When National Geographic First Showed a Woman’s Bare Breasts in its Magazine

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A Brief History

On November 1, 1896, a picture showing the unclad or bare breasts of a woman appeared in National Geographic magazine for the first time in the publication’s long history.

Digging Deeper

National Geographic is one of the world’s most respected and outright useful magazines.  Founded in 1888, the National Geographic Society has expanded to have a magazine with a U.S. readership of 4,125,152 and international readership of 875,962 (as of December 2012) in addition to its own television network and even video games.  The scientific and historical work done by its members have brought about numerous breakthroughs in many disciplines while helping to educate the masses about the world and even the universe around us.

A dancer of the cafes, Algeria, 1917 photograph from National Geographic magazine

According to the Society’s official website, one of the magazine’s early milestones came when its publishers decided that from then on out, they would show native peoples as they were, including when photographed nude.  In the case of November 1896, that month’s issue included a photograph of a Zulu bride (topless) and groom from South Africa.  The message conveyed is that nudity is not necessarily “pornographic” in nature, but that it has a legitimate, academic place when studying world cultures.

Another website goes on to explain, the groundbreaking work of their November 1896 issue was just the beginning of their inclusion of tasteful photographs of nude men and women in their native environments, a tradition that has endured in the magazine when showing people from around the world for well over a century now.  Indeed, today it is not uncommon to find such images readily available for public consumption even on YouTube!

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you think it is okay for National Geographic to depict nudity?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

Given that the original magazine discussed above is over a hundred years old, it is not exactly easy to find an original of this particular issue.  You can, however, turn to the following book for a nice overview of the magazine’s long photographic history:

Jenkins, Mark Collins.  National Geographic 125 Years: Legendary Photographs, Adventures, and Discoveries That Changed the World.  National Geographic, 2012.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.