When I was little, I copied my dad and took off my shirt on hot summer days. He would be doing yard work, and I would be running around doing something or other that was sweaty and active. It felt great. A cool breeze works much better when it hits your skin directly. He encouraged me to ditch the shirt, and my sister and brother followed suit.
One time, my mother pulled him aside and asked, “are you sure the girls should do that?” Perhaps we were at a public park, or perhaps the neighbors were out in the adjacent yard. I can’t remember. But I distinctly recall my dad’s impatient, dismissive response: “Oh, what’s the difference?” And no more was said. I looked at myself, my sister and my brother. Darn right, there was no difference. This was clearly one of those irrational, easily falsifiable things that people sometimes said about girls – that we were bad at math, or we didn’t like blocks. And it was equally annoying: another way to try to keep me from doing something fun just because I was a girl. I gleefully ignored it.
Just a few years later, I would have been mortified to be topless in public. My reticence set in significantly before my body changed. As a pre-teen, I was acutely aware that female nipples were highly sexualized in our culture and therefore “private.” Equally, I was embarrassed to not be sporting a movie-star-quality rack. This body didn’t look like a young woman’s yet, but it wasn’t allowed to function like a young man’s anymore. It seemed best to hew to social mores and go into hiding. No one saw my nipples in public again until I nursed my babies at playgrounds and cafes two decades later.
I hadn’t thought of these episodes for many years, until I recently read an article about a twitter campaign, #freethenipple. It was initiated by a filmmaker who is documenting an effort to make it legal and socially acceptable for women to be bare-chested in public and on social media if they so choose. Others have fought for women to visibly breastfeed, and to share post-mastectomy photos. She argues that paradoxically, embracing women’s right to be topless as a matter of protest or personal preference, not just for the “innocent” and maternal activity of breastfeeding or the demonstration of suffering and survival after mastectomy, may actually help de-sexualize or de-objectify women’s breasts.
What could she mean? How could that work? After all, laws and rules about public nudity (and women’s nipples in particular) were aimed against pornography and the sex trade.
Several of the clever and thought-provoking images tweeted as part of the campaign are illuminating. They show us how male/female sexual dichotomies, and the sexual objectification of women’s breasts, are all about context. If we can see that women and men are not actually sexual opposites, and that clothing, not nudity, is what instantiates sexual objectification, maybe women’s nipples are just not that big a deal.
One image could have been me at 7 years old:
Others show that women’s and men’s bodies are not nearly as dichotomous as we tend to assume they are:
If this is what a diverse array of real chests, and real nipples, look like, why do we think of men’s and women’s as being so different as to censor one and not the other?
I’d like to highlight two reasons. First, the bodies we celebrate and plaster all over mass media are much more sex-dichotomous than the bodies of “real people.” Whether by selection or plastic surgery, celebrities are fitted to two distinct molds, one male and one female. For example, when we see romance performed on stage, as in ballet, we see muscular, robust men and delicate, dainty women. It’s not just the costumes; dancers whose bodies don’t fit the molds don’t have ballet careers. Costumes accentuate and exaggerate the dichotomies, whether with tutus or red-carpet gowns.
Second, we experience the censored bits of our anatomy as highly meaningful. If they are visible in public, we are tremendously self-conscious, far out of proportion to the amount of extra skin we are showing. If a woman actually felt casual about walking around without a shirt, how many people would notice? It would depend on the woman and the circumstances, but I suspect she would be less noticeable than we presume.
I had the good fortune to see an early performance from Dandelion Dancetheater’s Undressed Project a decade ago in San Francisco. A physically diverse group of dancers performed an evening-length piece in the nude. Strikingly, after I had become acclimated to the nudity, I stopped really noticing who was male and who was female. And then I started taking note of just how often you really couldn’t tell, or wouldn’t notice if you weren’t making an effort. There were more differences among individuals than between the men and the women as groups, and more similarities among bodies than differences. It was an amazing, paradoxical experience: when a diverse group of modern dancers didn’t wear costumes, it almost made it harder to “read” the sex of the performers.
And then, I had coffee with the choreographer. I was so excited to tell him what I had observed. He looked at me quizzically, and told me that for him, performing the piece forced him to come to terms with the very physical basis of his sex/gender. As someone who liked to play with gender bending, it was disconcerting to feel like the concrete instantiation of his male sex was flopping about front and center the whole evening. What he experienced was the opposite of what I saw.
Would I have this same experience if I took off my shirt in public? I think I would. I’ve spent so many years thinking of my female nipples as a highly meaningful and highly sexualized aspect of my sex and my gender, that no matter how convinced I might be by the images from #freethenipple and my viewing of Dandelion’s performance, it would take a serious shift in perspective for me to experience them otherwise.
A shift in perspective that might very well be worth making.
If you could #freethenipple, would you do it? What would give you the opportunity to experience your body as liberated, and beautiful, and capable, and sexualized only so far as you want it to be?
 As a grad student reading Judith Butler at the time, this struck me as the ultimate real-world demonstration that sex is performative.
Featured image source: Gustave Courbet, Woman with a Parrot, 1866
All images used under Fair Use Doctrine.