When I was 9 I had a pretty summer dress that my mum bought for me to take on holidays. It was a little sheer and covered in brightly coloured daisies. I loved it. One day a friend of the family scolded my mum for letting me wear it because you could vaguely make out the shape of my nipples. Similar things happened throughout my teenage years. I remember going to my first Blue Light Disco (a police coordinated and supervised event for Melbourne youth) and taping bandaids over my nipples so that no one could see them through my top. I remember buying shirts a few sizes two big so that no one could make out the prepubescent shape of my chest – nipples slightly protruding, big enough to make me uncomfortable, but certainly too small for a bra.
These experiences are common for many women in Western cultures. We are told to cover up, to be ashamed (of our sexuality, of our bodies), and to protect our value and purity…to, among other things, cover up our nipples. Strikingly though, we are simultaneously told not to be prudes, not to be frigid, to embrace our sexuality, to let our hair down, to have fun, to give it up…and sometimes to flaunt our damn nipples!
Like so many things that shape the female experience we are caught in a double bind where playing by the rules of a male dominated framework means that we just can’t win!
But this is nothing new. Feminists have been saying this for years. So, why rehash old arguments? Why are we still trying to burn our bras when we all know what the message is? The fact of the matter is that we don’t all know it. With new generations coming through and movements like this , and this , it is important that we continue to promote and reaffirm the message of equality.
The Free the Nipple movement is one way to do this. The movement was started by filmmaker and activist, Lina Esco. Her aim was to raise awareness of the double standards and hypocrisy regarding the censorship and sexualisation of nipples that is present in American culture and law (on the one hand, men’s nipples–fleshy, often wrinkly, located on the chest–are permissible to expose, and on the other, women’s nipples–fleshy, often wrinkly, located on the chest–are not). Esco’s ultimate aim is to promote the decriminalisation, and normalisation of publically exposed female nipples. She says ”Women should be able to do what they want with their bodies. In some states, women can get jailed or fined for being topless… “Free the nipple” is simply about having the choice’’ (See Should we free the nipple?).
On the surface the Free the Nipple movement is a light-hearted, fun message (because nipples really are fun, aren’t they?) that invites new audiences into a deeper and important discussion about feminism and equality. This is why I will wear my big hairy man nipples shirt proudly on campus this week, and why I will discuss with my students the importance of equality, respect and, of course, nipples.
For more nipple goodness see Sam B’s post Padded Sports Bras and Nipple Phobia?
Nanette Ryan is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University. She is primarily interested in moral and political philosophy, epistemology, and their intersection. When not philosophizing, she enjoys working out, traveling, eating good food, and wearing t-shirts with nipples on them.