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?

Wimbledon - All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club

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.




5 thoughts on “Nipples: Why So Controversial?

  1. Methinks it’s the sexual distraction to some people ..or reminder. Very lightly thin padded bras are fine..but seems these days either it’s too much padding or none at all. But no choice in between.

    I admit when I wear a cycling jersey at work when leaving, I sort of hope mine aren’t showing’s just a short walk indoors to leave. I refuse to get all stuffed up bra-wise just for such a short time off bike. While on bike, it’s not worth worrying!!

    Perhaps for Serena we see her ….as a pro and at a job. It would be same as standing and giving a presentation in boardroom: are your nips showing through your top..

  2. No matter what, Serena’s body is policed: if it’s not her nipples, it’s the rest of her magnificent athletic body. In the latter case, she’s criticized for not being small or not being feminine enough. I blogged about this earlier– forget that she has, as you say, the best record in professional tennis, period. Her muscular non-small female body threatens people. Glad you are calling it out.

  3. Thanks for this great post, Tracy – it’s an urgent reminder that mainstream sports coverage AND social media commentary both seem to be increasingly misogynist, under the post-feminist guise that they are simply calling out things that will make women do “better” in the public sphere. The issue, I believe, is this: Serena is a champ and defies any stereotypes about feminine women being weak. So it’s essential that coverage demean her strength-based achievements in order to cut her back down to (girlish) size. We see it over and over again with powerful sports figures but also women in all walks of public life. The more powerful you are, the more essential it is for threatened patriarchs (men and women!) to make you seem small and silly. Viz Hilary!!

  4. Reblogged this on FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE and commented:

    As I looked back on past July’s and landed back in 2016, I decided to reblog something in keeping with our body policing/body shaming themes that have emerged in the recent posts about swimwear and body hair. Also, it’s Wimbledon! I actually haven’t been following my favourite tennis tournament this year so I don’t know what the latest controversies are, but a couple of years ago people were upset about nipples. We’ve got them, but no one wants to see them “out of context.” Read more….

  5. Oh God, I love this post! It reminds me of some really upsetting conversations I have had about breastfeeding. In public! Something so utterly natural made into an issue. Like one of your previous readers said, it reveals more about the complainer’s preoccupations and hangups.

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