What the hell is #freethenipple, anyway?

Your seven-point feminist guide to the topless trend sweeping social networks

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If you've been following Facebook and Twitter sometime in the last 24 hours, you'd probably think the world's gone #freethenipple mad. Everybody's talking about the breast-baring campaign sweeping Iceland, which has seen women across the country pose topless to protest sexual objectification and double standards. Hey, if men can get their nips out in the park once the sun starts shining, why can't we? 

But #freethenipple isn't just a purely Icelandic phenom; over the past year, it's become something of a global movement. From the streets of New York to Soko's gig in London last night, the topless crusade is reaching ever newer heights of popularity – but not without picking up some detractors along the way. We unpack the feminist campaign below. 


The #freethenipple hashtag started going viral on social networks everywhere after 17-year-old student Adda Þóreyjardóttir Smáradóttir, chair of the Feminist society at the Commercial College of Iceland, declared Thursday "Free The Nipple Day" at school. When a guy friend told her that she'd be letting herself in for trouble, she posted a topless selfie of herself to prove him wrong – only for a troll to start attacking her online. 

"It was difficult and I had to delete the picture for a few minutes, but it was enough to start a revolution," she wrote on Facebook. Feminist student societies and women all over Iceland rushed to her support, posting images of their own nips on social media and daring the trolls to get them, too.


American filmmaker Lina Esco came up with the hashtag to promote her 2014 movie, Free The Nipplewhich follows a group of women in New York as they launch a revolution against unfair laws in the city banning female public nudity. Lola Kirke, sister of Girls' actor Jemima, plays a gutsy feminist activist who lands in jail for streaking around Wall Street. But while the film was badly received when it came out (the Guardian called it an "unwatchable passion project"), Esco has moved onto bigger and brighter things – getting the world to free the nipple IRL. 


So how does a hashtag campaign from an indie film get worldwide attention, you might ask? Bruce Willis. Well, OK, Bruce Willis' daughter, Scout. The daughter of the Die Hard star and Demi Moore took a stroll around Manhattan's East Village topless in order to raise awareness for the campaign. She says her conversion moment came when she got kicked off Instagram for posting a sweatshirt featuring a picture of two bare-chested women. "Women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple – degrading as they might be – remain unchallenged," she wrote in a post on xoJane. "So I walked around New York topless and documented it on Twitter, pointing out that what is legal by New York state law is not allowed on Instagram." 


When there's a good cause, Cara Delevingne won't be too far behind. In the past, the model has campaigned for the environment at the People's Climate March and thrown her support behind National Coming Out Day. Shortly after Willis' uptown protest walk, Delevingne posted this picture hashtagged #freethenipple, pointing out the hypocrisy in censoring female nipples on Instagram.


Miley Cyrus joined up to the #freethenipple cause after a topless photo of herself was flagged and removed for violating Instagram's terms and conditions. In response, she took to posting hilarious cut-and-paste Photoshop jobs of herself as topless (but censored for Insta's benefit, obviously), all tagged #freethenipple.

The French grunge-pop singer and former CK One campaign star has also been on a one-woman mission to get people to take their tops off. At her gig last night at the 100 Club in London, she shouted, "At Manchester last night the whole fucking room did it, are you worse than Manchester?" Cue a stage invasion of topless girls, just in time for Soko (also topless) to belt out her new single "I Thought I Was An Alien".  

Finally, Willow Smith (who, let's clarify, is way too young to even think about going topless) tweeted a picture of herself in a trompe-l'œil top featuring a bare-chested Greek statue.


#freethenipple isn't totally without controversy – porn bots and trolls have already flooded the hashtag, making it clear they're using the images posted by women for less than savoury means (sample tweet: "I'd fuck that slut"). But there's also some concern that the movement is kind of, well, missing the point."For me, Free the Nipple was to feminism what the argument about shaving legs was to Tumblr feminism in 2011: an ego boost for those comfortable enough to participate," one feminist wrote in Bustle. "I believe the movement has been appropriated to create a new impossible beauty standard for women."

Scrolling through the #freethenipple hashtag, you notice a few things: a lot of the posters are white, thin and able-bodied. Many are conventionally attractive; most of them are young. In short: no old, flabby, lopsided or wrinkly tits here. For a campaign that claims to work against sexual objectification and censorship – something that arguably affects all women at some point in their lives – that lack of diversity is an honest shame. As one blogger puts it: "There’s nothing revolutionary about beautiful, thin women posing topless."


Equality, basically. Cut out all the noise and it's clear that there is a fundamental unfairness in how we respond to male and female nudity, and it's one that stretches all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. 

As Scout Willis points out, "In the 1930s, men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way. In 1930, four men went topless to Coney Island and were arrested. In 1935, a flash mob of topless men descended upon Atlantic City, 42 of whom were arrested. Men fought and they were heard, changing not only laws but social consciousness. And by 1936, men’s bare chests were accepted as the norm."

While not everyone cares about whether they're able to pose topless on Instagram, there are everyday ramifications to this public prudishness. In December, one woman was forced by staff to cover up while trying to breastfeed her child in Claridge's. Louise Burns told the Guardian: "My initial reaction was to burst into tears. This was my third baby. I had trouble breastfeeding the first two but this was going well. I didn’t expect to be admonished in a central London hotel."

Burns' experience of public shaming is echoed all across the world; in the past few years, mothers in Sao Paolo have staged street protests to campaign against the public prejudice. Their cause, too, is part of #freethenipple. 

Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, public nudity is no longer a criminal offence in the UK. But as the Icelandic student who kicked this all off found out, women are still subject to intense scrutiny and censure when it comes to nipples – a form of disapproval which, unfairly, men aren't subject to. 

“Society as a whole considers breast taboo," Smáradóttir wrote on Facebook. "Men being topless is a natural thing in society. Men pull up their shirt when celebrating their favourite footballer and it is not a rare sight. But how would society react if I did the same?” It's time for us to find out. 

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