Free the nipple! Do we need a campaign about bare breasts?

Published: 23 July 2015 Tags: breast feeding, campaign, censorship By John Walding

Claudia Carvell explores the reasons behind the 'Free The Nipple' campaign...and expresses a few doubts about its underlying motives:

The ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign, which originated in the U.S and took off last year, advocates against the double standards surrounding the censorship of female breasts.

Put into context, this can range from police arresting women and society shaming women for breastfeeding in public, to Facebook banning a picture of a topless stick figure - under the claim of obscenity - whilst allowing explicit videos of individuals being beheaded to remain.

The overall aim - to take away the shame and stigma associated with exposing female breasts - services gender equality and therefore seems to be a feminist no-brainer. That is until you delve into the campaign’s grey areas.

For a start, our Western society is inundated with (socially acceptable and idealised versions of) breasts - between the internet and the newsagent magazine rack - we have that covered. But it’s exactly that bracketed reality that often goes unacknowledged: who’s breasts are we making visible and thus legitimising, and on what terms?

One of the campaigns central tenets is that breastfeeding should be allowed in public, and anywhere else for that matter. Denying that right assumes that breasts are always already sexual, and cannot be seen as maternal or practical.

I agree with this entirely. If the baby has to eat, then the baby should eat. Society’s sexism should not come between that. So that’s that, women’s breasts are not inherently sexual objects, and should be legitimised as food producers as and when the possessor of said breasts sees fit.

However, on the campaign website, no clarification is given around the fact that for many women, breasts are also or primarily, sexual. Almost all feminists believe in a woman’s right to be a sexual subject, but what about when she chooses to also be a sexual object?

For instance, thinking back to the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign in which feminists successfully convinced The Sun to remove its Page 3 topless female model feature: many of the campaign’s opponents - past and present Page 3 models - stated that they had taken the paid modelling opportunity by choice. Some referred to the value if did to their careers and stated that they enjoyed the experience.

Consequently, you might expect these two campaigns to be opposing, but in fact, they’re in allegiance. This allegiance is based on their agreement of the context in which women should have the agency to be topless. Not when they’re sexualised alongside news articles, luxury items and a collection of non-sexual content (like every lads mag, ever), but when they’re choosing to be sexual or maternal or just for no reason at all.

But how do we position the choice the Page 3 models made, and other glamour models make, to be sexualised in contexts these feminists don’t approve of, when many of them are doing so in order to make a living or simply because, they want to? As this interesting article explores, there could be a class issue at the root of this divide.

Therefore, one of the problems with trying to de-sexualise a female nipple so it can have the same freedoms as a male nipple, is trying to establish on what terms women’s nipples can still be sexualised without compromising the fight for equality.

Alongside this though, is another issue around the visibility and legitimisation of female nipples: the nipples being freed in support for this campaign are, by and large, nipples idealised by (patriarchal) traditional standards of beauty, owned by the likes of Cara Delevigne, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Scout Willis.

Even the trailer for the campaign’s movie upholds these same standards, as does the supporting campaign for public breastfeeding: ‘When Nurture Calls’. For a feminist movement, which aims to change the way the Western world views the nipple, shouldn’t we also be confronting the airbrushed-esc portrayal of women’s bodies (typically light-skinned, slim, able-bodied, symmetrical)?

As one blogger commented, how revolutionary is it that people who adhere to society's expectations of beauty are posing topless?

Additionally, as Andy Martin on social media commented, because the majority of media attention surrounds the ‘beautiful, upper class, usually white female or male celebrities who support the cause, this campaign is given more coverage than other feminist issues, such as the wage gap, reproductive health, or crimes in which women tend to be a high proportion of victims’.

And finally (my last qualm, I promise), what about the complete lack of consideration surrounding trans* bodies? Now, whilst I assume (/I hope) their feminist politics are trans-inclusive, their attachment of the category woman to the possession of breasts overlooks people who identify as male, but possess breasts, and people that identify as female but do not, and all the identifications and body types in between.

Despite all my criticisms, I should finish by acknowledging the progress that the campaign has brought about. On Instagram and Facebook, active breastfeeding and post-mastectomy pictures are now allowed. This is an important move in achieving gender equality through advocating for the not-necessarily-sexual nature and aesthetically-idealised appearance of female nipples and breasts.

It is also a strong resistance to the leaking of female celebrities nude photos, Jennifer Lawrence being the most recent. It exposes the difference between women choosing to and having the right to be topless in public - regardless of the context - and women being sexually exploited through having their private photos stolen and leaked to the public in order to humiliate and shame them.

The subject of shame is all over this campaign: the female nipple should not be shameful, it should not be censored.

Want to find out more? Check out the official 'Free The Nipple' campaign website.

The 'Man As Woman' photography project also challenges notions of femininity and the 'rules' around exposed nipples with its images of men captured in traditionally feminine poses. Find out more here.

Is 'Free The Nipple' a valid campaign, or are there more important issues to be campaigning on? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

This is one of a series of opinion pieces written by LGBT Foundation volunteers and does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the charity.