Pert and Perky

04.22.134:45 AM ET

Forget Tittooing—Small Nipples Have Always Been the Platonic Ideal

From Botticelli to John Updike, the rosebud nipple has long dominated Western art.

In case you haven’t heard, a nipple movement is sweeping the U.K. Ladies from Liverpool to Essex are increasingly looking to define, darken, and enlarge their areolae, shelling out as much as $1,800 for “tittooing,” a not-so-clever nickname for the two-hour tattooing procedure.

Sure, it could be a passing fad, but big nipples are in—and tittooing is poised to upend the landscape of breasts as we know them in the Western world. Taking our cues from the arts, we’ve long idealized the small, salmon-colored nipples of Botticelli’s Venus. Fashion tends to favor small nips as well (Kate Moss’s dime-size areolae are almost as famous as the model herself). Nipples are slightly more varied in the adult-entertainment industry, but there’s little diversity when it comes to highbrow smut. Playboy’s bare-breasted models may be buxom, but their nipples are rarely larger than pepperonis.

Despite the new trend overseas, scientific evidence suggests both women and men are partial to petite nipples. In a 2011 study, a plastic surgeon in the U.K. surveyed 100 models’ breasts in attempt to determine what factors make some more appealing to the eye than others. Proportion was key, but his “Analysis of an Ideal Breast” also found that nipples accounted for very little surface area on said perfect breast.

To be sure, the small nipple ideal is subjective, even silly, given that no two nipples are the same in reality. But artists, poets, and breast-obsessed men alike have been drawn to the ideal for centuries.

Mammillae served as muses for Renaissance and baroque painters, from Titian’s Venus of Urbino to François Clouet’s A Lady in Her Bath. The latter zeroes in on Gabrielle d’Estrées (Henri IV’s mistress) and her jewel-like nipples, while a wet nurse holds d'Estrées’s infant to her large brown teat in the background. The nurse’s working nipple looks particularly undesirable next to d’Estrées’s unsuckled ones. (Breast-feeding is a beautiful thing, but even mothers lament the loss of their upward-facing nips after rearing children.) A pert rosebud points directly at d’Estrées’s nipples, echoing their perfection.

The “rosebud” nipple is highly eroticized for its beauty in poetry and literature, too. In his “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast,” 17th-century poet Robert Herrick likens each “neat niplet of her breast” to “a red rose peeping through a white.” John Updike, whose prose is renowned for its florid description of private parts, lavishes his heroines’ “rose-tipped breasts” in The Witches of Eastwick and “dear little nipples like rabbit noses” in Villages.

So what is it about big nipples that makes them less easy on the eyes?

For starters, they’re not delicate. And as Clouet illustrates, they can signify the archetypal earth mother with one breast always bared for humanity to suckle from. It’s a nurturing image, of course, which may explain why we are less inclined to sexualize larger areolae. When we do see them in a titillating context, they appear more gaudy and burlesque, if not grotesquely pornographic.

That’s not to say some men and women aren’t turned on by oversize nipples. They clearly have an audience, just not in the mainstream.

“I don’t think the fried-egg look will ever be in vogue,” says William Richmond-Watson, a British-born aesthete and creative director of the New York City–based design firm Watson & Co. “Like any good design, it’s all about proportion,” he says.

Tiny nipples may not be de rigeur at the moment, but there’s something about Venus and Kate Moss’s nipples that never gets old. We’ve been ogling Miss Moss’s niplets for years now, perhaps because they are permanently perky, both proud and defiant of our voyeuristic gaze.