Free the Nipple

By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The human anatomy of the female body is no secret–though it is largely sexualized.

Michelangelo sculpted the curves and folds of it into marble. Hugh Hefner attached a bunny tail to it and created a pop culture movement embracing its sexuality. And today, anyone with internet access can view countless images of women’s bodies through a simple search.

While American society has become accustomed to seeing an exposed female body in these static forms, nipples and all, it has yet to welcome the real-time exposure of such body parts.

Outside of strip clubs and away from nude beaches, women are mandated to keep their chests covered. Even necessary and non-sexual acts such as breastfeeding have received a great deal of social backlash, with many mothers starting petitions to have such harassment be illegal.

Today there are technically 33 states in the US where women are allowed to be topless. However, in many states where such exposure is allowed, municipal laws within that state may ban female nudity. Additionally, law enforcement officers may arrest women if they consider their behavior “offensive or lewd.”

Enraged by these constraints, a group of young women banded together to protest the censorship within New York City, where in the past law officers have arrested women for walking around topless.

The “Free the Nipple” equality movement began with a film that followed young women as they aimed to spread awareness and “change the system through publicity stunts and graffiti installations while armed with First Amendment lawyers.”

Since the release of the fictionalized corresponding film in 2014, many people, including celebrities, have hopped onto the movement’s bandwagon through social media. The Instagram hashtag #freethenipple, as well as the Facebook Free the Nipple page made its rounds after the film debuted, with many young women submitting topless photos.

When Juliet Williams, Associate Professor of Gender Studies at University of California, Los Angeles first heard about the Free the Nipple movement she was ecstatic.

“As a woman, my first thought was ‘Finally.’ People might get to the point where they would see that a breast is no more a sexual object than a milk delivery system,” Williams tells BTR.

With gender-centric issues such as gay marriage and transgender rights gaining support and exposure from the media in recent years, Williams believes that it’s only a matter of time before the topless issue makes its rounds as well.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“There is no possibility of freedom of liberation [for women] without this very basic fundamental right,” Williams says.

Not everyone has the same viewpoint though.

Janet Afary, professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara for example, argues that “a nipple emancipation movement is the last thing women need in this world.”

Afary has studied the “hook-up culture” that has become prevalent among young people in today’s society and is convinced that a movement like Free the Nipple would only enforce more casual dating and increase the “objectification of women.”

“There are so many more precious things that women are fighting for,” explains Afary, who believes the movement detracts attention from other issues both in the US and globally.

Afary also believes that society’s ostracization of mothers who breastfeed in public is an issue that should be completely separate from the Free the Nipple movement, since breastfeeding is a “necessary and healthy act for women” while exhibition of female’s nipples is “unnecessary.”

Williams on the other hand, feels that dividing the issues would only slow down progress.

“As a matter of empirical facts, one of the greatest impediments of feminists organizing has been creating divisions among women,” says Williams, noting that race, class, and sexual preference divide many feminists.

While Williams admits that increased exposure of women’s bodies may enable others to exploit uncovered women in a “more obvious way than we’ve seen before,” such fears should not completely deter the activism.

“An equality movement like Free the Nipple is not an argument that everyone should go topless,” Williams says. “It’s an argument that the government should not be determining the limits of self expression.”

With such differing opinions on the matter around the world, it’s hard to tell how much momentum the Free the Nipple movement will ultimately gain. However, as long as it remains intertwined with the idea of women’s overall equality, there is a good possibility it will remain present in the media.