Nipples: Why So Controversial?

serenaLet’s get one thing out of the way right from the get-go: women have nipples. Right? One of our most popular blog posts ever is about nipple phobia and padded sports bras. Sam wrote that over three years ago and it seems the nipple controversy has not abated.

Serena Williams drew commentary and criticism because, apparently, as she was busy leaving the other women in the dust on her way to her 22nd Grand Slam title and 7th Wimbledon championship (for the best record ever in professional tennis, period), her sports bra didn’t sufficiently cover her nipples.

Here are some of the comments:

‘I wouldn’t usually comment on another woman’s body, but could someone give Serena Williams something to cover her nipples…very distracting’, wrote one.

Another chimed in: ‘With all the money Serena Williams earns, why can’t she buy a decent sports bra which covers her nipples properly?’

‘Surprised BBC haven’t issued a warning that Serena is showing some nipple today!’ said a third.

And in “Of course Serena’s nipples are the most interesting thing about her – she’s a sportswoman,” Claire Cohen points out:

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Williams has only won Wimbledon six times, broken almost every record going and dominated tennis for more than a decade. Naturally, her chest is the most interesting thing about her.

Did anyone say anything about Roger Federer’s nipples being a distraction or did they keep the focus on his tennis game?

In her post about nipple phobia, Sam wrote about the phenomenon of the dreaded “nipple show-through” that a sports bra company used to market it’s foam-lined bras. As Sam will attest, not everyone likes a padded bra. But it’s almost impossible to find an alternative these days. And if we’re going to be body-shamed when our nipples show, then it’s easy to understand why padded bras have become the default, even in sports.

But what’s the problem? It’s not as if nipples are obscene or even unattractive. I can’t even wrap my head around what is so offensive about a woman’s nipples showing through.  And neither can the women featured in “We don’t care if you can see our nipples through our tops.” 

And so they shouldn’t. Because, as one respondent to the social media outrage tweeted: “spoiler alert: women have nipples.”

The focus on something other than her outstanding tennis game, her incredible strength, and her domination of the sport for almost two decades is another example of how women’s athletic accomplishments get overshadowed by petty comments about their looks and bodies.

And if, as the marketing of padded sports bras suggests, women are supposed to spend their time pre-occupied with making the “right” impression and not revealing any of their “offensive” parts, like nipples, instead of channeling their energies into their sport, it reinforces the social expectation that in all things, the first order of business in women’s athletic pursuits is that women be “presentable.”  If you can do that, then maybe, just maybe (that’s a big “maybe”), we’ll let you focus on the task at hand. It’s a tactic used in all sorts of contexts and we need to be alert to it.

It’s not nipples that are the big “distraction” (as was claimed about Serena’s nipples), but the body-focused comments about women’s appearance that are the real distraction, deflecting attention away from where it really belongs-on their athleticism.




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