New York Times readers woke up Wednesday morning to find a front-page photo of a woman with one of her nipples partially exposed. Thus began America’s latest controversy on whether a woman’s breast should be shown in the media.
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The photo, which accompanied a story on the high prevalence of breast cancer in Israel, was taken by veteran Israeli photographer Rina Castelnuovo. It showed a woman with a Star of David tattoo near her left shoulder and scars from a breast operation. The top of the nipple was exposed.
The story discusses mutations in genes that greatly increase Ashkenazi women’s risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It also discusses early testing with the option of preemptive mastectomies. Although Israeli women have one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the world, the percentage of carriers who get preventive mastectomies is one of the lowest, 4 percent.
For many readers, the cover photo was the story. One of the first to weigh in was The Blaze, a magazine owned by Glenn Beck. “Did The New York Times go too far in its front page photo of a woman’s breast?” it asked.
Slate blasted The Times’ “strip tease shot.” “It’s not just the nipple that sexualizes this picture. It’s the lighting and the tank top and the pose, which is reminiscent of a strip tease shot,” the online magazine wrote.
Slate said it was hard to believe that the inclusion of the nipple was “not inentional” – as Castelnuovo insists – “with the tank top positioned just-so, and clearly masthead editors at the Times were very intentional in choosing to run it.
“It’s absolutely maddening the way that people focus on the loss of breasts, instead of the loss of health and life, as the main problem with breast cancer," Slate said. "The sexualization of discourse around breast cancer strongly implies that the main reason to keep women alive is as life support for their delicious breasts.”
Some Times readers sent comments to the editor. While many were angry with the photo's sexual aspects, others objected to the tattoo.
“This photograph, featuring a tattoo of a Star of David on the left breast of an unidentified woman who found a lump on her breast, echoes the branding of Jewish persons and others in Nazi death camps,” wrote Jeanine Parisier Plottel, professor emeritus at the City University of New York.
“While a young woman born a half a century after the atrocities in question may not be aware of the suggested implications, The New York Times should, and should refrain from highlighting such a photograph.”
The Times published an op-ed explaining its decision. “It’s directly on point to the story,” wrote Michele McNally, assistant managing editor for photography. “It conveys a lot of information. It brings the reality to light. It’s also very beautiful – the lighting, the composition, the tone.”
Many readers complained that the woman’s face was not shown. McNally agreed that it would be better if the woman were not anonymous, but the paper respected her wishes.
Castelnuovo told New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer that she hadn’t set out to be provocative.
“It was an unplanned moment. I was taking the young woman’s portrait and we were chatting about her cancer and the scars,” she told the magazine in an email. She noted that the breasts of Ugandan women had been visible in photos in the paper’s series on breast cancer.
This isn’t the first time a photo of a partially nude woman raised a furor in the United States. In May 2012, Time Magazine showed a nursing mother on its cover.
In a New York Times op-ed a year later, Angelina Jolie explained her decision to undergo a preemptive double mastectomy after learning she was a carrier of a gene linked to breast cancer.
Following her op-ed, the debate focused on whether Jolie would lose her status as a sex icon, not on the medical issues.