When Scout Willis marched topless down the streets of New York City early last week, she was sending a clear message: it’s time to finally #FreeTheNipple. Nearly 80 years after men first won the right to go barechested, women are demanding the same level of physical freedom both in public and on social media.
Willis became involved with the Free The Nipple campaign, a project of filmmaker Lina Esco, in response to Instagram’s deactivating her account after she uploaded an image of a jacket that featured two topless women on the back. Singer Rihanna also recently faced the wrath of Instagram’s “community guidelines” after sharing a topless image of her cover on the French magazine Lui.
It’s not just Instagram, however: Facebook continues its campaign against women’s nipples, and the social media giant only recently modified its policy to allow uploaded images of women breastfeeding their own children. A blanket ban on barechested women means that breasts in any context—art, motherhood or otherwise—are somehow all deemed pornographic. These rules are especially frustrating to activists in light of social media ‘s seemingly lenient stance towards other graphic content: Public beheadings are newsfeed-appropriate, but ceramic statue breasts are a bridge too far.
The fight for equality in both the laws and social customs regulating public decency is nothing new. The turn of the century saw the triumphant debut of the knee, in its own day considered a sexualized part of women’s anatomy despite its not being a sexual organ. A decade later, the shorter swimsuits of the Jazz Age brought with them iconic images of ruler-wielding police officers inspecting beach goers. The invention of the bikini offered women of the ’40s and ’50s belly-button liberation, with Modern Girl magazine infamously declaring that “It is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” A quick glance at the history of indecent exposure proves that the movement to mandate covering women’s bodies has become little more than a sexist Mad Lib: Pick a decade, pick a body part.
This most recent campaign, however, isn’t just about legal equality or Instagram followers. As the advocacy organization Go Topless reports, women in 33 states already enjoy legal top freedom. Challenges to these laws, like the 2005 wrongful arrest of topless-strolling artist Phoenix Feeley by NYPD, have only reaffirmed gender equality. Obviously, part of this campaign is removing the remaining discriminatory laws in Indiana, Tennessee and Utah, along with city ordinances nationwide and ambiguous laws in 14 other states. Beyond this, however, Free The Nipple is as much about broadly changing culture as it is about changing social media and state laws.
In the end, arguing for the right to go topless is connected to the broader struggle towards ending a culture of sexual assault victim-blaming. The idea that a woman exposing her body means she was somehow inviting rape remains a key part of the rape apologist toolkit. Freeing the nipple means rejecting the cultural insistence that women’s bodies must remain hidden in the interest of preserving law and order. The campaign isn’t about earning retweets or amassing Facebook likes; it’s about challenging us to consider how we hold women’s bodies to an unequal standard in law books, in the media and, yes, in selfies.
James Hildebrand is a senior at Amherst College and editor-in-chief of the independent student blog AC Voice. He is interning this summer at Ms. magazine.