USC's Topless Professor

photo: Courtesy of Diana Blaine

Like countless women with digital cameras and a bit of moxie, Dr. Diana York Blaine has three topless photos of herself on photo site Flickr, along with 147 other, more pedestrian, shots. The first, taken at Burning Man, shows the 44-year-old jumping in the air topless, part of a journey she undertook specifically to prove to herself she could appear naked in public. The others were taken by her husband in homage to similar works by 19th-century artist Ingres. Why is this news? Because self-proclaimed "buttkicker" Blaine is a senior lecturer in the writing program at the University of Southern California and has found herself embroiled in controversy over her right to bare boobs.

Blaine's Flickr account ( predates her website, which she started to have a wider forum for her teachings on feminist theory and to brand herself as a public intellectual. Originally posted late last year, the photos received minimal attention until Blaine was targeted by anonymous blogger, Cardinal Martini (, who was angered by an editorial Blaine wrote in the Daily Trojan proclaiming that "every single male on this campus has the responsibility for stopping rape," in response to a rape charge brought against a USC football player. On May 8, Blaine's local NBC affiliate ran a story on her photos, which they'd learned of through Martini's blog.

What's striking about the comments left on Flickr and her personal site is how many instantly leap to highly subjective discussions of her breasts—their flaws and their fuckworthiness. One would-be suitor left an e-mail address, telling her, "I wish my wife's body looked as hot as yours does" and saying he'd like to see Blaine's breasts "up close and personal." Another stated, "I like your spirit but you've got too much junk in the trunk and your tits are saggy." Strangers are totally willing to judge Blaine's body, as well as her age, sexuality, and teaching status.

Blaine had no intention of showing her tits to the over 100,000 people who've viewed them, but now that they're public, she's keeping the photos up to make a statement. "The fact that I can embrace my unmutilated breasts, and eroticize and enjoy them, is an act of resistance against patriarchy. That's something I've achieved; it wasn't handed to me and has taken a lot of work," she says. Fittingly, Blaine's at work on a book called Why I Won't Get Breast Implants But You Might Want To.

USC has thus far stayed out of the fray, and the untenured Blaine does not expect to hear from the school. According to its website, "The University will not be held responsible for the content of personal Web pages. Personal Web pages shall not imply that they are representing or speaking on behalf of the University." Perhaps Blaine will fare better than other women in similar positions, among them a Chicago Cubs ball girl fired after posing for Playboy and Marcie Betts, a corrections officer canned for baring all on alt-porn site Burning Angel prior to her employment (though Betts later won a legal ruling requiring her reinstatement with restitution of full pay and benefits).

photo: Marlin Blaine

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Blaine argues vociferously in favor of her right to a public online life. "My website is not a professional venue of mine; it's not linked to my teaching at USC. I've never assigned my site to students. I've never told them to go look and find images of me. It's not been brought into my teaching at all," she states. Fifty-one students who filled out surveys about Blaine's teaching gave her high marks in all areas, offering praise such as "Blaine is without a doubt the most exhilarating whirlwind of feminist, socially conscious thinking I have experienced thus far at this institution."

The professor understands why the focus has been on her boobs rather than her provocative editorial, and sees this "scandal," which she adeptly deconstructs on her site, as part of her feminist teachings. "I know too many beautiful young women who don't like their bodies, who don't enjoy their sexuality fully. That's why I went to Burning Man, to experience self-exploration in the desert, including the ability to take off my clothes," she explains. "I was a little fat kid who hated her body; I never dreamt I'd be able to walk completely naked and find freedom in that. I can't tell you how many women came up and said, 'Thanks for being this brave.' " What does she think about the fact that people have probably jerked off to her decidedly tame photos? "It's none of my business," she says, laughing since her husband had to point out that her photos are likely masturbatory fodder.

With my own nude photos online, I can relate to Blaine's situation. Attempting to be taken seriously while also publicly claiming one's sexuality means we walk a tricky line. Too many people look at the nudity and never read on to see how the choice to show our bodies relates to the rest of our lives. Aside from breast-feeding, most of us cannot view boobs as anything other than forbidden symbols of temptation. By all means look at men's and women's chests, but keep in mind they come attached to a real person.

Bottom line: You don't have to like Blaine's photos to respect her First Amendment right to post them. Nobody's forcing you to look at them. Hers aren't plastered on her site, and in fact, one must go searching for them—they're hardly blatant attempts to get anyone to ogle her body. Blaine sees the photos as self-expression rather than porn. "I'm not desperately seeking male approval. If I hadn't found some pleasure in the pictures I wouldn't have put them there. For the people who've said, 'Oh god, you're disgusting,' click away. There's lots of other pictures on the Internet, there for exploitative purposes because women need to sell their bodies. I'm privileged to have a choice and was able to operate as an intellectual in spite of the fact that I have a body with boobies on it."

Blaine, who just finished teaching a class on scandal in literature, asks of her anonymous critic, "How un-American can you be? Why are you in college if you have so little faith in the diversity of opinion that is the entire point of a liberal education?"

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