# free the nipple

As seen in SHIFT Issue 2//Vol. 2

Everyone’s familiar with the first wave of feminism in America; images of 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and black and white suffrage protests come to mind. And 

everyone’s familiar with second wave feminism – women getting access to birth control, 

the free love movement of the 1960s allowing women to liberate their sexuality and 

rejoin the workforce. 

And then there’s the present day, a time when we are fully enveloped in what 

historians have dubbed the third wave of feminism. It is marked by slogans such as 

“Equal Pay for Equal Work,” “Cats Against Catcalls,” and yes, “Free The Nipple.” 

Unsurprisingly, looking back on social movements makes it easier to distinguish right 

from wrong, whereas living in the midst of one leaves both opinions and facts murky 

and unclear. Thus, it is not at all surprising that the recent “Free The Nipple” movement 

has garnered controversy, headlines, support, and disdain. 

Free The Nipple is a decentralized campaign that has attached itself to an 

inequality between men and women; namely, that men’s nipples have been 

desexualized and are permitted in public, on social media outlets, in the news, on 

college campuses, even in some stores and restaurants. A man, purely because of his 

male anatomy, can go for a run, realize it’s a little hotter than he anticipated, and rip off 

his T-shirt without worrying about getting arrested. Women can’t. 

The movement has gained particular traction thanks to Instagram’s Community 

Guidelines that say users should “post photos and videos that are appropriate for a 

diverse audience.” Instagram further elaborates, “We know that there are times when 

people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a 

variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity...it also includes some photos of female 

nipples.” More than one celebrity, including Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Christine 

Teigen, Scout Willis, who flaunted and documented her topless breasts in New York 

City for all of Twitter to see, and Rihanna, who actually had her Instagram account 

suspended after posting a picture of her breasts exposed on the French magazine Lui. 

Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevingne have both joined the movement, as did Miley 

Cyrus, who interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! with nothing covering her nipples except 

for sparkly heart-shaped pasties, talking about how Americans are fine with “tits,” it’s the 

nipples they don’t like. 

It is fairly foreseeable that a radical campaign like Free The Nipple has 

experienced some flack as well. Changing such a long-standing norm for Western 

culture would not be expected to go through without a hitch. This movement raises 

questions about child pornography, subjecting citizens to unwanted images, 

endangering the safety of women, unwanted attention, and even distraction that could 

make people less productive and uncomfortable. Thus, a mediated form of Free The 

Nipple has arisen that has less to do with toplessness and more to do with women 

freeing themselves from the sometimes painful, stifling boob-holder-uppers commonly 

referred to as bras. It’s less about revealing their breasts and more about freeing them 

from the wired constraints of discomfort that date back to the days of corsets (yes, 

women did actually used to pass out from difficulty breathing when their corsets were 

too tight.) 

Peering deeper into the history of this issue and looking internationally, there are 

examples of cultures, particularly in Africa, where the female breast is often exposed, 

such as in Ethiopia, Swaziland, and Namibia. There, the breast is not what Fergie might 

have identified as her “lovely lady lumps,” but rather an innocent utility freely exposed 

and not representing any kind of sexual organ. Native Americans often had exposed 

breasts as well. Europe has always been notorious in the United States for being more 

lax about nudity, with its nude beaches, nude art, and nude cinematic scenes. Think 

Liberty Leading the People by French artist Eugene Delacroix. 

The issue can also be dissected through our microscopes if we look at the 

anatomy of the nipple itself – is a man’s nipple somehow different than the female’s? 

The answer is no. Up until week seven of embryonic development, the fetus follows 

what Medical Daily calls a “female blueprint.” That is, up until week seven of pregnancy, 

all babies are girls. All human embryos develop nipples and parallel mammary ridges 

called milk lines. Pictures have surfaced of men and women labeling their nipples with 

marker, pointing out the similarities – the breast tissue, the nipple, the areola – making a 

point about how men and women, anatomically and biologically, aren’t that different 

after all. 

Legally, however, we still see a distinction. While indecent exposure laws vary 

state to state, a look at Michigan’s laws makes it clear that sexual distinctions still exist. 

In the state of Michigan, a person qualifies as disorderly if he or she is engaged in 

indecent or obscene conduct in a public place; however, Michigan law allows its cities 

and towns “to regulate or prohibit public nudity within village boundaries,” meaning that 

it is up to the townships to regulate public nudity, which is defined as “any individual’s 

genitals or anus with less that a fully opaque covering, or a female’s breast with less 

than a fully opaque covering of the nipple and areola.” In essence, there’s no end-all-be-

all norm, but social constructs and attitudes make it nearly impossible for a woman to 

step out in public with her nipples showing. 

While “Free The Nipple” matters to many women for artistic and moral reasons, it 

also has some important health values. For one, the desexualization of women’s 

breasts would make it easier for women to breastfeed in public and easier for women to 

rejoin the workforce and public spaces after a pregnancy. While laws are becoming 

more lax about women breastfeeding, which is becoming more and more normalized 

and seen as beautiful rather than repulsive, the Free The Nipple movement is important 

for supporting these women. Additionally, Free The Nipple takes some pressure off of 

certain breast cancer campaigns that appear to value the breast over the person. Breast 

cancer campaigns like “Save the Tatas” and “I Heart Boobies” gain popularity thanks to 

the liberation of being able to speak of breasts in a socially acceptable way, but makes 

us forget what’s really important when a woman is facing breast cancer and 

mastectomies. By desexualizing and devaluing the woman’s breast while 

simultaneously increasing the respect and value of the woman herself, the Free the 

Nipple movement could do some pretty amazing things. We’ll just have to wait and 

watch it unfold.