don’t feel bad about sexualizing something that serves little other purpose. The problem of the nipple is, when in use, it reminds men that the body they’re admiring belongs to a human being, and the breast they’re staring at has a purpose more important than satisfying their fantasies.

I think that’s what made the Wal-Mart manager so uncomfortable. I think that’s what made CBS producers queasy. It’s not the inherently sexual nature of the breast that offends. It’s the breast’s actual function that disturbs by reminding people it belongs to a human being.

Trivia time!

I’m adding this postscript for fans of NCIS. There is exactly one episode of the series where a woman’s nipples made it on screen. I’ll give you a few seconds to guess the episode…. Okay. Time’s up. It’s season 2, episode 13. You can just barely make them out, which is presumably how they got by the thelephobic censors. See if you can make out the barely discernible nipples below (and, guys, try to contain your primeval compulsion to spontaneously masturbate).

image of woman's breasts
Cadaver (I would put the actress’s name here, but, since she was literally a prop, her performance went uncredited) NCIS S2E13


I’m adding this second postscript because: the irony, the irony. See below.

screen shot of email from Ad-Sense telling me ads can't run on this page because of '"sexual" content
Thank you for illustrating
my point, Google.