Animation by Stephanie Indrajo
In a society of shifting morals and public policy, nipples are a topic of hot debate. Since the release of the 2014 Netflix film ‘Free the Nipple’ the campaign #FreetheNipple has become a global phenomenon with more and more women daring to go top free in honour of gender equality.
To many, female toplessness and nipple exposure is a sign of indecency, immorality, crudeness and sex. It then seems absurd that the female nipple’s counterpart, the male nipple, is usually not connotated in such an obscene manner. Nipples have a varying and rather interesting place in history, however, not many people are aware of the historical significance of the nipple and the ways in which they developed different cultures.
Most of humanity has received its first source of nourishment from the female breast. Breast milk contains the essential nutrients that babies need for growth and brain development and it has antibodies that help fight harmful bacteria and diseases. Male breasts cannot produce this breast milk. Many women are frowned upon for breastfeeding their children in public areas. Some are even asked to perform this pure form of motherhood in a toilet, which seems unreasonable as one would not make another person have a meal in a toilet once we are older.
Let’s start by looking at the women of the pre-Victorian era. Within the society at royal court, women having at least one nipple exposed was not a strange or uncommon thing. In fact, the amount of nipple one showed would even determine whether a woman was of a higher ranking or whether she was a mistress. The low-cut attire was quite often associated with morality, maternity and surprisingly even virginity. The rationale behind this was that the perkier the breast of a woman the less likely she is to have given birth or had intimate relations with another suitor. Many mothers within the royal court such as the Countess of Nassau Dietz, Sophia Hewdig, who is famously depicted in a painting with her breast exposed as she is surrounded by her three sons. This was not done in a crude or mocking way, rather it is a sign of her maternity and nurturing nature. When Queen Victoria became ruler of England this ideology changed. The reason for this being that breast exposure was a form of sexual behaviour, an act frowned upon amongst the religious aristocrats.
It was not before long that Queen Victoria’s views spread to many corners of the world. In many cultures worldwide, toplessness was a sign of fertility and nourishment. Breasts were not to be shameful or sexualised, simply walking around with only the bottom half of the body covered was common practice. Interestingly enough, only high-class Indian women were fully clothed until the passing of the right that allowed all women to be clothed in 1856. An abundance of tribes in Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos and many more had women of all ages living free from the constraints of societal pressures to “look more decent”. The shift in mindset for many of these tribes was a view that came with colonisation. This was that in order to be considered “civilised” one has to behave in the same manner as the colonisers. Unsurprisingly, this led to the expectations that all those who are civilised and educated must cover up their breasts and appear more decent according to the Western standards. The urge to be more westernised still continues to drive many cultures and the train of thought to this day, rather than following cultural roots.
It should be mentioned however, that male nipple exposure has not always been allowed in all places. In the United States, men were not allowed to show their nipples in public until the 1940’s. This ban on chest exposure was dissolved after a few protests carried out by male swimmers and some media coverage. Today seeing men in nothing but swimming trunks is not a sight that is frowned upon. This gives hope that as we move on almost 80 years later, women too will have this form of freedom.
Another interesting nipple fact: the nipples of Celtic Irish Kings were sucked on as a way to show submission and obedience! If a King failed in his duties, which included ensuring good weather for harvest, yes regulating good weather, he would be deemed unfit for his kingship and his nipples were cut off. No nipples meant you could not be king.
The main basis for the #FreetheNipple campaign, in my opinion, is not to emphasise that women just want to roam the streets half naked. No, it is rooted in the desire for equality amongst the genders. Some argue that female nipples should be covered up because they are erogenous zones, however, a study showed that 52% of men find their nipples an area of sexual pleasure as well. Does this equate that 52% of men should also cover up and fear being sexualised for their nipples? I don’t think so.
The sexualisation of women and their breasts in modern day media is an increasing issue as a multitude of women have become afraid of fully embracing their breasts because they do not look the same as the ones portrayed in the media and pornographic culture. There has been a pushback since the start of the 2014 campaign though, and this pushback has spread to all over the globe. From the exposure of nipples by celebrities such as Rihanna, to the use of sheer tops by women in countries such as South Africa, women are finally saying enough is enough. Maastricht also has some individuals and groups such as the ‘Babygirl Movement’ standing up to the stigmatisation of female breasts.
It is time for us to move beyond the era of finding some nipples acceptable and others shameful. Nipples, big or small, male or female, deserve to be treated equally. Now in the 21st century it is time to move away from the Victorian line of thinking because our social norms have developed. We can only hope that this step towards equality between men and women becomes not just a topic of hot debate but a reality as well.