By Rob Boyte
Published: Nude & Natural 11.4 (1992)
Ask any American man over 40 where he got his first sneak peek at a photo of a woman's breast and
it's more likely to be National Geographic than Playboy magazine.
This has been an American institution for the past century, and has been acknowledged by the Geographic
itself in the Sep. 88 centennial issue:
"The portrayal of native women in their natural mode of dress
in the magazine became a hallmark - and a source of countless jokes. For generations
of impressionable youngsters, these pictures ...constituted their first exposure to non Western ways."
Since the first bare-breasted Zulu woman appeared in the Nov. 1896 issue, we can be sure there
were criticisms. But, since the early Geographic appears to have been predominantly
by and for white men with robust appetites for viewing the natural world, who would object?
As also mentioned in the centennial issue, "While it can hardly be denied that these pictures (of women in true native
dress) played a role in the dramatic growth of membership, Grosvenor (an early editor) regarded the decision to publish them
as a victory over prudery."
For that worthy effort of fighting prudery, the Geographic
should be commended, as well as for accurately showing naked natives the way they really were. It was probably a healthy and
enlightening experience for the 19th Century Victorian mind. Or the 20th Century for that matter.
So what if those naked dark bosoms just happened
to be on young women and were appealing to the clothes obsessed men of this culture?
But, with the vast changes in the world since the 1890s, there is a nagging suspicion that the
venerable National Geographic has not kept abreast of the current cultural changes. Looking at the list of present officers and trustees (1992), it's obvious that it
is predominantly male, and quite possibly those males are predominantly white. Could
the Geographic be ethnocentric or even sexist?
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with showing naked
female breasts. The widespread acceptance by all the natural cultures of uninhibited
exposure of this child feeding anatomy is exactly why the Geographic has always had a source to photograph. These innocent natives could never have conceived how much titillation would be stirred in the males of our supposed advanced culture by images of their body, which they took for granted.
A question to put to the white men who run the Geographic is why they don't dare to show the
white breasts of equally unselfconscious Europeans and North Americans. There
were times in the last 100 years when it was quite common to see such mothers nursing their children as naturally as any African
or South American native.
In more recent years, in addition to naked female breasts, there have been unretouched photos in
the Geographic of full-frontal nude males as well - again, either African or South American natives.
There are ample nude white people in Europe and North America
these days to warrant a reportable cultural phenomenon, and yet the Geographic persists in not showing their nudity as openly
as with the dark-skinned people.
As in the Aug. 90 issue reporting on Camp Koversada in Yugoslavia, it is significant enough to
report that this is "one of the largest naturist resorts in the world..." That
"facilities for nude campers or hotel guests dot the entire Adriatic coast, (and) elsewhere, even traditional beaches can
be topless." Despite this emphasis on the prevalence of a nude culture of white
people, the accompanying photograph shows the nude people from behind, in what has become the typical handling of nudity or
topfree women by the press. This same ploy was again used in the April 92 photograph
of nudes on Vancouver's Wreck Beach.
And, in May 89 there was a beautiful picture of a nudist family
in the Baltic Sea, but it was carefully posed so the woman's breasts did not show and the man's crotch was darkened.
When this inconsistency was pointed out by myself to National Geographic magazine, Senior Assistant
Editor W. Allan Royce replied that "since a majority of our readers are from
western cultures, articles ... provide an understanding of other societies not often seen to a larger audience." Wouldn't that apply to the unique social infrastructure found in some traditional nudist colonies, and
not seen by many outsiders? It's at least as interesting as the Amish in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps being defensive, he inaccurately says that "in all cases, people are always photographed
in their natural settings, providing honesty and credibility to the respective photo essays."
No sir! The
question still begs unanswered. Why is it permissible to show the penis and scrotum
of an African Surma (Feb 91) or a Brazilian Urueu-Wau Wau (Dec 88), but not a Yugoslav naturist in his natural setting? Why are photos of breasts on Nuba (Feb 5l, Nov 66), Zulu (Aug 53), Dyak (May 56),
Masai (Feb 65), Yap Island (May 67, Oct 86), Turkana (Feb 69), Adama Islands (Jul 75), New Guinea (Aug 82), Woodabe (Oct 83),
Ndebele (Feb 69), and Surma (Feb 9l) women shown, yet not one white Canadian can be found to face the camera at Wreck Beach? Why are the breasts shown of Josephine Baker (Jul 89), a black native of East St.
Louis, but the breasts of white native women of Miami Beach not shown?
unanswered question implies but one conclusion: that the National Geographic has in fact a Eurocentric bias (racist) in portraying
nudity. To put it in the vernacular understood by the board and trustees, isn't
it time to show that white men have balls?
Rob Boyte with mock-up
of Natural Geographic Magazine
at desk where this article was
written January 1991