One of the most absurd debates of our age that still passes as trivial or of little social importance is the breast debate.
I’m a person with a bizarre relationship to my breasts – my teeny tiny ones that I’ve always been ashamed of. I’ve spent the biggest part of my adolescence tying knots in my bras and stuffing them to the point when they were squeezed up to my chin. I still feel like I’m 14 years old sometimes – it’s not that insecurities are ever logical, have an age or can be measured in maturity anyway – but I do fear that people will abandon me or will stop wanting to have sex with my because of my breasts, even when I don’t feel the need to own a generous pair anymore.
And lately, being a person who still hasn’t got their confusing gender figured out and trying to find my place by pulling experimentation and expression strings, I’ve started spending each day interchanging between “I wish this was bigger” and “I wish this wouldn’t exist at all”.
So in order to sum it up and save this article from becoming about me again, what I want to illustrate is that I never experienced the particular need of posting a topless photo on Facebook or Instagram, or of even going topless on a secluded beach.
This is why this debate never struck me as particularly important, but it turns out I was wrong and simply never gave it enough thought: “freeing the nipple” is bigger than the right to post a photo you look cute in on Facebook and Instagram.
It is about empowerment, human agency and bodily autonomy, and the connotations the two sides of the debate form their rhetoric on, indicate whole different concepts of gender, discrimination, oppression and inequality.
Facebook and Instagram have been censoring breasts that are socially read as “female” from the users’ pictures. This rule is applied also on famous works of art, historical images such as the Napalm girl, and women undergoing mammograms. Especially when it comes to breast cancer prevention, therapy or healing, Facebook couldn’t be doing this more wrong.
In 2013, Facebook took down pictures of women posing for empowerment, solidarity and raising awareness, after having undergone single or double mastectomies.
After a huge debate, mastectomy photos were let back online, but only after conforming to certain standards: they shouldn’t be showing nipples or a bare, non-altered breast, so practically the battle a cancer survivor has gone through is eventually shoved off with a half-hearted, nonsensical “yes, but”? Are we putting limitations and conditions on the visibility, empowerment and solidarity of cancer survivors?
In 2014 the film Free The Nipple was released by director Lina Esco, to raise the issue of battling legal and cultural taboo regarding female bodies and autonomy, centered around the breast issue.
Since then, the issue of female appearing breasts and their legality and visibility has been broadly discussed. Women have been arrested for public indecency, for being topless with well-known examples dating as recently as 2005 in New York. Several states in America have explicitly legalized toplessness of people of all genders in public places and some others have made it legal only for people breastfeeding in public. In the UK being topless is not technically considered to be illegal.
Last year Instagram updated its policy to allow mastectomy scars and breastfeeding pictures, but it still banned other photos of women’s nipples to keep its 12+ rating in Apple store. But how can we be looking for some sense, when Instagram actually removed the photo of cake because it looked like nipples?
Instagram has banned topless photos of Chelsea Handler, Rihanna, Scout Willis and Miley Cyrus, while it has also removed a post where Willow Smith was wearing a shirt with nipples printed on it.
The online “Free the Nipple” campaign has become pretty big the last few years, featuring photoshopped male nipples on pictures of otherwise topless women in order to protest about the absurdity of censorship policies.
A new Instagram account, @genderless_nipples, publishes close-up photos submitted by users of all genders in order to show the double standards imposed upon women and gender-non-conforming people with breasts. The bio of the account reads:
Men are allowed to show their nipples, women’s get banned. Support ALL genders! Let’s change this policy!”
With the pictures being close-ups it gets pretty confusing and impossible to distinguish gender – not that this is something that can be achieved according to the size, color and existence or not of breasts and nipples in first place – and an image of a male nipple seems to have been removed from the website, even though it practically doesn’t violate any Instagram policy.
The creators of this account are students Morgan-Lee Wagner, Evelyne Wyss and Marco Russo, who launched the page in the general context of the US presidential election, in order to protest for gender equality in social media, during a period when horrible sexist beliefs were so actively reinforced in society.
As we said before, the point is not just showing that nipple on your profile picture – though it’s about that as well. On a larger scale, this is about setting different limits to people of different genders and perceiving people, identities and bodies based on unequal standards because of society’s problematic assumptions, stereotypes and taboos.
Another appalling demonstration of society’s double standards and close-mindedness has to do with the shaming and concealment of nursing babies in public. Breastfeeding is still, absurdly so, considered to be up for social debate, since parents who need to nurse their children in public spaces – and their choice to breastfeed is not only valid but also encouraged by society – are shamed, harassed and censored because they are thought to insult public decency.
Breastfeeding is demonized as something gross and unnatural that should be done in private. This ridiculous argument that is deeply linked to the sexualization and objectification of cis women’s bodies, may deeply inconvenience parents and prevent them from doing what is necessary for their child without experiencing shame and discomfort.
Now when it comes to Facebook it may allow breastfeeding photos, but the woman who wrote this article still had her photo reported as “nudity”, which perfectly illustrates the hostility towards a practice as natural and important as nursing your child, and the demonization of women’s bodies.
Women and non-binary people are often objectified and diminished to their body parts. This is often visible in the rhetoric of anti-breast cancer campaigns, with slogans such as “save the ta-tas” instead of “save the actual human being bearing a body a mind a life and a personality”.
Objectification is dehumanizing, but unfortunately it is still an extremely common way that cishet men see as naturalized enough to treat women. We live in a society that is systematically teaching men that they are entitled on our bodies to the point that they feel like they have a say on everything we decide to do with them.
And still, this debate makes less and less sense as you dig deeper into it. As a trans man writes in this article, his nipples were never a problem in topless photos, as soon as he passed as a guy, and his breasts were small enough for him to not even consider top surgery during his transition. He also points out that men with gynecomastia (apparent in a considerable number of adolescent boys) never get censored from Facebook, even though the appearance of their breasts may be identical to that of women’s breasts. However, he states that it part of the same culture of oppression, control and policing that trans men are obliged to alter the appearance of their chest.
If they didn’t do so, the standards of how breasts are viewed would be shaken, and society doesn’t like to have its standards shaken. So, shake them we must.