Feminism as a movement has never been a monolith and throughout the centuries, has manifested itself through a multitude of representations and interpretations, yet never entirely representing one thing. During different points throughout history, the feminist movement has focused on achieving different goals, each relevant to the circumstances of the time. In fact, 21st century feminism – aptly named fourth wave feminism – bears little resemblance to her first wave relative.
This fourth wave centres with a new focus on intersectionality and female empowerment. In line with female empowerment, one branch of feminism on the rise would be Free The Nipple, a movement dedicated to challenging nudity laws and more importantly, desexualising women’s breasts and bodies. The aim of this is more than just letting women bare their chests in public, the movement seeks to show love for breasts that don’t meet conventional beauty standards, but also to normalise breast-feeding in public and assert female breasts as body parts before sexual objects. Free The Nipple is young, having only gained traction in the last ten years. The catchphrase rose to notoriety in 2012 when film-maker Lina Esco’s movie Free The Nipple came out, centring around a group of young women fighting to, essentially, free their nipples. From them on, things moved quickly. Celebrities like Rihanna and Miley Cyrus began to back the movement all while protests gained momentum. The movement even boasts an Instagram account of 306,000 followers. Free The Nipple represents women who want to be able to exist comfortably in their bodies without feeling constantly sexualised. If men can show their nipples, why can’t women too?
Let me be clear, I am not against Free The Nipple. I appreciate its value as a social movement in how it aims to free the female anatomy of the unwanted weight of sexualization; a weight that continues to implicitly permeate the lives of women of all ages. I unequivocally support the beliefs behind Free The Nipple, but not how they are manifested. I believe that Free The Nipple is problematic and counteractive to feminism for a number of reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, Free The Nipple diverts attention away from other far more pressing and prominent issues. The reality is, Free The Nipple is far down the list of priorities on any feminist’s agenda. In an ideal world, all sexist issues would be given adequate airtime, but in reality this isn’t possible, so the most important issues must take the forefront. There are far more impactful and tragic matters in the current day that are more deserving of attention, including child marriage, domestic violence, reproductive rights — the list goes on. The Free The Nipple problem pales against these examples. These issues are much more important in daily life and generally tend to impact women who come from a more marginalised community than the average Free The Nipple activist. White Feminism comes into play to a certain extent as many women of colour argue that Free The Nipple is a white feminist’s creation; only white feminists would create a movement out of such a non-issue, especially when there are other more pressing issues that disproportionately impact non-white women. Important to note is that the Free The Nipple movie featured an almost all-white cast of conventionally attractive women, and the movement was popularised mainly by, you guessed it, conventionally attractive white celebrities. So while the movement boasts of seeking equality for the chests of all, it was borne out of restrictive and exclusionary White Feminism.
In addition, Free The Nipple can be dangerous in real life. The essence of the movement means that Free The Nipple opens up opportunities for dangerous advances and harassment from naysayers, particularly at protests where women are naked. Nude female protesters congregate in public areas to rally for Free The Nipple and while this is reasonable and relatively innocuous, the protests turn sour fast. Many people, mostly men, show up to harass, gawk or hurl insults at protesters, even going so far as attempting to assault them; the protests quickly turn into male-gaze fests. Oftentimes women who voice their support of Free The Nipple are met with perverted and unsettling comments from men making clear that they wouldn’t mind it at all. These comments are discomfiting because they fail to appreciate the deeper meaning of Free The Nipple, which is to desexualize women’s bodies. The emotional and psychological labour of experiencing these forms of harassment can be taxing on activists.
Furthermore, there’s the question of if women would even free their nipples once given the chance to. If legislation that allowed topless women in public were to be passed, how many would actually exercise that right? While the movement isn’t just literally being able to free your nipples in public, the premise of it is and if women have no interest in this, is Free The Nipple really worth pursuing? How many women would, if they could, go out topless as though a man? In American states where it’s legal for women to go out topless, few actually do. As the idea that modesty is equated to covering up has conditioned us from a young age, the time and energy invested in Free The Nipple is largely wasted, or yields a low return.
Finally, Free The Nipple is simply unrealistic. In order for this idea to succeed at any level, women’s bodies would need to be desexualised. Let’s be frank, this isn’t likely. Women’s bodies will always be seen as sexual to some extent, and this isn’t even exclusive to women. Men’s bodies are also frequently subject to unwanted sexualisation. Until women’s bodies can be seen as just bodies, Free The Nipple will never go anywhere and feminists are better off investing their time and labour elsewhere.