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Topless pictures and the culture of shame

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I don’t know if you guys have been following the story of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, but for those who haven’t I will give a brief summary.

Just about a month ago, Amanda posted this video explaining in detail what happened to her. When she was twelve years old, Amanda exposed her breasts to a man she was chatting with online via webcam. A year later he (or another man, it is unclear) threatened to send a topless screenshot of her to everyone she knew if she didn’t put on a private show for him. She refused and he made good on his threat. He sent the topless picture of Amanda to her parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors. She was humiliated and depressed, began using drugs and alcohol, and attempted suicide several times. This past Wednesday, October 10th, she finally succeeded in taking her own life.

The reaction to Amanda’s death seems to be focused on two themes: 1. we should make sure children never use the internet unsupervised, and 2. we have to impress upon our kids the permanence of the internet and make sure our girls value their bodies enough to be more selective about displaying them.

I think they are missing the point.

The message to our girls shouldn’t be don’t flash your breasts on a web camera. The message should be that if we weren’t so ashamed of our bodies no one could use them against us.

A girl took her own life because someone distributed a picture of her breasts. Let’s be clear, this isn’t ultimately about bullying or self-esteem or internet supervision. This is about a culture of shame which objectifies and glorifies female nudity in art and film, but vilifies real life women for stepping outside of the stifling confines of acceptable femininity. We chastise women who show too much leg, too much cleavage, too much of their own bodies. We mock and pity women from orthodox religions who cover too much of their bodies for lack of modernity and sex appeal. Women are left with a narrow path of appropriate behavior, and potentially devastating consequences if we push those boundaries.

Of course there are lots of other good reasons to keep your kids away from unsupervised internet access, but in terms of protecting girls from this type of harassment, that won’t do it. Women of all ages and stages of life are susceptible to sexual bullying. Kate Middleton, Erin Andrews, Miley Cyrus, Serena Williams… from celebrities to high school girls, in this day and age there will always be an opportunity for someone to take or obtain a compromising photograph. Keeping your kids off the computer won’t stop someone from taking a picture of your daughter when she’s changing in a hotel room, sunbathing on the beach, getting out of a car, or climbing a flight of stairs.

It was so easy for this man — this predator — to manipulate Amanda Todd because all he had to do was threaten to expose her body to the public. We have become so distanced from our natural state that we are ashamed when reminded that we are all naked under our clothes. Do we want to live in this kind of puritanical society where exposing a woman’s body is so scandalous that it make her a social pariah? Just the idea of that makes me want to take my top off.
When do we grow up, America? When do we take back control of our bodies, reject the culture of shame, and stand up for our girls?

Jessica Alfreds is a Chef, Caterer, and Event Planner based in New York City. She is currently working on her first cookbook, teaching herself how to sew, and attempting to live a purposeful life. Jessica is a 3rd generation New Yorker and currently resides in the East Village. Visit

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