According to the official website, Free the Nipple is “a global campaign of change, focused on the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings” (1). The campaign has unsurprisingly sparked a great deal of discussion and debate across communities, nations, and cultures. And of course views and opinions vary.
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). On the other hand, however, those who argue against it often claim that men’s bodies differ to women’s bodies, so it is right that they should be treated differently. Many supporters are impassioned by the double standards when it comes to treatment of men and women’s bodies. In Iceland, for instance, controversy reared its head after a student posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend topless. The reaction was telling given that she received a massive backlash while her boyfriend was mostly left untouched; she subsequently removed the picture from Facebook. For many this revitalized an important discussion that needed to be had. For example, why was her boyfriend’s chest neutral? And why should her breasts, with the biological purpose of feeding infants, be seen and judged differently? The woman went on to receive a great deal of support in her country (3). But it is not only in Iceland where the Free the Nipple movement has made news. In America there was much excitement after a documentary, produced by director Lina Esco, came out back in 2014. The documentary focuses on a group of young women in New York City who protest the legal and cultural taboos regarding female breasts. The movement has similarly been bolstered by the support of notable celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Courtney Love, Rihanna, Lena Dunham, and Chelsea Handler.
Activists argue that the Free the Nipple movement is centered on gender equality. Josie Tutty, a writer and supporter of the movement, explains that “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). According to Tutty, the Free the Nipple isn’t about removing the sexual attraction of the female nipple in the same way that a man’s nipple should never not be considered sexual. Rather, “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 also 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.” Moreover, for many activists the Free the Nipple concern is symptomatic of something much larger. It’s not only about toplessness and being able to show one’s boobs. Rather, it illustrates just one consequence of society’s inherent gender inequality that needs to be discussed, and hopefully changed.
But not everyone agrees. Those against the movement argue that it is appropriate to treat men and women’s bodies differently simply because they are in fact different (5). Women’s nipples are inherently sexual because they are on a female breast. This is the way we have been hardwired since women have been covering their beasts for thousands of years because they are seen as too intimate a place to show to just anyone, though this view has been challenged since numerous body parts, including buttocks, legs, ankles, hair, and feet, have been considered sexually attractive by men over and above breasts (6). Some have also charged the movement with wishful thinking. It’s no secret that men are attracted to the female body and are also aroused by the breasts. To believe that breasts will just become like any other body part, like the elbow for example, is unrealistic given men and what they find sexually 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” (7). Some have also voiced their criticism over the motives of those within the movement. Tory Shepherd, an Australian opinion writer and journalist, says that although the movement has some very good reasons for existing it unfortunately “devolves into an excuse for people to show off. In this case, both their boobs and their faux activism” (8). She points out that the pictures of nipples being freed 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 obvious concern here is that rather than being empowered, women are objectified and being used to attract a male audience.
Though the movement has made progress over the last few years (9), one still wonders at its prospects. Most of us live in western societies in which the purpose of a woman’s breast is to be sexually attractive to men as evident in the increasing number of breast augmentations women are having (10). Many women, as well as men, might analogize a woman going topless as “slutty” and promiscuous. A lot of people also find there to be far more pressing issues facing women today such as domestic violence, equal pay, and sexual harassment (11). Of course many of these views are being challenged by the Free the Nipple movement and those within it. But what it does show is just how far the movement still has to go. For those of us who find importance in the topic of gender equality, few would deny that this is a discussion we should be having.
1. Free the Nipple. Available.
2. Johnstone, P. 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. Johnstone, P. Ibid.
6. Smith, M. 2016. Men are not ‘hardwired’ to stare at women’s breasts. Available.
7. Thought Catalog. 2015. 10 Reasons Why You Should Not Support The #FreeTheNipple Movement. Available
8. Shepherd, T. 2015. Free the nipple campaign is not empowering for women. Available.
9. Zeilinger, J. 2015. Here’s What the Free the Nipple Movement Has Really Accomplished. Available.
10. Plastic Surgery Practice. 2015. ASPS 2014 Stats: Breast Augmentation Reigns Supreme. Available.
11. Musapatike, T. 2015. UNPOPULAR OPINION: I’m a Feminist and I Think #FreeThe Nipple is Stupid. Available.