“Free the Nipple” was a campaign started in 2013, spearheaded by the filming process of the titular movie. A cause adopted by celebrities like Miley Cyrus, the campaign enjoyed a moment of popularity, but has since faded from its heyday, and now goes largely undiscussed. So why the postmortem? Free the Nipple remains as important and relevant as ever, and its goals are still unrealized.
A Brief History
Free the Nipple began filming in 2012. The film aimed to demonstrate the gender inequality inherent in most state’s laws, and most people’s views of male and female nudity, and dramatized the real-life experiences of a group of women. Its aim was to raise an important question: why are women’s nipples considered purely sexual objects (and, consequently, profane or obscene), while men’s nipples are seen as harmless, and perfectly acceptable to be seen in public?
This question brought attention to the persistent inequality of men and women, with a focus on bodies. Male bodies do not face anywhere near the amount of scrutiny and pressure placed upon women’s bodies: women’s bodies are policed for showing too much skin, are mocked for having too much body hair (or any at all), and are expected to be kept in peak condition at all times, while men’s bodies are given more grace, and far fewer expectations.
As a young woman, I can recall several occasions when I was taken aside and urged to wear a higher-cut shirt, as I exposed cleavage when I was bent over, or a longer shirt, because a sliver of skin was visible if I raised my arms. I can also recall being told this while the males around me persistently wore pants that exposed underwear, and wore shirts that exposed a portion of their midsections when their arms were raised. The message was clear: I am responsible for my body and how it affects others, but men are not.
Why It Matters
Why does a woman being capable of (or unable to) show her nipples in public matter? This isn’t a matter of women absolutely needing to bare their breasts day in and day out, nor is it a matter of finding something to be upset about. Instead, the differential treatment of men and women’s nipples is problematic because it demonstrates the way women are treated primarily as objects (typically sexualized ones), while men are regarded in a more holistic framework.
A woman’s nipples are, admittedly, erogenous for some. The same, however, can easily be said of men. A woman’s nipples are also utilitarian; they are capable of providing milk to nurture and nourish an infant. By this token alone, they are clearly not singular in purpose, and are therefore not merely a sexual fixture on a human body.
Women have been derided for nursing in public, as well—some have been asked to leave public establishments, while others have merely endured angry glances. Women have been mocked for foregoing a bra in public, while others have been arrested for public nudity when appearing topless, despite the law clearly allowing it.
A woman’s nipples are considered obscene elsewhere, as well; most social media platforms prohibit showing female nipples, but fail to censor or otherwise monitor the exhibition of male nipples.
A Woman’s Body
As one Instagram account demonstrates, little (if anything) is visually different between male and female nipples, aside from the possible protuberance of breasts. Interesting, then, that women’s nipples are considered obscene, or are hypersexualized, while men’s nipples are simply a matter of course—expected to be seen at pools, beaches, or sporting events where beer and peanuts flow freely.
The problem comes with regard to, once again, the strange delineation between men and women: men are complete beings, whose bodies are seen as pinnacles of strength, as more than the sum of their parts, while women are seen as somehow set apart, their bodies little more than objects used to tempt the uncontrollable sexual urges of men. Urging them to cover up isn’t a matter of censorship; it’s a matter of saving men from themselves, and saving innocent children’s eyes from the horrors of indecency and lewdness.
Ultimately, the goal of the Free the Nipple campaign is not merely the freedom to view female nipples, or unleash female breasts en masse. Instead, the goal is to create a paradigm shift—change a cultural norm—and view women’s bodies as more than sexualized objects, more than things to be covered or contained, and view women’s bodies as human bodies—bodies that walk, breathe, and feel, that house the minds of human beings as worthy of consideration and respect as their penis-baring counterparts.
The goal of Free the Nipple is to strip away the notion that a woman’s breasts are a source of temptation and lust, and acknowledge that the human body is capable of many things, is made up of countless parts and processes, and should be treated as such—visible breasts or not.