Free the nipple: Time to make going topless as unremarkable for women as it is for men

It is time to stop the hysteria about bare breasts and make going topless as easy and unremarkable for women as it is for men, writes Suzanne Harrington.




MAYBE future generations will remember 2014 as the year of the boob. Sorry. The breast. Even as we march around wearing our ‘No More Page Three’ t-shirts, with just under 30,000 of us tweeting The Sun to urge its editor to put them away for good — resulting in The Sun’s 22 million free copies being Page Three-free — social media had leapfrogged forward again. Ahead of this straightforward old-school feminism of no longer wishing to see female breasts used as sexualised wallpaper in mainstream newspapers, young women are now focused on something rather more radical — Free The Nipple. That is, closing the perception gap between the male and female breast.

This initiative, spearheaded by high-profile young women such as Scout Willis and Miley Cyrus, follows a film of the same name by an American equality campaigner called Lina Esco. What it suggests is equality at its simplest; that the female nipple needs to be perceived the same way we perceive the male nipple — that is, non-sexually. In a neutral, non-emotive and desexualised manner. That is, without causing the internet to melt every time one makes its way onto social media. Willis, daughter of Bruce and Demi Moore, has taken to being photographed unclothed from the waist up to emphasise the point — and has been duly derided.

But first, the offending nipples. You may be aware of the entertainer Rihanna’s penchant for frequently being photographed naked or almost naked. Recently, when she posted a photo of herself on Instagram, which appeared in softcore magazine Lui, her account was closed. The photos were highly sexualised, but then so is everything connected with Rihanna.

Not so Heather Bays, a Canadian woman living in Toronto, whose Instagram account was also closed down on Mother’s Day when she posted a picture of herself breast-feeding her toddler. When she complained to Instagram, they said it was not because of the breast feeding, but because of the “child nudity” (her child was fully clothed). This made even less sense.

Until this month, Facebook had the same policy — if you uploaded photos of breast-feeding, you were breaking the site’s rules. Beheadings were fine, but not breast-feeding babies.

Small wonder then that the rather splendid Scout Willis struck out toplessly and put herself all over social media to highlight this enormous yet largely unquestioned inequality. Obviously, she was castigated for being a rich white narcissist, but once you get past the instant media kneejerk, her actions could be viewed more akin to those of feminist activists Femen — who protest while topless, to emphasise strength through fearlessness — than her showbizzy peer Rihanna. Predictably, Willis’s Instagram account was deleted for “instances of abuse”.

“I understand that people don’t want to take me seriously,” she said. “Or would rather just write me off as an attention-seeking, over-privileged, ignorant, white girl. I am white and I was born to a high-profile and financially privileged family. I didn’t choose my public life, but it did give me this platform. A platform that helps make body politics newsworthy.”

Body politics have always been newsworthy, providing it is the female body being dissected. At the turn of the last century, it was female legs. Men could show a leg, but women could not. By mid-century, it was midriffs – ladies in bikinis caused an outrage. At the start of this century, it is nipples. Men can expose their nipples anywhere they wish without causing comment, apart from perhaps at funerals or black-tie dinners, whereas women cannot get theirs out even to fulfil their biological purpose without causing social and cultural meltdown. And not just online.

Despite the practical purpose of the bosom — it is, after all, the male breast which is wholly decorative — the female breast has been sexualised to the extent that we view it almost entirely as a source of titillation (sorry, couldn’t help myself) rather than nutrition. Hence the hysterics if a nipple makes its way onto Instagram. A man with his shirt off is a stud, but a woman with her shirt off is a slut. Is this fair, or equal, or even remotely polite?

Lina Esco, who made the Free The Nipple film, thinks that being allowed to be topless in public is an equality issue, and cites as an example of America’s “puritanical culture” a woman who was arrested and jailed for sunbathing topless in New Jersey (the woman went on hunger strike briefly to protest the absurdity of her case). In Northern Europe, people may be more relaxed about bare breasts, but puritanism still remains evident in the media’s obsession with ‘side boobs’ and ‘nip slips’ – just pick up any gossip magazine to see evidence of this. When Janet Jackson exposed a nipple at the American Superbowl, it was as though she had accidentally hit the nuclear button — yet Halle Berry and her nipples have regularly appeared in public, with considerable sang froid, under see-through clothing. The world kept on turning.

Perhaps we should heed Lindsey Stocker, a 15-year-old American school girl, who, after she was berated by her vice principal for wearing shorts handed out flyers stating: “Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects.”

By the time Stocker — or more likely her daughters — grow up, the female nipple freak-out may be considered as quaint as Victorians putting frills on table legs. Or maybe it will take longer than that. “Breasts desperately need a rosier future,” writes Florence Williams in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. “They need a safer world more attuned to their vulnerabilities, and they need good listeners, not just good oglers.”

THE NIPPLE: A BRIEF HISTORY

* Men have not always enjoyed nipple freedom — at least not in the US, where it also remains illegal in three states for women to breastfeed in public (Utah, Indiana, Tennessee).

* In 1930 four men were arrested on Coney Island New York for taking their tops off on the beach, resulting in protests for men to be allowed to undress to the waist while sunbathing.

* The film star Clark Gable subsequently appeared topless in It Happened One Night, the first man to do so in American cinema, but in 1935 a group of 42 topless men were arrested in Atlantic City New Jersey.

* New York finally lifted its male topless ban in 1936, which slowly changed the perception of male nipples from obscene to normal.

* The public female nipple was not decriminalised by New York’s supreme court until 1992, which means that technically women can walk the city streets as topless as their male counterparts. However, this doesn’t happen very often.

* It is illegal to sunbathe topless in 47 American states, and in Louisiana a woman exposing her nipples can be jailed for up to three years.



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