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Dark Shadows 

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“It’s been a hard week for all of us,” Justin Timberlake admitted upon accepting his Grammy Award Sunday night. Yes, Justin, it has. In those seven days between the Super Bowl and the Grammys, we all suffered — some over the moral decay of American culture, some in solidarity with poor exposed Janet, still others over the terrible hypocrisy of the U.S. viewing audience. I, however, had a more mundane concern. I’d planned to go to the Grammys in a pale yellow, and not entirely opaque, dress. In the right light, anyone who bothered to look would notice that I, unlike Barbie, have nipples.

It didn’t seem like such a big deal the week before, when I picked up the dress from Iris Parker’s little store on Las Palmas — I routinely spot the brown shadows of women’s breasts through their white T-shirts and lacy blouses. But after Janet was booted off the Grammys for her crime, everything changed: It was as though the agreed-upon standards of women’s fashion were suddenly rewritten, as if somebody declared stiletto sandals indecent, or banned that shred of thong that regularly peeks out of women’s low-rise jeans. After three decades of numbing ourselves to nudity, we became sensitive again to the power of breasts.

“You can tack in a piece of muslin,” Iris advised me. “Or take it to this tailor,” she said, handing me a card. “James will fix it.” I told myself I didn’t have time; I’d just keep a shawl around my shoulders if I wandered under bright lights. The truth is, I loved the dress exactly the way it was. In fact, now that it had become dangerous, I liked it even more.

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In 1830, Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People, featuring that iconic heroine of the Revolution, Marianne, trampling barefoot over the dying aristocracy with a flag hoisted high and her right breast fully exposed. Another wardrobe malfunction, no doubt — Marianne’s right sleeve had fallen from her shoulder in the course of fighting injustice. But her bareness has a bigger meaning, too. Marianne in Delacroix’s day was a symbol of freedom and fairness, a woman warrior on the democratic front. Back then, women carried on their chests nothing less than mighty mounds of power.

Tits have since come to mean anything but. They have been trivialized and fetishized. We name bars after them and paste tassels on them. High fashion obliterates them; low fashion presents them as artificially inflated cartoons. After three inuring decades of “Top-free” clubs and Internet porn, we take breasts for granted. Or we associate them with disease: In England, Delacroix’s Liberty was appropriated to advertise a breast cancer medication.

I like to think Janet has given the breast back its magic, which is why, just a week after her stunt, there were so few provocative views to be had among the women in the Grammy audience or its stars. In the Staples Center seats, women huddled in their flimsy wraps; on stage, Sarah Jessica Parker minced out in a green frock that rose to her crotch but obscured her collarbones and Missy Elliot dared to sport worn-out jeans. But only Christina Aguilera challenged the new moral fashion standard. “Ooh,” she said, tugging at the gaping edges of the nipple-skimming gown, “I don’t want to pull a Janet Jackson!” She elicited ominous groans and nervous titters, but no laughs. The woman behind me, who had kept up a rowdy narrative most of the evening, inhaled sharply, covered her mouth and fell silent. Several people around me shook their heads.

The less puritanical among us shake our heads for other reasons — we wonder why, four days after, a glimpse of a hood-ornamented nipple warrants in-depth coverage in every section of the Los Angeles Times; why the FCC will spend tax dollars investigating so-called “indecency” and not the free-speech-chilling effects of media consolidation; why it was Janet’s breast, and not general depravity, that persuaded parents in Laguna Beach that MTV should no longer infiltrate their high schools. Rarely does it occur to any of us that this outrage might be a healthy reaction to the systematic depreciation of an enchanting aesthetic feature peculiar to human females. In 2003, we wouldn’t have cared about Aguilera pushing the edge of decent exposure, because we’d forgotten that edge was there. And I wouldn’t have thought twice about my sheer yellow dress.

No one noted my audacity, of course — even at the party at the Millennium Biltmore the throngs were so preoccupied with free fresh sushi and margaritas dribbling down ice chutes that you could get more attention by cutting in line than you could running through the room naked. But I secretly enjoyed my subversion all the same: Shock is still possible. The bar of titillation has been lowered; a see-through blouse is alluring again. Boobs are back.

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