Bye, bye boobs -- After 45 years, Page 3 puts its shirt on

A tabloid quietly ends an era

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 20, 2015 3:28PM (EST)

      (Reuters/Toby Melville)
(Reuters/Toby Melville)

But… but… where will people go to look at photographs of naked breasts now? In a move that vaguely suggests the Murdoch empire may be taking one small move toward entering the 21st century, the British tabloid The Sun is reportedly dropping its famed topless Page 3 feature. The Times – which is under the same publisher – announced Tuesday that after 45 years, Friday's print edition was the last to feature a shirt-free Page 3 girl.

The Page 3 girl was one of Murdoch's first and most famed innovations, one that other papers both in England and around the world subsequently copied. For generations, the sight of a comely, unclad "glamour model" was an expected part of the British tabloid reading experience – and until 2003, that girl could be as young as 16. Back in the day, it was not uncommon to count down to a model's sixteenth birthday, a practice that seems infinitely creepy now.

But in recent years, the persistence of Page 3 has been a source of controversy and heated debate. In 2012, activist Lucy-Anne Holmes started a "No More Page 3" campaign under the motto "Boobs are not news," garnering thousands of signatures and support from several universities and social organizations. As the movement's manifesto aptly explained, "Every single weekday for the last 44 years in The Sun newspaper the largest female image has been of a young woman (usually of a very particular age, race, physicality) showing her breasts for men, sending out a powerful message that whatever else a woman achieves, her primary role is to serve men sexually. Pretty rubbish that really." And in a 2013 article for HuffPo, writer Lisa Clarke noted that The Sun stopped permitting comments on its online version of Page 3 – perhaps because of the hostile, demeaning remarks still very much in evidence on The Star's version.

The paper has been quietly phasing out the feature for a while now. The Irish edition stopped publishing semi nudes two years ago. Back in September, Rupert Murdoch publicly wrestled with his own feelings about the section, tweeting, "Brit feminists bang on forever about page 3. I bet never buy paper. I think old fashioned but readers seem to disagree," and added, "Page 3 again. Aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes? Your opinions please." As the BBC notes, Tuesday's announcement comes after the paper has already eliminated topless photos for its weekend editions, and sometimes during the week as well.

Yet the Page 3 girl is far from extinct. The Sun is still running topless photos on its Web page – an image from just Monday features thirteen topless young ladies together for the camera. The paper version, meanwhile, has retained the feature, albeit this time with the girls clad in lingerie and bikinis. The most prominent females in the paper: still sex objects. Yet a move toward covering up even a little has outraged plenty of people, including Guardian writer Simon Jenkins, who fretted Tuesday that the move smacks of "censorship" and said, "Sometimes we all have to take a deep breath and acknowledge that other people enjoy different things from us, and this may sometimes upset us." And former Page 3 girls themselves have spoken out this week against the tyranny of "comfy shoe-wearing, no bra-wearing, man-haters."

But this isn't about censorship or man hating or being uptight. It never has been. It's just that there's a place for everything, including nipples. It's about understanding that people who read newspapers – even tabloid newspapers – are not all heterosexual, predominantly white males. The idea that the world has to be a place that caters to their tastes, their desires, is pretty old-fashioned by now. And if you really want to see breasts, I promise you, that's the joy of living here in 2015, folks. There are plenty of other places to find them.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Body Wars Page 3 Rupert Murdoch The Sun