The UK’s topless “page three girls” may be history—and it couldn’t come soon enough

Sock it to ’em.
Sock it to ’em.
Image: Reuters/Zohra Bensemra
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Over the last 44 years the Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, has been giving its readers what it said they wanted: a full-frontal photograph of a topless woman on page three, which faces the reader as soon as he or she opens the front cover. The Sun—and, since the practice began in 1970, some other papers—has published such a shot most weekdays and sometimes on weekends. That’s nearly 23,000 breasts (11,500 pairs), over the years. The Sun, the British flagship property of Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, has a readership of 2.2 million, the largest in the UK.

Now, the British media is reporting that the Sun’s printed page three, with its chirpy-looking young women wearing nothing more than panties and passive smiles, has been “quietly shelved.” The decision follows Murdoch’s Twitter comment last year, that the feature might be “old-fashioned,” and a campaign launched in 2012 that has gained high-profile support. The Sun’s “page three girls” will still be available online behind its paywall; though Page 360, a gimmick that allowed readers to flip the model around at will, also died a quiet death not long after it was launched.

In an arguably post-feminist era, so many battles have been won that a daily tabloid publishing a picture of women’s breasts may have seemed insignificant, unworthy of society’s outrage. In a recent group discussion about feminism that I attended in London, this was one of the main take-aways: Many women feel that active feminism is a thing of the past because, fundamentally, we’re all feminists now.

But the No More Page Three campaigners have argued persuasively that page three was more than “an innocuous British institution.” They cut out all the pictures of both men and women from The Sun for six months and pasted them to a wall, proving that the men were portrayed as active and various, while women were shown as simpering and, usually, scantily clad.

There are UK newspapers still publishing pictures of topless women, which will now likely become the focus of campaigners. There are also—and should be—places where adults can look at much more graphic images if they want to.

As a Londoner myself, I don’t buy The Sun. My friends don’t buy it. My father doesn’t read it, and so I never have to sit beside him at the breakfast table, toes curled with embarrassment, as he thumbs over the naked body of a woman much younger than me. My brothers don’t read the Sun, cut out pictures from it, and tape them to the walls of their workplaces. My partner doesn’t read it, and leave it lying around for friends’ children to find. These things have happened to other people, though, for the past 44 years. And it’s a great thing to know that is beginning to end.

This isn’t about ridding society of sexual imagery, but of seeing an “institution” for what it was: institutionally sexist. Some might mourn its passing. And the next generation will be incredulous that it ever existed.