Why Sinead O’Connor’s nipple on the cover of Hot Press is a complicated anomaly

Hot Press, Volume 14, 1990

The de facto norms of nipple modesty and breast coverage in Western society are in constant conflict with the simultaneously accepted boob drool cultures of pornos, lads mags and music videos, and with the sensationalist coverage of ‘nipple slips’ by tabloidesque websites.

This Sinéad O’Connor cover is unique in its existence, and is an anomaly in the linear, predictable history of body representation on the cover of Hot Press – Ireland’s flagship music magazine. It’s not boob drool culture, or Western nipple modesty. Topless, holding an infant, with half of her nipple and areolae exposed, this image is not something you would expect to see on the cover of an Irish music magazine in the 1990s – or in any decade for that matter.

This is the only bare female nipple that you’ll find in Hot Press history, and when compared to the other hundreds of images of women artists that have graced this cover space, its significance takes on more meaning. There is a distinct lack of sexualisation in this image, which is rare for images of women artists on the cover of this magazine. Since 1977*, the images of women artists within this cover space have become increasingly sexualised, to the point where they have reached hypersexualisation status (a term which describes a high magnitude of sexualisation – see ‘Equal opportunity objectification? The sexualization of men and women on the cover of Rolling Stone’ for more info on this term).

In the 1990s*, the decade in which this issue was published, there was a dramatic spike in the number of hypersexualised images of women artists – yet this cover remains untouched by a pervasive culture of objectification which is part and parcel of popular music culture today.

*See summarised research article of Hot Press covers

Virgin Mary’s nipples are acceptable daytime programming

Published as the Christmas bumper issue in December 1990, ‘A Star is Born’ depicts O’Connor and infant as a recreation of Madonna and Child, a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus – an example being the 17th century artwork by Italian painter Giovanni Battista Salvi (or Sassoferrato as he was known). There is an accompanying interview in this issue with O’Connor, conducted by Helena Mulkerns, in which she is quoted commenting on the Catholic church, and the industry’s treatment of artists.

Source: Adam Williams Fine Art Ltd

Being depicted as a modern recreation of Catholic art two years prior to her infamous tearing of a photograph of the Pope on Saturday Night live in October 1992, has a sense of sickly irony. The heavy religious undertones also confuse the earlier argument this article made about this image defying Western nipple modesty – how much more modest can you get than the Virgin Mary? Again, we return to a conflict of meanings, a push and shove of feminist nipple freedom and the insidious Catholic policing of women’s bodies.

Understanding the religious connotations brings this cover more in line with the linear, predictable norms of bodily regulation which are such a strong feature of image of women and men, not just on the cover of Hot Press, but on the cover of Rolling Stone as well. This cover is an anomaly that defies, confuses, and digs into our contradictory notions of equality and modesty. The nipple is fine, if it’s virgin.

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