Back in 2019, an idle scroll on Instagram would have been full of boobs and bums. Not the actual body parts, you understand, but inanimate objects. Bath mats with nipples. Vases that looked like they’d had a BBL. Plant pots with a penchant for going topless.
All this inanimate exhibitionism reflected how the app was, on the one hand, a space where stars like EmRata posted steamy selfies, but also famously prudish, banning any pictures with female nipples. If the #freethenipple campaign was one response, boob vases were another – we can’t show these parts of ourselves, so why not commodify them?
Soon, the aesthetic was everywhere. Well, the interiors section of Urban Outfitters and the ceramics corner of Etsy, at least. Those boobs and bums, once cute and a bit cheeky against a backdrop of square tiles and a monstera, came to feel a bit cringe. Plus, ceramic activism may no longer be needed. Instagram (and Facebook) might be set to actually free the nipple, after deciding in January that their current rules don’t work. Aesthetics, though, have swiftly moved on to another rude body part. When it comes to objects in 2023, dicks are (sorry, not sorry) popping up everywhere.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The past few years have seen the rise of full frontal cocks on television, from the infamous 30 dicks scene in Euphoria to Tommy Lee’s talking penis in Pam & Tommy. But now, knobs are snaking their way into our interiors and makeup bags. The trend runs from Isamaya Ffrench’s LIPS, a lipstick that resembles a posh sex toy, balls included, to Richardson’s now classic, very erect incense burner and candles (10 inches, mind you) from Australian brand Degoey Planet. Even King Charles III is involved – kind of. One of the biggest viral moments from the Coronation was a shot of him tenderly receiving his royal ring, delivered on a comically phallic ring holder.
Fashion is dicking around, too. JW Anderson’s AW23 collection was inspired by Michael Clark, using the image of a penis from one of the legendary choreographer’s posters on tops in his collection. The anthurium, maybe the rudest of flowers thanks to that phallic stem, is also having a moment, both in Anderson’s Loewe collection and on the catwalk at Ludovic de Saint Sernin. Aries, the brand behind The White Lotus character Portia’s No Problemo sweatshirt, are also big into cocks. They’re on T‑shirts and the now cult Willy necklace, which quite literally has a chokehold on the necks of London girlies. Drake has, predictably, taken the trend too far with a TMI jacket. Reading “Hard Feelings, Harder Dick”, the slogan – again, predictably – led to a significant roasting online for this 36-year-old adult man. “Why is Drake like this?” wrote one Reddit user.
Drake aside, what do we put these dick pics down to? If boobs and bum merch was hailed as a way for women to embrace body positivity, all things phallic have different connotations, especially in an era where we’re battling against toxic masculinity. While, obviously, not everyone with a penis is an Andrew Tate-esque bro, just using the imagery could be accused of celebrating the patriarchy or certainly a dick-swinging energy.
But what most examples of this trend might be alluding to is another kind of energy: BDE, to be exact. The acronym (“Big Dick Energy” ICYMI) is now five years old. Previously found on Twitter and popularised by Canadian writer Kyrell Grant, it went viral when Ariana Grande used it in a now-deleted tweet referring to her boyfriend Pete Davidson, and the energy attributed to the size of his appendage. Swiftly abbreviated by the very online, it can now be applied to anyone of any gender. As Grant said in 2018, “Beyoncé’s the pinnacle of BDE.” Maybe these items are the next chapter of BDE: its commodification. There’s little doubt it would take more than a dollop of the quality to apply Ffrench’s lipstick on the tube, for example. And wearing Aries’ rather beautiful Willy necklace is certainly going to get you some glances in the pub.
The statement of turning the ultimate symbol of masculinity into an inanimate object provides a bit of levity in the heightened world of gender politics, too. Ffrench says the thinking behind LIPS was about making the comparisons people have made for decades literally explicit. “I think a dick in shape is quite similar to a lipstick, really. There’s endless innuendo around it, so I feel like it made sense to shape the symbolism around both things.”
Dicks have of course been part of aesthetics for millennia. The Greeks and Romans were big into the imagery, depicting it on everything from crockery to sculptures. And, as Ffrench points out, this isn’t the first time that dicks have had a fashion moment. Designers ranging from Rick Owens to Jean Paul Gaultier, Christopher Kane and Raf Simons have played with the imagery recently, and Walter Van Beirendonck made penis-shaped hats back in 2008. The “Two Cowboys” T‑shirt, made by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in the mid-’70s, featured two bottomless cowboys, dicks almost touching. It was shocking enough for the duo to be charged with exhibitionism. When Prince posed naked for the cover of Lovesexy in 1988, strategically sitting on a very phallic flower, the record was withdrawn from stores.
Thirty-five years later, we like to think we can “own” these objects and the frisson they create. It’s interesting to note that (again, Drake aside) the people driving this aesthetic are women and queer men. For Ffrench, this is the element that means the current rise of cocks avoids any posturing, making it part of a wider trend to body and sex positivity. “I think rather than just looking at it as a dick, [we need to look at the fact that] sexuality and gender and bodies and liberation has been part of the conversation in the past couple of years,” she says of LIPS. “I think they all contribute to a broadening of acceptance of all things related to [sex].”
As for the next step for aesthetics – well, it’s obvious isn’t it? “Perhaps, in our generation, we’ll see the liberation of the vagina,” says Ffrench. Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s time to drop a 24 Karat labia pendant.