When artist and textile designer Cassie McGettigan was living in a commune in Bolinas–a coastal town and counterculture beacon about 20 miles north of San Francisco–nudity was welcome and an everyday norm. She decided to commemorate the breasts she saw by creating simple line paintings. Over time she had enough paintings to create a fabric pattern composed of dozens of boobs, each as unique as a fingerprint. There are big ones and small ones, perky pairs and sets that are a bit more down to earth. Some are an ode to asymmetry, and others have nipples that stare straight into your soul.
“The print doesn’t just celebrate one shape or size, they are all charming and unique,” says Holly Samuelsen, co-owner of Gravel & Gold, a San Francisco boutique, which sells products emblazoned with the pattern. “People are often inspired to hunt for theirs among the rest.”
In 2011, Gravel & Gold released its first product with the print: a simple T-shirt. In the years since, the print has appeared on everything from pillowcases to reusable shopping bags and shower curtains. “There hasn’t really ever been a Boobs product dud,” Samuelsen says.
Gravel & Gold’s products are just a few examples of a recent wave of breast-themed design that’s less about frat-house humor and more about empowering women through clever, witty objects that celebrate women’s bodies for what they are naturally–not as idealized images to be consumed by the male gaze. And they couldn’t have come at a better time. The Trump presidency has threatened women’s rights, reproductive freedom, and sexuality with aggression that hasn’t been seen in decades. Americans are more politically divided than ever before, and these designs have become visible symbols of a progressive movement: our boobs, ourselves.
Boobs have been depicted in product design before, but in the past you’d see them as gag Spencers gifts or bachelor party paraphernalia. Now, they’ve taken a tasteful turn, appearing on flower pots, wall hooks, abstract prints, carpets, pool floaties, and more.
Some of the products in this realm depict boobs in a literal sense, like McGettigan’s print and the Tan Lines pot from the Brooklyn-based design studio Group Partner. They’ve become a feminist symbol thanks in part to their more naturalistic look. “At first, I was really nervous they’d be taken the wrong way,” designer Isaac Nichols told the online design magazine Sight Unseen. “But the fact that they’ve been embraced to the extent that they have is really awesome. I’m definitely a feminist, so it’s cool to be a part of that conversation.”
Other designers have adopted a more abstract approach to rendering boobs. Thing Industries, Bridie Picot’s New York–based product company, sells blankets, storage, housewares, and accessories, but its bestseller is the Boob hook–essentially two circles of blush-pink, powder-coated aluminum. Picot launched them last year and has already had to place three reorders from her supplier since they’re so popular. Most of her customers are in the United States, but she also has shipped the product as far as Australia. She’s currently working on new colors for the product.
Some designers have gone even more abstract. Wary Meyers, a soap- and candle-making company based in Cumberland, Maine, sells a boob print with an abstraction was inspired by the hard-edge paintings of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly and the color studies of Josef Albers. It takes a few seconds to see that the concentric circles are actually a boob. John Meyers, who runs the company with his wife, Linda, says they initially made the print for themselves, but then decided to put it up on their site. “We just had this love of graphic design and minimalist paintings . . . It’s fun and graphic,” he says. “If we had put any kind of shading in the boob, it would be offensive or too much.”
While the designs are visually distinct, many of them speak the same symbolic language, and their rise in popularity can be seen as a rebuke to a political climate that’s abysmal for women. We have a “pussy-grabbing” president, a vehemently pro-life vice president, and a GOP-led Congress that openly despises Planned Parenthood. Women who breastfeed in public are routinely harassed and considered obscene. The gender pay gap, while narrowing slightly last year, still persists.
Meanwhile, campaigns like Free the Nipple have brought more visibility to the fight for gender equality, and demonstrations like the Women’s March have awakened activists. The political context is fueling an interest in products that communicate a progressive mind-set. Sales of Gravel & Gold’s Boob products have been consistently healthy, and the store has sold out of merchandise every holiday season, but the store noticed some recent spikes around the election and in advance of the Women’s March in January–moments in our recent history that are emblematic of the challenges women face today.
Women have made progress, too, and designers also see this design trend as a reflection of the body positive movement. Nobel Truong, a designer based in Los Angeles, created her boob sculptures specifically as a symbol for “women’s rights and an ode to female empowerment,” she says. “My collection features different boob sculptures as a way of embracing different body types and the thought that there is no perfect or ideal body shape.”
While she originally made them for a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, she has sold them wholesale to buyers in Italy, France, and South Korea. “Beyond its provocative nature, I think the spotlight boobs have taken in design speaks to an appeal to more open and liberal view of the human body,” she says. “Bringing boobs and even penises to the forefront of conversation helps encourage discussion and celebration of the body rather than dismissing such things as taboo.”
Not that the designers take themselves too seriously. On her website, McGettigan lists a quote from the writer and activist bell hooks saying: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor.”
And wearing a boob shirt over your boobs is nothing if not funny. “Many political statements and movements fail when they are militant and joyless,” Samuelsen says. “Politics and opinions are so divisive today, so as soon as you bring in humor, you are communicating: ‘What I’m saying is powerful, but I am not threatening you.'” The popular pussy hat can been seen in the same light–cheekily reappropriating an object of the male gaze to help rally a social movement.
Of course some people express unease about commodifying political expression. Others argue that anatomical symbols can exclude people from the movement and mission.
Samuelsen points out the risks of associating consumer products with social movements. “This kind of feminist-product proliferation runs the risk of being reduced to a slogan or single image and becoming so ubiquitous it doesn’t prompt critical thought,” she says. However, she thinks they’re helping to spread the message far and wide and are useful considering the way many of us communicate. Plus, most of the products are by independent designers and small, women-owned companies that care more about delivering a message than making a buck. “Since we live in such an image-driven culture, with Instagram and clickbait, people gravitate toward things that look good, and communicate quickly,” Samuelsen says. “We are aware that post-Trump’s election, and post-Women’s March, slogans are useful and eye-catching, but that real action is required to create change and prevent backsliding into a repressive patriarchy. But true feminism is far from reaching mainstream American and global culture, so bring on the Boobs prints and pussy hats!”
Another criticism is perhaps more existential: Some believe the emphasis on body parts excludes certain groups. The Women’s March pussy hats, for example, were perceived to be emblematic of transmisogyny and their pink hue exclusionary of women of color.
Kaye Blegvad, a jewelry designer who launched her brass Female Support System hooks last November, thinks that while boob designs can come off as cute and funny, they are not always interpreted with so much levity. “I do think the trend is something that requires a little more discussion and isn’t necessarily as benign as it is sometimes presented,” she says. “There’s definitely an element of people using the motif just in a lazy way, to seem edgier or sexier, and the trend is also at times trans-exclusionary. It’s fine to celebrate and enjoy boobs, but it’s important to be aware that not all women have them, and to not make work that implies that boobs are a requirement of being female.”
That said, I’m stoked to see so many products that celebrate womanhood in any capacity–and I’m very happy with the Gravel & Gold Boob print I bought a couple years ago. I just keep in mind that it’s not anatomy that makes someone a woman, feminism isn’t a women-only fight, and it takes more than a buying a product to protest.