Warning: NSFW. Bare breasts ahead!
National Geographic nudity (1896- ), also known as tribal nudity, is where National Geographic shows the bare breasts and penises of brown-skinned people but not those of whites. It has been well-known for this since the 1960s, though the practice goes back to 1896.
Apart from pornography, it is rare for a mass-market American magazine to show the bare breasts or penis of anyone of any race. National Geographic is the main exception. It gets away with it in the name of science, of showing Americans the world as it truly is.
But this love of truth only extends to black and brown people, particularly the “tribal” people of Africa, Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Amazonia. In the early 1900s Latina and Arab women also appeared bare-breasted – erotically so. All in all, pretty much the same sort of people who appeared in human zoos in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
This love of truth does not extend to white people. While it does show naked white people, like in Canada, Yugoslavia and the Baltic, it always manages to show them from behind or in Convenient, Unerotic Poses where you see neither breast nor penis (except on small children).
Spot the difference:
Here is a picture of naked white people from their May 1989 article on the Baltic:
Compare that to this picture from their October 1986 article on Yap Island in Micronesia:
Penises: They were careful to avoid showing penises of black men up until at least 1986. That is no longer true.
Bare breasts: Before 1970 these were mostly “accidental”, just showing life like it is. That seems to be true in the 2010s as well, as far as I can tell. But in the 1970s and the 1980s the pictures became more frequent, more artistic and they increasingly used teenaged girls. That Yap Islander girl in the grass skirt above is a good example. She is posing. She is not just going about her business.
So is the Gordon Gahan photograph of the Tahitian woman (September 1971, pictured at top). It looks like something straight out of Gauguin. Yet when Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in the 1890s, he got there long after the Christian missionaries: the women were already covered up. But he painted them topless anyway. Likewise Gahan 80 years later – though apparently Tahitian women are high enough on the National Geographic Scale of Human Worth and Dignity to rate Partially Strategic Hair.
The pictures of bare-breasted black and brown women – Josephine Baker among them (July 1989) – send a double message:
- On the one hand they say that these women lack modesty, that they are closer to animals, that they are loose and want it. They strengthen the Jezebel and Pure White Woman stereotypes that grew out of American slavery.
- On the other hand, they say that black and brown women are so undesirable that naked pictures of them count not as pornography but science, like they are not fully human, like they are not worthy of the dignity accorded to white women.