Why Do We Sexualize Nipples Anyway?

In the 1930s, believe it or not, men’s nipples were considered just as taboo as women’s nipples. A man exposing his naked chest was indecent, and shocking. In the 1930s, four men went shirtless to Coney Island, and they were arrested. Then, in 1935, a mob of topless men in Atlantic City protested; 42 were arrested, but their efforts paid off: By 1936, the naked male chest became accepted as a social norm. Today, men walk around freely topless and you see at least ten bare male chests per fashion magazine. Women’s chests? Not so much in the 1930s, and not so much now.

Nipples, which we’re all talking about thanks to the #Freethenipple campaign, set a peculiar double standard. While men can (now) go shirtless, women cannot without facing controversy, social media bans or even arrests. Rihanna literally sparkled in her Swarovski dress several nights ago at the CFDA Fashion Awards, but critics were stunned by her nipples, which were pretty much on full display. Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, was recently banned from Instagram because she posted a photo of herself in a sheer top, as well as a photograph of two topless friends. Considering there is so much more offensive, derogatory, and scary material on Instagram, it’s kind of shocking that something so benign was flagged.

Scout Willis thought so, too. Which is why she decided to walk around East Village, NY, topless, and document the event on Twitter. Many feel like Scout’s actions are purely opportunistic and self-serving (she’s gaining crazy amounts of attention). But even more support her decision to protest the objectification of women’s bodies, the never-ending body-shaming women face if they breastfeed in public or don’t wear a bra. Willis’ says her goal was to inspire a conversation about body positivity and gender inequality, and while she’s come across as provocative to some, she’s certainly encouraging many to think about nipples in a different light. She’s challenging Instagram’s guidelines as well as societal norms, questioning why we still sexualize breastfeeding mothers and why Facebook allows photos of a cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy, but a photo of fully exposed breasts, “particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery” is not okay. Why about nipples creates such a stark dichotomy between “right” and “wrong?” Why are women’s nipples sexual and men’s are not?

If you haven’t read Willis’ piece on xoJane, you totally should. It’s a really well-written essay about how she feels about her actions, and why they’re necessary. In it, she says, “What I’m arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body—and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.”

What do you think? Should a woman’s nipples be censored?

Featured image via.