We set off a bit of controversy with our November 27 cover, a collage that included a woman's bare breasts. Some readers called or wrote to complain. Some newsstands refused to distribute that issue of our newspaper. And here at City,we had a rousing staff debate about the cover.
One reader called the cover "bawdy," but the collage was not designed to be titillating. For all of our 31 years, we have been a champion of women's rights and have written frequently about such issues as women's equality and the media's exploitation of women.
Our cover story was about breasts and feminine identity. In it, women discussed the impact breasts have on their lives, from childhood on, and, as writer Jennifer Loviglio put it, "how they feel about their breasts as time passes and their bodies change."
The teasing of boys during adolescence, the pressure to have a perfect figure, the emotions associated with breastfeeding, the horror of breast cancer: The lives of girls and women are uniquely and profoundly tied to their breasts.
And however often we say that women's bodies ought not to be exploited, however strongly we insist that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful (not to mention good for the baby), much of the public considers breasts to be anything but "normal." And so I was not surprised at the reaction to our cover.
Our editorial staff, however, felt that the artwork for Loviglio's story was both appropriate and necessary. There could be only one reason that we wouldn't run a picture of bare breasts with an article on that subject: that we didn't want to offend anyone. And we do not believe that breasts are offensive.
We do know that this is a sensitive topic. Our culture drums it into us that breasts are primarily sex objects. Proper girls and women cover themselves in public.
We also understand that we publish this newspaper in a conservative county in a conservative region of the state. Our November 27 cover would raise fewer eyebrows in San Francisco.
There is, though, a certain amount of hypocrisy here. Some of the Wegmans stores refused to carry that issue of City. The same week, however, you could buy a variety of sexually suggestive material at Wegmans: Testosterone magazine, for instance, showing a woman from the back and below, legs spread, buttocks mostly bare. Complete Woman, whose coverpromoted an article titled "XXX-rated Guide to his Body." A birthday card showing a man in a bikini and the cover greeting: "It's gonna be long and it's gonna be hard." And our staff's favorite, Interview magazine, with a blatantly sexily posed Brittany Murphy astride a rocking horse.
Readers offended by our cover, suggested cover artist Christian Schimke, "should drag their kids around Wegmans blindfolded and should not let them watch TV."
Still, there are the questions: Why do so many people consider breasts embarrassing or offensive? What does it say about us when publishing a picture of bare breasts sends shock waves through some parts of the community? How does the public's negative perception of breasts affect women and young girls?
(What, I wonder, would the reaction would have been had our cover illustration shown a woman breastfeeding her baby? Would a grocery store, a cafe, or a YMCA branch have refused to carry the newspaper? Would decision-makers at those places have wrestled with the decision? If some patrons complained, would those establishments have yanked the issue?)
Some readers were upset by the design of the collage: "Is that the way you view women, as grotesque?"
Editorial assistant Rachel Chaffee, one of the younger women on our staff, gives this response: "The cover image is one that is both grotesque and beautiful in its form. It is the way in which body parts are combined that speaks to Jennifer's article; the image challenges the viewer to determine the way in which they objectify women's bodies in their own minds as well as their own issues of insecurity and self-esteem."
"The collage," says Chaffee, "constructs a woman who is fascinatingly fierce and beautiful because she is not flawless."
Loviglio's article and the public reaction, says Chaffee, underscores the need to "examine the reasons why people are uncomfortable, so much so that they cannot even allow themselves to read the story." And, she adds: "It is this type of 'uncomfortable' art that opens the doors to dialogue."
The approach to Loviglio's story, our editors agree, is challenging. Challenging the public is one of our roles. And while we did not set out deliberately to upset readers, we don't think we can bow to public prejudices in order to keep from offending people.
We do welcome --- and respect --- your comments. (Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester 14607. Please indicate whether we have your permission to publish your letter, and include your name and address.)