by Gina Bacon

My grandmother once set a doctor to giggling while he performed a physical. "Are you OK?" he asked. "Yes, why?" she replied. "You have band-aids on your nipples," he said. Grandma blushed and threw on her bra. The band-aids stayed. Keeping nipples under control was once a female requirement. Not now, though. Today’s nipples ain't your grandma's nipples.

Just months ago, mannequins were nearly sexless and barely appeared human. (One mannequin manufacturer reported sawing off breasts when the flat look was in several years ago.) Recently, however, mannequin anatomy has changed. Now larger-than-life plastic nipples stretch through the thin fabric of the latest fashions.

"Are you getting hot and bothered?" I asked my husband during a recent trip to an upscale mall, scoffing at the ridiculous. "No," he said, with the sound of Nordstrom’s baby-grand tinkling in the background. "But I am getting thirsty." I rolled my eyes at him as we stood in the crowded shopping center, staring at this wild fashion statement. Where were the aroused male mannequins? These ladies looked like they needed some company before excitement turned to anger.

What accounts for this nipple mania? Realism can't be the answer. It must be more than bralessness. I did not actually measure them, but my husband agreed that the nipples on display at the mall that day were at least three inches long—big enough to hide cell phone antennas. Those babies were not just thrilled to be nicely dressed. They were ready to rumble. Maybe the trend is a way to shock shoppers into spending more. Perhaps the sight of leaping nipples causes men to rush with sweaty palms into the nearest stereo equipment store. These faux nipples are not just enjoying a little well-deserved fresh air. They could even be weapons. The en vogue mannequin nipples are so fierce that even fashion-savvy shoppers strolling by take notice and stare at the painful displays.

At Venus Display, a mannequin shop in Farmingdale, New York, a selection of male mannequins is offered as part of the "realistic male" display. These boys have nicely formed chest muscles but that's about it. They have nothing more than plastic bumps between their legs, and could hardly hump a sofa if they got excited. And as for their nipples: nada. Not even an aureole.

Frankly, I am proud of my nipples. They're the only body part I have not considered altering, although I'm certain nipple enhancement surgery is just around the corner. But I have never used my nipples to hurt people, scramble eggs, or tole paint, which are just a few of the activities these mannequins could manage, if they suddenly came to life. Where will it stop? Maybe "Nipple Barbie" is next, with nipples so huge and sharp that if human females had nipples of Barbie proportions, they could use them to spear fish while snorkeling.

At a loss to figure this fad out, I typed "Nipples + Mannequins" into Google’s search engine. Who should pop up but Mannequin Man! Via e-mail from Northwest Mannequin in the Emerald City, Mannequin Man is available 24 hours a day to answer intriguing questions about the world of mannequins. When asked what gives with the nipple situation, Mannequin Man explained,

"It's true I've been around nipples all my life. I believe the reason for the trend in large nipples today is similar to the theory of the raising and lowering of hemlines throughout history. When times are good, nipples are big. When the economy tanks...small nipples. But one thing you can always count on: I will never change my stand on nipples. I was for them then and I'm for them now. Great question. Regards, MM."

Who would have thought that a male mannequin from Seattle would have so much insight?

I did not press him, but Mannequin Man was strangely silent about the hard questions. Where are the giant mannequin nipples coming from? Is there a machine that makes them? Does the sight of erect nipples make men want more surround sound? Are girls with big nipples really more fun?

Two women from Minnesota apparently think the answer to that last question may be yes. In a move from mannequins to humans, they have announced the creation of BodyPerks, silicon stick-on nipples designed "for flirty fun." Lori Barghini apparently dreamed them up while she and several friends were experimenting with travel shampoo caps during a weekend fling in Las Vegas. When the joke resulted in lots of attention from the opposite sex including free drinks, a new industry was born. With the help of a male mechanical engineer, Barghini and a friend are manufacturing and selling the nipples for $20 a pair, packaged in a discreet black velvet carrying bag.

"We view this as a fashion accessory, meant to be worn with the right outfit, for the right occasion, as an expression of femininity," said Barghini in a recent statement about the company.

Prosthetics, Barbie Dolls, and the U.S. economy aside, I know what I would like to see the next time I head to the mall. As long as nipplemania persists, I just won't feel like I've gotten my money's worth until male mannequins are fitted with giant, swollen gonads stretching the limits of the crotch seams on Dockers and Polo jeans.

And if the economy keeps booming, what will be next? How short can hemlines get before we're all naked? Which body part will be revealed next? (When cellulite is hot, I'm throwing a party.) How much stereo equipment does a man really need? It's time for another message to Mannequin Man.

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