What is the “Free the Nipple” Movement?

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On its official website, Free the Nipple purports to be “a global campaign of change, focused on the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings” (1). The movement has encouraged much discussion and debate across societies and communities,  some of which shall be noted here.

Those in favour of the movement argue that the exposure of women’s nipples should not differ to the exposure of men’s nipples (2). Those who argue against it often claim that the bodies of men differ to the bodies of women, and that it is right to treat them differently.

However, supporters of the movement show frustration given alleged double standards concerning treatment of men and women’s bodies. In Iceland controversy resulted after a student posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend topless. The woman in question removed the photo from social media after receiving a massive backlash while her boyfriend went largely unnoticed. For some people this raised an important discussion: why is her boyfriend’s chest neutral and her own chest not? Why should her breasts, with the biological function of feeding an infant, be viewed and judged differently? The woman received much support in her country (3).

It is not only in Iceland where the Free the Nipple movement has made headlines. The United States witnessed excitement after a documentary focusing on a group of young New York women protested the legal and cultural taboos concerning female breasts. The movement has gained traction through notable celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Courtney Love, Rihanna, Lena Dunham, and Chelsea Handler.

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Photo Credit: The Lumberjack

Proponents argue that the movement is centered on gender equality. According to Josie Tutty,

“the campaign is asking is that women be allowed the same privileges as men – to sunbathe topless at the beach, post a photo of a nipple on social media without it being immediately removed, and not be judged for the simple act of having a woman’s body. For me, the most important issue is that in some public places, women are still not allowed to openly feed their children” (4).

Tutty says the movement is not about removing the sexual attraction of the female breast or nipple. Instead “what it’s saying is that a woman’s nipple shouldn’t be viewed as inherently sexual simply because it’s on a woman’s body.” She dispels what she believes is a common misunderstanding,

“the Free the Nipple campaign isn’t about getting naked at any opportunity – it’s about equality. If women’s breasts and nipples were viewed the same as men’s, then perhaps fewer women would be told to stop breastfeeding in public, and even feel less ashamed about their own bodies in general.”

The Free the Nipple concern is purported to be symptomatic of something much larger. It is not merely about toplessness and being able to show one’s boobs, but also illustrates society’s inherent gender inequality. It is therefore understood as a feminist movement and concern.

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Photo Credit: Odyssey

Not all are warm to the movement or find themselves in agreement with the perspectives of its advocates. Critics argue that it is appropriate to treat men and women’s bodies differently simply because they are in fact different. A woman’s nipples are inherently sexual because they are on a female breast. There is a biological component given that men have been furnished by nature to find the woman’s breast attractive,

“When women flash their tits, you can expect more erections, not fewer… Women need a movement that accepts the inherent value of female nudity, that takes into account that men and women are different in their sexual desires” (5).

However, some respond to this by saying that what men have found attractive has shifted over the centuries. Numerous body parts, including buttocks, legs, ankles, hair, and feet, have been considered sexually attractive, and purportedly so over and above breasts (6).

Critics also view unfavourably the motives of those within the movement. According to Tory Shepherd, although the movement raises important issues, and has good reasons for existing, it “devolves into an excuse for people to show off. In this case, both their boobs and their faux activism” (7). She says that images of nipples being freed during activist efforts tell a different story. While some have,

“been able to curate a collection of bodies that includes different shapes and sizes, doing different things, women taking part in Free the Nipple are doing it in a sexy, not an empowered way. They’re posed seductively, one nipple coyly poking out. Or just flashing their boobs on dance floors.”

The concern is that rather than being empowered, women are objectified and being used to attract a male audience, which runs contrary to feminist principles.

Although the movement shows signs of progress one might wonder how it will yet overcome its many social challenges and opposing attitudes. Those living within western societies, including women, maintain the breast and nipple to be sexually attractive, and thus not a body part that should be flaunted or shown in public. This is evident in the increasing number of breast augmentations women are having (8). There are attitudes in which some analogize a woman going topless to being “slutty” or promiscuous. Few women desire to viewed this way, and will prove an obstacle to the movement attracting new supporters. Others contend that there are more pressing issues facing women today including the likes of domestic violence, equal pay, and sexual harassment (9). A proponent of the movement would likely retort that this is evidence of the need to bring greater awareness to the movement and the principles underlying it. They would also likely agree that the movement has a far distance yet to go in order to attain its goals.


1. Free the Nipple. Available.

2. Johnstone, P. 2017. We Argue For And Against The Free The Nipple Campaign. Available.

3. Gander, K. 2015. #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student. Available.

4. Johnstone, P. Ibid.

5. Thought Catalog. 2015. 10 Reasons Why You Should Not Support The #FreeTheNipple Movement. Available

6. Smith, M. 2016. Men are not ‘hardwired’ to stare at women’s breasts. Available.

7. Shepherd, T. 2015. Free the nipple campaign is not empowering for women. Available.

8. Plastic Surgery Practice. 2015. ASPS 2014 Stats: Breast Augmentation Reigns Supreme. Available.

9. Musapatike, T. 2015. UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m a Feminist and I Think #FreeThe Nipple is Stupid. Available.


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