How nipples expose everyday hypocrisies around our understanding of women’s bodies and why it’s important to rethink their place in culture.
It is bizarre that a body part no bigger than the smallest toenail is a think piece obsession, a public relations landmine and a conservative nightmare.
The nipple is a bafflingly big deal, which explains the sartorial acrobatics deployed for its concealment. Most women begin their day instinctively dressing for a crisis of perkiness: a padded bra, an extra layer, a shawl chucked in the handbag and in one inventive case, hand warmer gel pads slipped down the front.
Most of us can’t quite do life like Rachel from “Friends,” whose nipples were a character unto their own. In real life, visible nipples get women labeled gross, distracting, careless and unprofessional.
It is not women’s fault that they bloom inopportunely like toadstools on a golf course, especially in the cold. Women huddling in shawls and scarves against office air conditioning may be a running joke in workplace culture, but the nip-on is a legitimate worry for many ― and studies prove that they aren’t imagining it: Most offices are temperature-hostile to women and tailored only to men’s comfort.
It’s all quite unfair. These spongy nubbins are objectively unremarkable under the macro lens and indistinguishable gender-wise when photographed up close, as clever Instagram account Genderless Nipples proves. Despite the inoffensively smooth Barbie curves in lingerie ads flogging the latest in padding tech, nipples resist suppression. No amount of optical de-nippling can make them go away. They chafe on runners and swimmers. They respond pointily and involuntarily to drops in temperature, the ebb and flow of hormones, even nonsexual spikes in heart rate.
But so do the pupils, which grow and diminish continuously in response to both sexual and nonsexual stimuli. Yet one doesn’t see people racing to conceal the eyes while the chest-smoothening industry continues to grow via borderline sadistic innovation.
Perhaps in thrall of the dominant aesthetic of the day ― women like the Kardashians, who look like they were poured into their bodysuits ― breasts are trussed with the sort of industrial strength tape movie villains use on wayward henchmen. Pasties, an older option for women who like some movement, are no better. (Watch this clip of singer Lizzo wincing painfully as she peels off a days-old pastie.)
These are mostly nonissues for men, save for a few documented concerns around male nipples which can be traced to Japan. In 2015, a group of women was polled for their opinion on the biggest turn-offs in men’s workplace style. ”Suke chikubi″ (see-through nipples) were a top contender. (This could explain Japan’s micro industry of summer-specific nipple-concealing solutions for men who don’t wish to sacrifice propriety for comfort.)
But for the most part, anxieties around breasts in general and nipple exposure in particular are gendered. Consider the world of sport. The coverage that follows accidental chest reveals is consistently sexist. This explains former UFC champion Ronda Rousey’s bizarre predicament during a 2013 match fight. Straining in a chokehold that could have snapped her neck, her main concern instead was her slowly sliding top. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, French figure skater Gabriella Papadakis had her top fall away mid-routine, forcing her to make a choice no athlete should have to: stop to cover up and get a deduction or keep going and resign to mortifying virality. She chose the latter and finished in tears.
Of course, this was no problem for 2021 Norwegian triathlete Kristian Blummenfelt, whose triathlete suit turned practically transparent after the swim leg, exposing his torso and briefs. (For men, the sport mandates uniforms that cover the chest). His lot was good-natured ribbing and a gold medal.
Michael Bronski, professor of the practice in activism and media studies of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard University, explained to HuffPost that the chest, male or female, has never been a neutral site, not even in the nipple- heavy world of ancient Western art and sculpture. Women’s bodies have always been sexualized.
“If we look at statues from Ancient Greece and Imperial Rome, nudity, per se, has multiple purposes,” Bronski explained. “Male nudes (with nipples and genitals) were often meant to embody virtues such as patriotism, steadfastness, moral and emotional strength. Female nudes were more sexualized even as they represented ‘female’ virtues such as modesty. And, of course, statues of women that were not nude ― often goddesses, or monsters such as Medusa ― represented male qualities (wisdom in the case of Athena or a male fear of castration such as Medusa).”
Clues to our tolerance of nudity in art and sculpture compared to the agitation around, say, an ordinary bathroom selfie, lie in the relative newness of the photographic medium.
“Because photography is, since 1920 or so, accessible to everyone, it does not take an ‘artist’ to be able to produce photos,” Bronski added. “Older fine arts-painting, sculpture and drawing had a long history (going back to Greece and including the Italian Renaissance) that had a tradition of male and female nudity that made it more acceptable, even as women were to a large degree sexualized and the object of the male gaze.”
Bronski continued, “Even if people were ‘turned on’ by one of these works, the purpose of the work was ‘artistic,’ not to encourage a sexual response (even if it did). The fact that photographs could be quite easily mass produced lessened their value as fine art and allowed them to be seen as less authentic art, and therefore more likely to cause cultural distress and hence be banned or at least be seriously disapproved of.”
Jo Weldon, headmistress at the New York School of Burlesque and author of “The Burlesque Handbook,” told HuffPost that the censorship of her posts online reveals a pattern: “I have noticed that, up to a point, it has more to do with the pose than with what’s revealed. If the pose resembles typical centerfold poses, it gets taken down, and I get a warning.”
In 2020, Instagram took down Black model and body positivity advocate Nyome Nicholas-Williams’ photo, a lovely waist-up shot of her in the nude hugging herself, her breasts covered by her arms. The same photo, shared on her photographer Alexandra Cameron’s account, was left untouched. Cameron, who is white, works with women of all ethnicities and shoots a lot in this style, asked her followers to post Nicholas-Williams’ photo to test her hunch: The deletion was discriminatory.
Her followers reported that the photo was censored on their accounts, too. While Cameron joined forces with writer Gina Martin (known for her successful campaign to make upskirting a criminal offense) to petition Instagram, Nicholas-Williams and her followers hashtagged their disapproval of Instagram’s surveillance and shutdown of Black women’s bodies, especially fat Black bodies.
In response, Instagram, which largely leaves the male chest alone and has been accused of letting thin, able-bodied, apolitical Caucasian women in similarly-styled photoshoots stay up, reinstated the deleted photos. This was significant given that earlier that year, the company had admitted the possibility of racial algorithmic bias and initiated a #shareBlackstories hashtag to foreground marginalized narratives.
Ridiculously, the new policy now makes a distinction between types of “breast-holding” (hugging/cupping vs. squeezing/grabbing), effectively governing the way women interact with their own bodies. It claims to use a combination of the subject’s stance, finger curvature and change in breast shape to distinguish between a sexual grab-hoist situation vs. women posing for, say, a confidence shoot, topless protest or breastfeeding awareness campaign.
Weldon cautions against such distinctions.
“I think things can get misogynistic very quickly if we prioritize women who use their bodies to make a statement over women who use their bodies to attract partners or to make money,” she said. “I think when a company shuts down one type of presentation of women’s bodies they’ll inevitably shut down the other. It’s not just a slippery slope because it’s indicative of the way women’s bodies can be seen as sites of moral contamination, which is a thread in the history of laws about women’s bodies.”
On their part, women have always worked their chests into protests, often at great personal risk. In the Indian state of Kerala in 2018, women posed with watermelons, sometimes in the nude, in solidarity with hijabi Muslim college-goers whose male professor accused them of immodesty by letting their headscarves fall regrettably short of their chests and displaying them “like watermelon slices.” When beloved Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani bared her right breast in a promotional video for the 2012 César Awards (the French Oscars) she was banished from the country, setting off a raging cultural reckoning.
But breasts have not always been bared in defiance or to express hurt: Women have flashed them in retaliatory triumph, like when ’80s Italian parliamentarian and porn star Ilona Staller was famous for campaigning with her nipples showing casually and wanting to show up to her first day in parliament in see-through clothes, just as much as she was for her progressive Leftist politics.
And she’s not alone. HuffPost interviewed three women who are challenging the way we look at our bodies and chests in particular with their work.
Rice told HuffPost she’s here to stir good trouble, to “question antiquated ideas and aggressively promote fun, body positivity and amazing boob puns.” Her Chicago-based queer- and women-run business makes clever nude-illusion bikini tops that are perfect for protests, Halloween parties and dysmorphic breast cancer journeys alike.
This is no gag gift; these bikinis score on style. (In June this year, Rice called out Kylie Jenner for posing in a Jean Paul Gaultier X Lotta Volkova “Naked” Bikini top that is indefensibly similar to her hallmark design.) She says her designs highlight the fact that legality and fairness aren’t always the same thing.
“For example, if you’re a trans woman or are nonbinary and you have breasts but your driver’s license doesn’t reflect that, what is your right to be topless in a public space where men are allowed to go shirtless but women aren’t? These are the types of scenarios that I think about a lot,” she said. “I saw someone reselling a top on Poshmark who said they had used it while going through top surgery and no longer needed it. I found it really amazing that it served such a meaningful purpose and now was being passed on to mean something special to someone else.”
Misha Japanwala, artist and sculptor
Japanwala, who is Pakistani, creates powerful wearable sculptures molded from women’s bodies. Visually, her casts feel at once fragile and armour-like, a tension that leaps off photographs. Back in design school, “I had been reflecting a lot on the culture of shaming women in Pakistan and the kinds of conversations of that culture that are swept under the rug,” she said. “So many systems (patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism) stand to benefit from us believing that our bodies are inherently shameful, and my work is rooted in the outright rejection of that shame.”
Her studio process, which memorializes “every pore, blemish, stretch mark and curve” has earned her abuse and death threats. “People seem to be most triggered not just because my art centers nude bodies, but because I refuse to change anything about them,” she shared. “When the nude female form simply exists the way it does in my work and doesn’t meet the conditions of existence that so many have for the way we are to move through the world, it leads to a lot of anger.”
Lydia Reeves, artist and sculptor
Reeves’ Brighton, U.K., studio is decorated with stunning chrome-finished casts of women’s torsos, custom work for clients who love the unmistakable tenderness of her approach.
“Representing a wide and diverse range of bodies is most important for me,” she said. “I hope that people look at my work and not only think that it’s a beautiful piece of art but look beyond that to the beauty within the diverse bodies I share.”
Almost every piece is supercharged with emotion: She helps women document surgeries and childbirth, aging and recovery. Being a business owner who shares her work online can be “nerve-wracking,” she admitted, especially because “I really believe that the type of work I do is extremely educational and Instagram censorship is very real with work like mine.”
She would like her work to reach more people in all its realism and honesty so that they can “gain a healthier relationship with their own body. Instagram censorship just stops this from happening, yet will happily allow pictures of photoshopped models which can very easily give people a negative view toward their own bodies. It just doesn’t make sense.”
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