Bruni, Breasts and Burkas

Two alarming items in the news recently made me ask myself whether society’s perceptions of women are becoming increasingly philistine and prejudiced.

The first was the farcical uproar caused by Carla Bruni hosting a state dinner without wearing a bra. France’s First Lady, alongside her husband Nicolas Sarkozy, welcomed the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, wearing a floor-length Roland Mouret gown so tight that it exposed her lack of underwear. Bruni, whether intentionally or not, has divided opinion over whether her choice of attire was appropriate for the occasion. For many people the whole story, which has run in several major publications in both this country and France, is a bit of a non-issue. Who cares what she wears? And if anything, should she not be applauded for choosing to express her femininity and her right to wear whatever she chooses? Unfortunately, it would seem that we do not live in such liberal times as we would like to believe. Bruni’s fashion foes have criticised her for being ‘immodest’, in ‘bad taste’ and claiming that it is not only her ‘responsibility’ but her ‘duty’ to wear a bra. Yet what strikes me as being more revealing than Bruni’s dress, is how revealing society’s views towards women are. Women are continually and persistently being subjected to attacks and criticism over their freedom of expression through what they wear or how they behave. In this case, the media has turned the female form into something smutty and hyper-sexualised, which seems both unfair and unfounded.

The second story was of the young mother, Amy Wootten, who was forced off a bus for breastfeeding her child in public. A passenger complained and the driver stopped the bus, accusing Miss Wootten of ‘indecent exposure’. In the same way that Bruni’s dress has led to accusations of appearing indecent, Wootten’s behaviour has also led to her being discriminated against for apparently acting indecently.

In both cases, what the issue boils down to is the exposure of the breast. As Wootten herself commented, “I was showing a tiny bit of breast, but is it any different to showing your arm or your foot?” In this way, a woman’s inherent femininity, and in the latter case, the performing of a maternal duty, is in grave danger of being transformed into something filthy and indecent and something for which it is socially acceptable to cast judgement against a woman’s character or identity.

I couldn’t help but compare both these stories to the ongoing debate in France over whether the full-length burka should be banned. In June of last year, Sarkozy had this to say about the burka: “We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. That is not the French republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

It strikes me that a sort of bizarre spectrum has been created. At one end we have women dressed in burkas, and at the other, we have women wearing revealing or more exposed clothes. It would appear that neither of these two ‘extremes’ are acceptable clothing options by society’s sanctimonious standards, which would ideally like to cattle-herd all women into the middle of the spectrum. Yet surely, the ‘women’s dignity’ that Sarkozy vaguely talks about, should be founded on a woman’s individual choice to wear what she wishes and not by what Sarkozy in particular and society in general deems appropriate for her. Women do not, and indeed should not, fit into this middle-ground of perceived acceptability anyway, because this is precisely what is chipping away at their individuality. We would no sooner see Carla Bruni in a burka than we would see previously burka-clad Muslim women wearing skin-tight designer dresses. For many women, (in the cases where wearing the burka is a matter of personal choice and not something forced upon them) what they wear and how they choose to present themselves is part of their personal identity, and both choices of clothing should be proudly defended by the women wearing them.

Why must women, all women, including First Ladies, Muslim women, and women who choose to breastfeed in public, be submitted to this constant barrage of criticism over how they choose to present themselves? Why don’t men ever get judged for how they present themselves? I would go so far as to say that even in cases where women are explicitly using their bodies to be provocative and sexy, (bearing in mind Bruni’s history of posing as a topless model) this is still their prerogative and fundamental right to wear whatever they want without being discriminated against. If I make the decision to wear a tight fitting top, or god forbid, leave my house sans brassiere for whatever reason (including, incidentally, reasons of comfort and practicality) I reserve the right not to have judgement passed upon my character or my identity.