It’s time to talk about nipples. Always fun, right? Specifically, it’s time to talk about why we’re edging into 2018 and still sexualizing the female nipple while giving the male nipple a totally free pass to exist in all manner of desexualized states.
It’s been more than five years since #FreeTheNipple became not only a hashtag but a full-on movement for women to try and reclaim the rights of their bodies from a culture that forces us to hide, cover, and conceal them. But has anything really changed in the quest for nipple equality?
Female nipples (and the politically charged cultural discourse around them) are a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle, but one worth discussing nonetheless:
Why are these parts of the female body sexualized when the same exact parts of the male body are not?
On the surface, it seems pretty simple: Grant all people the legal right to expose their nipples however and wherever they choose. That includes being able to walk out onto the street, at the beach, or any other public place in a nipple-exposing shirt (or no shirt at all), with the full right to post a photo on the social media platform of your choice. It makes sense. Men do this all the time by way of traditional male swimsuit options (and no shortage of shirtless #beachlife selfies)…right?
But where exactly does nipple censorship come from? And will our culture ever get to a place of true nipple equality across all genders and sexes? While we remain hopeful, we also need to look at the issue from a critical (and historical) lens.
According to Men’s Health, men in the United States have legally been allowed to publicly show their nipples since the late 1930s, when they were granted the right to appear shirtless on public and private beaches. Women didn’t begin to see those same privileges until New York state legalized female toplessness in 1992.
Currently, 36 states legally allow women to bare their nipples in public. But while it’s seemingly a win from the early days of women fighting for the exact same nipple freedoms that men have enjoyed for so many decades, there are still so many grey areas — not to mention the inherent sexism in the remaining differences. For example, posting guidelines on many social media platforms still don’t allow female nudity of any kind, but allow men to free their nips as they like.
Even if you live in one of the states that allow women to expose their nipples in public, you still run a risk for being arrested or cited for indecent exposure if you’re spotted by law enforcement, which we think is bullshit.
Though Men’s Health notes that “only three states — Utah, Tennessee, and Indiana — have laws explicitly forbidding female nipple exposure,” a woman who appears topless in public (except at nude beaches or resort areas) can still find herself subject to questioning by authorities because of grey areas in the laws in many jurisdictions.
A woman can be arrested for exposing her “intimate parts” in many places if the officer deems her actions as “lewd,” “offensive,” or done so “with the intent to arouse.” But why aren’t men subject to the exact same scrutiny when they jog shirtless in a crowded park or remove their tops to stay comfortable on a hot day? And why are we allowing such vague language to exist in the laws surrounding nudity? Who gets to decide what constitutes an “intimate part” of the body?
Dr. Stephen de Wit, a sex expert from Toronto, Canada, told Men’s Health in 2015 that — point blank — it’s purely an issue of the way our culture has trained men to view the female body and, in turn, the female breast. “Men have been conditioned to see the female breast and nipple as a sexual accessory,” he said. “They are something to be coveted, desired, and unfortunately hidden until sex is imminent.”
So basically, it’s not only a double-edged sword, but a double standard: The more women are conditioned to cover themselves up, the more sexualized their nipples then become. But the most maddening part of all is that all nipples are basically the same, regardless of the gender of the person whose body they’re residing on.
Dr. de Wit also reminds us of the chief argument at play here, which is: “If the female nipple was seen all the time as in other cultures, it would not be eroticized and logic would dictate therefore not illegal.” So the only way to achieve true nipple equality socially is to require it legally.
In recent years, we’ve admired famous people and non-famous people alike for waging a war against nipple censorship, particularly on social media, where female toplessness in a photo is subject to immediate removal — and the possibility of being banned outright from the platform in particular.
On Instagram, arguably the most popular photo-sharing app right now, a search of #FreeTheNipple yields 3.8 million posts…but none of them feature any actual female nudity. That’s because, according to the app’s Community Guidelines, “nudity” is not allowed on the site. “This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”
Facebook has a similar policy, saying, “We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but our intent is to allow images that are shared for medical or health purposes. We also allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.” Twitter seems to allow photos and videos of female nipples.
Of course, we know that much of the conversation surrounding nudity and censorship is subjective by culture, and that in many other places around the world, the laws are even stricter (like many countries in the Middle East) or much less strict (in much of Western Europe).
But in the United States, the focus on female breasts (including breastfeeding in public, imagery of nipples on social media, and exposing nipples in public) exists largely as another form of body shaming and body scrutiny against women. As women continue to tackle the patriarchy in all its forms, little wins do exist, like when cancer patients post photos of their scars on social media, genderless nipple accounts pop up on Instagram to defy the app’s vague nudity policies, women post pictures of breastfeeding their babies, and yes, when Rihanna covers her whole bod in Swarovski crystals and walks the red carpet, nips out.
We still have a long way to go, but we’re hopeful that someday women’s nipples will be as non-political as men’s nipples are, once and for all.