28/10/2012 14:09 GMT | Updated 28/12/2012 05:12 GMT

The Most Famous Breasts in Britain

The top-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom - for the benefit of my friends in the US - is a daily tabloid called the Sun, whose areas of editorial expertise include football, punny headlines, sex scandals, celebrity gossip, an unforgiving stance on welfare cheats, and enormous breasts.

Every weekday for the last 42 years, the first full inside page of the Sun has carried a large pin-up style photograph of a topless, buxom young woman frolicking in a pool or garden and gazing into the camera with her own version of Zoolander's 'Blue Steel.' Usually she wears underpants; sometimes she doesn't.

The Sun is no niche publication. With a daily circulation of 2.6 million and an estimated 8million daily readers, the Rupert Murdoch property is as mainstream as media gets. It is as if there was a half-naked lady inside every issue of USA Today - and five million more people read USA Today.

Apart from the featheriness of the models' hair, little about the photographs has changed in their four-decade run. A great many things have changed in England, however, and a small but growing movement is now suggesting, ever so politely, that it might be time to retire the daily hooters parade.

Lucy-Anne Holmes, a Brighton-based writer, hit her breaking point with Page Three during this summer's Olympics, when she picked up a copy of the Sun and noticed that the photograph of a woman who'd done no more than remove her shirt was bigger than that of Jessica Ennis, the UK's beloved heptathlon champion. Was that really what it took for a woman to get noticed?

A Sun reader sees "men in suits doing stuff, and then you see this one big image of a woman in her knickers doing nothing," Holmes said. "It's about standing up to how we're portrayed in this country."

She started with a letter to editor Dominic Mohan in which she asked, "very nicely," to quit it with the naked pictures. When that got no response, Holmes launched an online petition that has garnered nearly 50,000 signatures and a letter of support signed by 26 members of Parliament. Holmes and supporters are also in the midst of organizing a boycott of the Sun's major advertisers.

Page Three's fans may defend the page as a harmless bit of fun - "they've been here as long as I have!" - cried the be-hoodied newspaper vendor at my local rail station, when told of the burgeoning protest - but previous challengers have endured vicious attacks from those threatened by the loss of their daily fix of flesh.

When the lawmaker Clare Short first raised concerns about Page Three in the 1980s, the Sun retaliated with decades' worth of taunts and pranks, including a 2007 headline that called the then 61-year-old lawmaker "fat" and "jealous."

Mohan has yet to respond. In his February appearance before the Leveson inquiry, the parliamentary investigation of media ethics prompted by the phone-tapping scandals, Mohan described Page Three as a "British institution" and a celebration of "natural beauty," defending the Sun in a as "occasionally boisterous and often cheeky, but . . . always a loyal companion to our readers, male and female."

(It's fair to note here that the Sun was also the only paper in Britain to flaunt the local media's self-imposed embargo on publishing the photographs of Prince Harry's naked Vegas capers, evidence of an equal-opportunity commitment to bare flesh of all genders.)

To an outsider in England, Page Three is one of the odder quirks of a culture with a decidedly quirky relationship to public sex and nudity. The commercial appeal of breasts needs no explanation, but how did they land such a prominent spot in the favored daily rag of a population whose single most defining characteristic, according to the comedian Stephen Fry, is "embarrassment"? Isn't this something the French do?

Yet for more than 40 years, whatever their cultural sexual hang-ups, the English have offered a special dispensation to Page Three. In her 2004 book Watching the English, the English anthropologist Kate Fox cited a national survey that found Page 3 the least offensive of all depictions of sex in the media, with only 21% of Brits - and 24% of women - objecting. "It's just daft, with the silly captions full of awful puns," an interviewee told her. "You can't really feel offended by it."

The cheesy quality of the portraits, the groaningly stupid pun-filled captions, the awkward ho-ho! humor that permeates the page, like something a great-uncle would wink at - the whole thing seems more hokey than hot.

"Only the English," Fox put it, "could manage to make pictures of luscious, half-naked women into something quite as un-erotic as page three."