On the 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 facilitated discussions and debates across various societies and communities, with many people adopting several perspectives.
Those in favour of the movement argue that the exposure of women’s nipples should not differ from the exposure of men’s nipples (2). Those who argue against the movement often claim that the bodies of men differ to the bodies of women and that because of this it is right to treat them differently.
Supporters of the movement evidence frustration over perceived double standards concerning the treatment of the bodies of men and women. In Iceland, controversy emerged when a student posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend topless. The woman later removed the photo from her social media after receiving a huge backlash. Her boyfriend went largely unnoticed. For many people, this prompted an important discussion as to why the boyfriend’s chest was viewed as neutral yet hers was not? Why should breasts, with merely the biological function of feeding infants, be viewed and judged differently? The woman received much support from others in Iceland (3).
However, it is not only in Iceland where the Free the Nipple movement has made headlines. The United States saw a surge in interest in the movement after a documentary focusing on a group of young women in New York protested the legal and cultural taboos concerning female breasts. The movement has since gained the attention and support of popular celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Courtney Love, Rihanna, Lena Dunham, and Chelsea Handler.
What is it that this movement wants to achieve? According to Josie Tutty, the answer is gender equality,
“[T]he 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 claims that 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,
“[T]he 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.
Not everyone agrees with the movement. 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).
Some respond to this view by pointing out 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, despite the movement raising important issues, 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,
“[B]een 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 has progressed many still wonder how it will go about overcoming its many social challenges. Most people within the West, including women, maintain the breast and nipple to be sexually attractive, and therefore not a body part that should be flaunted or shown in public. The nipple’s inherent sexual attractiveness makes sense in light of the growing number of women having breast augmentations (8). Attitudes are common that for a woman to go topless is to “slutty” or promiscuous and few women desire to be viewed this way. Others contend that there are more pressing issues facing women today, such as domestic violence, equal pay, and sexual harassment (9).
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.