“Boobs on stuff” isn’t a new phenomenon. The little black and white line drawing of a pair of boobs has been a homeware and clothing trend for some time now – just ask any millennial woman who has shopped on the high street (or its online avatar) in the past four years or so. These wiggly lines, designed to be somehow representative of human breasts – and also, we’re lead to believe, feminism itself – are on everything from duvets to notepads.
Our aesthetic choices are shorthand for something – part of the reason why we make choices about the things we wear or put in our homes is because we want to signal something about ourselves to others. Boob motifs are no different, and lifestyle journalists have been considering what, exactly, they say for almost as long as they’ve been prevalent.
In 2019, Emma Specter wrote about “boob art” for Garage Magazine, noting that “in the post-pussy hat era [...] it's easy to see the appeal of festooning your home in art that sends a message about women's right to take up space in public life.” Indeed, as feminism – or at least a white, mainstream version of it – grew in the pop-cultural imagination throughout the 2010s, so too did the potential for self-branding, via the growth of social media, and the two collided. It started with the “Feminist” t-shirt; now we have tote bags with cute little nipples that could well have been drawn on MS Paint emblazoned across them.
Last year, Gina Tonic took the boob doodles argument further, by problematising these illustrations that she was seeing on t-shirts, ceramics, and everything in between, for Refinery29: “The line drawing of a sagging tit is an emblem of the caricature fat people have become for a feminism that wishes to seem intersectional without any actual action,” she wrote.
There are, then, a number of bones to pick with these simple black and white designs: they offer a false sense of activism-through-consuming for one, and they’re unrepresentative and overly simplistic, for another. And yet, they remain popular, with boob motifs on both clothes and homewares still selling widely, at UK high street retailers like Urban Outfitters, Monki, and more. But why is this? And is “boob art,” as Specter terms it, always necessarily reductive?
The retailers themselves seem like a good place to start. I contacted three brands to comment for this piece – Urban Outfitters, Flying Tiger, and Monki – and only Monki responded to my requests.
At the time of writing, on their website, Monki, which is a subsidiary of H&M, are retailing a boob t-shirt, boob socks, a boob tote bag, boob knickers, and boob playing cards. Most of these items are decorated with black line drawing doodles of boobs on white backgrounds.
I asked Hanna Lundgren, Monki’s Head of Brand and Marketing, what the boob doodle motif means to the brand. “Monki has a long track record of taking a stand for normalizing the womxn body with the hair, the curves, skin – and everything that comes with it,” she told me over email. “In a Monki world we aim to tell how things really are, with no retouching, honest bodies and real people. This also refers to boobs as they are sisters and not twins. All shapes and forms are perfect, just exactly the way they are.”
“Boobs and nipples in particular are often connected to sexuality and there’s a generation that doesn’t want to perceive it like that anymore,” Lundgren continued. “Because boobs are just boobs until someone decides to sexualize them. And that is what we want to support: taking a stand for the expression of freedom.”
Based on Lundgren’s claims, it seems that Monki wants to promote inclusivity and body neutrality among their customer base, and recognise these ideals as concerns for this base (though how well the boob doodle motif actually addresses these concerns is up for debate, as noted by Gina Tonic).
I was curious, however, about how effective consumer goods can actually be when it comes to genuinely promoting social progress – not just in Monki’s case, but regarding boob motifs in general, speaking as they do to mainstream feminist narratives both specific, like “Free the Nipple,” and more general. I enquired with the feminist academic and philosopher Amelia Horgan.
“In one way,” Horgan tells me, “the proliferation of line-drawn boobs is a welcome development: rather than adverts encouraging feelings of shame, they might encourage women and girls to feel more positively about themselves. But on another level, it shows that this consumer-driven body-positive empowerment is as much a branding strategy as it is the improvement of feeling toward one’s own body,” she explains. “They are encouraging you to feel better about yourself for the specific purpose of buying something, any other benefit is downstream of that. They promise fulfilment through buying endless stuff and conjoin liberation and consumerism, even if it’s consumerism with a ‘feminist’ face.”
All consumerist roads ultimately lead to the mass market, which is what we now see in the case of boob motifs, and their popularity among high street retailers. Many brands are now selling self-acceptance instead of the self-improvement of the 1990s and 2000s, in line with prevailing millennial and Gen Z ideals (if social media is to be believed). But when the boob motif’s message is supposedly one of empowerment, it’s important to consider the steps being taken to get that item into the hands of the consumer, and whether the people along the way are being empowered too, as Jane Macfarlane, Art Director at the creative agency The Digital Fairy, points out.
“The process of manufacturing and the context of purchase is super important here: from independent makers paid a fair wage and selling direct to customers to corporate production processes that outsource the labour to cheaper countries and have less ethical practices,” Macfarlane says. “Decontextualising design is a way of neutralising its message: I’d compare [mass-produced boob motif items] to the Dior ‘We should all be feminists’ t-shirt under Maria Grazia Chiuri which retailed for £580.”
In other words, there’s no point in big brands paying lip service to ostensibly feminist mores if they don’t practice what’s on the t-shirt. In this case, that would mean creating these boob doodle motif products which gesture towards a loose embrace of “women’s bodies” (even though many women don’t have breasts, and many people who are not women do), despite the fact that most garment workers – a group who are often paid insufficiently and frequently work in poor conditions – are also women.
For their part, Monki said: “Our suppliers must comply with our standards that their workers have good working conditions which include: fair living wages, a safe workplace, freedom of association to name a few. We create jobs for a number of people, especially women in developing countries and we work hard to make sure that the whole industry improves its standards.”
“We work closely together with local partners and governments to secure that our strategies are locally relevant – a gender strategy might look different in India from a strategy in Vietnam for example – and are long-lasting and evolving over time,” they concluded. Monki also directed me to a page on their website which discusses their links with the factories they use.
Be Monki’s aims as they may, it is certainly true that as things stand at large, “The garment industry operates under a veil of secrecy with an almost total lack of transparency enabling ongoing exploitation of workers,” as the advocacy campaign Labour Behind the Label states on its website. The group adds: “Systemic human rights abuses pervade the global garment industry, from poverty pay, long working hours and denial of trade union rights to significant risks to workers’ health and safety through unsafe buildings, heat, lack of ventilation, no access to clean drinking water and restricted access to the bathroom, and use of dangerous chemicals.”
With the UK importing $34.4 billion in clothing every year according to Fashion United, it seems obvious to say that somewhere along the line, mass produced boob motif items for sale in the UK will have been manufactured by woman workers whose labour is being exploited. As such, whatever feminist message someone wearing a doodle boob t-shirt from a high street store might have been trying to convey is necessarily undermined.
It would be easy to write boob art and motifs off as another high street hypocrisy (and a fairly unrepresentative one at that), but that would ignore the many independent makers who create items featuring or decorated with breasts. Emma Low, who creates and sells handmade ceramics under the moniker Pot Yer Tits Away Luv, is one of these independent makers. After starting her business as a self-described “side-hustle” in 2017, she gradually realised that demand was huge, and made making “tit pots” her full time job.
Low told me that she would see boob doodle motif items in the high street stores even back then. At the time, she thought, “Well it's not very representative of lots of different people." As a result, when she started her own brand, this was something she remembered. “That was always in the back of my mind and I always wanted to make sure that I was like being inclusive, or you know, offering a service that everyone could get involved in, regardless of who you are, and what you look like,” she explained.
A big part of Pot Yer Tits Away Luv is its commissioning service, where customers can send Low a photograph of their own breasts or chests, and she will create a pot version of the image. This approach is a far cry from the literally two dimensional, non-specific, one-size-fits all boob doodle that has given rise to so many critiques.
Low is clear that despite opportunities to mass produce, this is not a route she would go down, and instead is keen that some of her profits are fed back into the communities she cares about. “I do try really hard in terms of like, transparency,” she says. “If I make a specific pot that I think that really means something, if I can connect that to an organisation that I think would really benefit that £50 from, and I can afford to spend that £50, I will donate that money. Or I'll do giveaways to like, raise money or raise awareness for things. I think I could so easily just be like, ‘This is what I do. And you can pay me for it,’ and that's the end of the line, and people would still buy from you, but I personally wouldn't feel okay with that. I feel quite strongly about living in a fairer society.”
Low’s more individualised strategy is a good indicator of how an item can practice what it preaches in the current economy. The absence of the ability to do this is one of the main gripes with boob doodle motifs – on top of their co-option by a “body positivity” movement that now centres thin, white, able-bodied people, and the question of who a few lines on a t-shirt is even meant to represent. While Low is offering something different from the boob motif, her business is one of many examples of how independent makers are frequently offering a level of integrity – specifically where items that are supposedly political are concerned – that simply isn’t available on a larger scale, no matter what big brands say.
Ultimately, buying something usually isn’t an act of political solidarity – it’s just buying something (and I should be clear that it would also be remiss to say that it’s always unethical to shop on the high street; many people’s needs are only served by the high street). But if we do want to express our politics through the items we wear or display in our homes, thinking about where they come from is a useful thing to do, particularly as boob motifs don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon.