While undoubtedly coming from a good place, the reality is that the Free the Nipple movement may reinforce – rather than reject – the male gaze
Since its 2014 inception, #FreeTheNipple has quickly become a benchmark for insta-feminism; an easily attainable hashtag that connotes a wider acknowledgment of gender equality. Initially started with a view to desexualise our breasts, fight censorship on social media and expose the double standard in our attitudes towards male and female bodies, the movement has become ingrained in our URL and IRL lexicon. If a nip slip is left un-hashtagged with those three words on Instagram, is it even a feminist statement at all?
Supported by a host of celebrities including Amber Rose, Miley Cyrus and Cara Delevingne, its popularity is perhaps unsurprising. With many women using social media platforms to take control of their own image and liberate themselves from male constructed depictions, the online world has often provided a space safe for women to express themselves on their own terms. But over two years, three million Instagram entries and a documentary later, has #FreeTheNipple made any substantial change to censorship regulations?
LGBT campaigners and members of the feminist community have been quick to denounce the campaign for its lack of inclusivity and tendency to only provide a platform for white, cis, skinny able-bodies. It’s not an unfair criticism – those confident enough to participate in such a campaign are more likely women that already fall within the narrow ideals constructed by society in the first place.
It’s undoubtedly easier to feel confident in your body if your breasts closely resemble those depicted in wider society at large. When a skinny white woman frees her nipple from a society that says she shouldn’t, it’s liberating; but when someone who does not fall into those norms, such as a disabled woman or someone with pubic hair, posts an intimate picture they often open themselves up to the vast sea of criticism the internet can facilitate. The movement itself hasn’t done much in the way of denouncing this criticism either, with official merchandise portraying perky, pert breasts that push a B cup at best.
By only catering to the liberation of a select few, #FreeTheNipple fails to encompass inclusive feminism that many members of the feminist community strive for and expect. In an opinion piece published by Mic, transwoman Courtney Demone detailed the complications of the movement for transwomen, questioning the idea that if the benchmark for femininity online is a censored nipple image, then when will her breasts be considered femme enough for censorship?
By portraying only those that are already widely accepted in society – and placing the benchmark for feminine identity at the point in which you can no longer expose yourself online – the movement only stands to exclude. Further enforcing taboos of non-conventional, non-conforming bodies and upholding the rigid gender rules still prevalent in society.
Despite this, there are many valid cases to be made in favour of #FreeTheNipple, one of which being, why are we allowed to be sold breasts but not to enjoy owning them? There seems to be a double standard at play – women are constantly exposed to imagery that depicts their bodies as sexual objects, but when we start taking ownership of our sexual agency the imagery is deemed inappropriate. There’s nothing to suggest that individual women making individual choices cannot be liberated by a movement that urges them to reconsider the framework in which our breasts our placed, or that those fighting for change can not be sexual human beings while doing so.
But while women are still hyper-sexualised in so many areas of the media and entertainment industries, #FreeTheNipple’s popularity could be argued as just another extension of how women are subconsciously taught to cater to the male gaze. The fact a female is holding the camera does not erase how we play up to its tricks, the poses we execute in order to optimise insta-likes, or the unwanted attention our sexy selfies attract.
The first trickles of the movement were decidedly more radical. Instead of fighting online censorship, #FreeTheNipple aimed to question the very real censorship women experience in their day to day lives, with protesters such as Scout Willis taking to the street, risking criminal charges in favour of exposing the scrutiny women still face in their day-to-day lives. However, with the crossover of the campaign into the realm of social media came a watering down of the movement's message. While discussions surrounding our bodies seemed initially interesting, with a popularisation of feminism comes a push from real activists to move our politics away from aesthetics and back towards the issues that genuinely affect the female experience.
The reality is under current male-enforced circumstances it’s almost impossible to separate our breasts from sexualisation. Unfortunately, no matter how well intended, a hashtag can’t really erase decades of stereotyping that contribute to how we view the female body or deconstruct societal notions of what it means to be a woman. While this is true, it’s hard to dismiss the impact of over three million Instagram posts. The movement may have not influenced much concrete change, but the empowerment of many women and a conversation around how they view their bodies is powerful in itself.