“Don’t subject me to your shame about my body.”
Free the Nipple (2014)
Free the Nipple is an independent film directed by actress turned activist Lina Esco. Set in New York City, it stars Esco and New York native Lola Kirke as the instigators of nation-wide publicity stunts involving topless women and aimed at highlighting the double standards concerning male versus female nudity as well as integrating the sight of the female breast into the mainstream. According to Kirke’s character, the women involved want to bring about more responsible images of female nudity, ones that aren’t hyper sexualised. The film is touching; beautifully shot and scored. However, the dialogue is a little on the nose and self-congratulatory, giving the project the feel of a student film. Ultimately, it feels like a footnote to the broader Free the Nipple Movement – also pioneered by Lina Esco.
The term ‘Free the Nipple’ has penetrated our cultural lexicon as a sometimes serious; sometimes tongue in cheek justice reform slogan that calls for a woman’s right to exist uncensored, and to receive the same liberties as her male counterparts. Originating from Esco’s film it now encompasses a larger gender equality campaign of the same name. The Free the Nipple campaign utilizes art, protests and social media to promote equal rights for men and women: notably through confronting laws, policies and cultural norms that require women to cover up their bodies. The movement gained traction back in 2014 when it briefly trended on the Internet in conjunction with the film’s release, in the midst of what Esco then referred to as a “puritanical-cultural-warzone”.
Esco’s aim over the years has been to draw attention to, among other things, the criminalization of breastfeeding: wherein a woman can be fined or arrested for breastfeeding in public. And beyond that, to remind us that as recently as 1930, laws existed that prevented men from exposing their nipples. The male nipple was considered smutty and pornographic and showing a topless male actor on film was deemed scandalous. While we now consider those types of laws archaic and an absurd infringement on a person’s rights – we do not yet seem to believe that those same rights could or should extend to women.
Laws pertaining to ‘public lewdness’ often mean that even in the spaces where a woman can legally expose her bare breasts she can be arrested anyway if her presence is judged offensive. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where we now spend much of our time, have followed suit by policing images of the female nipple – reprimanding users and deleting accounts – more aggressively and effectively than they screen extreme violence. Put another way, the position held by large companies, the government and the media is that beheadings, torture and mutilated corpses are less offensive and less dangerous than a woman having agency over her own body.
The way we have responded to the Free the Nipple movement as a culture is interesting to step back and observe. For all that it has fuelled public discourse it has also come up against a brick wall of resistance. It was in many ways, dead on arrival. With the exception of a few pockets of enthusiasm we have, for the most part, responded with indifference; eyebrows sceptically raised. This is surprising because the structure and integrity of its mission statement does not lend itself to scepticism, in the sense that the objectives offered are reasonable, clear and concise. The campaign promotes basic human rights and equality and has at its heart achievable goals: that our justice systems treat men and women equally and that women not be arrested when they haven’t broken the law.
And yet we trivialize it as ‘feminism on steroids’ – irrational and unworkable. As if Lina Esco had demanded we retroactively send a woman to the moon ahead of a man wearing nothing but suspenders and a pussy hat. At best: a fringe issue. At worst: women fighting for the right to be vulgar and for the right to be seen more than they deserve to be seen.
So why hasn’t it taken hold? Partly because, as a result of censorship, the movement’s core premise of de-stigmatising the female nipple is innately incommunicable. Especially on social media, which is where most people now get their information. In a stunning act of corporate censorship most of Free the Nipple’s content was initially banned from Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Google Plus alike, and much of that suppression persists today. I don’t have the answer to why companies such as these have taken this stance but it is unsurprising that Free the Nipple is no friend to the corporate world. Corporations that sell products know that if women could reveal their breasts as and when they chose to, they would be losing one of their most valuable marketing tools: their monopoly on images of the female body. The female form could no longer be litigated and repressed by laws passed by men and simultaneously packaged for profit by male-dominated organisations.
This is no doubt one of the reasons why the movement has been dismissed as unimportant. Many of us have internalised the idea that the female body is a commercial commodity used to advertise everything from brands, clothes and accessories to art and pornography. Thus we identify it as superficial. Further contributing to this perception: the Free the Nipple activism of celebrities like Miley Cyrus who, while drawing the world’s attention, also drain the movement of gravitas. Even the name arguably lacks the seriousness warranted.
Better the Devil You Know
Another reason why it hasn’t taken hold is the reluctance of most women to support or prioritise its agenda. As women, we are aware that we are more susceptible to being judged and labelled for the choices we make and have therefore learnt to avoid un-necessary pitfalls. If a woman actively pursues her right to be topless on a beach it’s because she’s ‘courting sexual attention’, she’s ‘opportunistic’ and ‘promiscuous’. Equally, if she were granted the right to be topless and chose to be clothed: she’d be a ‘prude’. Better then, to embrace the status quo: staying quiet and concealed.
And it certainly doesn’t have the support of most men. A male friend of mine was, to his credit, able to admit that he would hate for women to have the same right as he did to strip down because it would make seeing a naked woman less of a novelty. Without modesty, secrecy and taboo – there is less to conquer.
And finally, old faithful: we have all been conditioned to fear that if women showed more of their bodies they would corrupt the world with their unchecked sexuality. They would be raped because – they’d be asking for it and how could men possibly control themselves? Child pornography would skyrocket. We’d all go up in flames.
Nevertheless, she persisted
The first attempt at this movement has not managed to achieve critical mass in terms of support, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth engaging with. Whether you’re a man or a woman it might be worth finding out what the laws are where you live pertaining to female nudity and deciding what you think about them. It might be the moment to re-imagine this movement and persist.
If you think change is unrealistic, remember that there was a time when a woman showing so much as her ankle was unthinkable and we’ve all successfully readjusted. If you think that the cause is of no great concern, remember that when we demand equality in any one area, it tends to have a knock-on effect. Granting women and their bodies the same respect and freedom that we give to men and theirs would suddenly make something like equal pay seem less inconceivable. And hopefully when we really sit down to think about it we can all agree that women, like men, should be putting on a top in hot weather because they want to, not because it’s illegal not to.
But, most importantly, persist because young girls should not be shamed for growing into women. They should not be made to feel as though their brothers’ bodies are natural and good but their bodies are provocative and indecent. If the Free the Nipple tagline isn’t working then let’s thank it, retire it, and get back in the fight with something new. Or else, as Lola Kirke’s character puts it: “Complain to the manufacturer. Get on your knees and pray for God to create a less obscene version of us.”
Written by Sabrina Ceol.
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