Sunday, April 27, 2008


No matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin.

Pope Pius XII, 1957

It looks as though the City of Copenhagen will adopt a new policy for public swimming pools of allowing women to swim bare-breasted, just like the men. Women have been allowed to go topless on public beaches and in public parks for as long as I can remember. Nudity on television and in newspapers is common. This includes full frontal nudity and, yes, penises.

The Danish People's Party, while steadfast in its opposition to hijab (Muslim headscarves in particular), is nonetheless concerned about the new pool rules. What about the children, they ask? They have, of course, chosen to ignore the basic argument for the new policy, namely, that seeing a naked breast does not harm anyone, not even very young children. The activists who demanded the new freedom (they demonstrated in the obvious way) were objecting to the sexualization of the breast. They simply did not see it as "adult content".

I recently read Philip Roth's The Breast, the first and best of the David Kepesh novels. Roth, I think, is absolutely adamant about the sexuality of the female breast. But his sexual fantasies are not wholly convincing. (The character of David Kepesh will have to be dealt with in another post.)

I think this sort of issue is very much a part of the grammar of kulchur. At the extreme ends (public copulation and the burka) it seems pretty clear that there have to be limits, both to individual freedom and collective morality. But what about a moderate bikini and hijab? It seems to me to be an interesting discussion that is too often allowed to bog down in one or another perceived "fundamentalism". There are arguments for "modesty in dress". There are hairstyles that are so absolutely "fetching" that they undermine civil discourse. There must be limits. Etc.

I don't claim to know where all the lines should be drawn. But drawing them is worth taking seriously. I think hijab is perfectly good suggestion, worth considering in its details and comparing, point by point, with a tight pair of faded bluejeans. The blanket refusal to talk about modesty on the grounds that modesty oppresses is, to my mind, not constructive.

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