Free the Nipple is a problematic campaign

Alice Whelan argues that the #FreeTheNipple campaign needs more than just nipples


“Is fighting for gender equality really as simple as removing your top?”

When I saw images of Carina Fitzpatrick being forcibly removed by Gardai from Knockanstockan this summer, I was struck by the absurdity of the situation. People enjoy festivals precisely because they can be free, where certain social norms temporarily dissolve. Live music and camping by Blessington lakes makes Knockanstockan no exception to this rule.

Festival goers would have had the pleasure of living mostly unshowered, most would have engaged in alcohol or drug use, and generally let loose and become uninhibited. Yet the revelation of Fitzpatrick’s areolae and nipples were quickly deemed criminal and offensive. Carina’s arrest was the first at the festival and seemed to many to be contrary to the festivals alternative culture and freedom of expression. Though many other forms of expression have been condoned including male barechestedness, our societies obsession with sexualising the female body has pervaded even a festival such as this.

There is no legislation in Ireland which stipulates that women cannot go topless. The issue is around what we deem to be modest – a rather subjective concept. Inevitably this lends itself to further control over women’s bodies by people other than women themselves. It would appear once again that the rights of women over their bodies under the law are being treated differently to those of men.

#FreeTheNipple came to prominence in 2012 following the release of a film detailing Lino Esco and others efforts to raise awareness of the issue. Fitzpatrick and other women, including an Icelandic MP, have used freeing the nipple as a way of challenging a whole myriad of equality issues. The Free the Nipple movement markets itself on its website as a: “global campaign of change, focus on the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings.”

Is fighting for gender equality really as simple as removing your top? Some argue so; Fitzpatrick herself writes in the Irish times that: “I removed my top as a peaceful protest. I took it off to send amessage that regardless of whether or not someone finds me sexual or attractive, I am first and foremost a human being. My right to freedom takes precedence over a culturally ingrained breast fetish.”

An exclusive campaign

“…the fact that the proponents of the movement tend to be white, cis (straight) western women is a visual problem with the movement”

The Free The Nipple movement has been problematised by many including feminists. Indeed exposing the breast in a bid to mitigate the patriarchy may seem counterintuitive. Furthermore, the fact that the proponents of the movement tend to be white, cis (straight) western women is a visual problem with the movement. It has been supported by celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Cara Delevingne, both coming from the type of white, privileged feminism that many women with different backgrounds find impossible to engage with. The hashtag #FreetheNipple gained traction on Instagram and Twitter leaving it open to the criticism of being ‘Insta-feminism’. Transgender women have pointed out the movements failure to recognise that different bodies may be sexualised and fetishsied differently, and that the #FreetheNipple is not actually pushing itself to extend to freedom for all bodies.

Trans women, black women and other groups have felt excluded from modern forms of feminism such as this. Feminism suffers from this conception of it as a movement which now caters to the needs of white, privileged women and thus is regarded as boring or downright alienating by many young women whose narratives simply do not match up with this. The call for modern day feminism to embrace intersectionality may have fallen on deaf ears. Some even blame the failure of Hillary Clinton to win over the white working class female vote on her misunderstanding of their interests and a use of a female voices that do not resonate with those interests.

As Sarah Jones writes in New Republic, Clinton’s misguided campaign: “employed a candy-colored brand of female empowerment seemingly based on the assumption that white women’s political priorities are influenced by the pop culture they consume. White working-class women weren’t going to vote for Clinton just because Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Lena Dunham, and Sheryl Sandberg were.”

Western feminism suffers from these conflicts within, and it also faces attack from one of its own most powerful weapons. Social media backlash against feminism makes efforts to trivialise movements such as Free the Nipple, and to paint feminists as either ‘Feminazis’ who are irrationally overaggressive, or, in contrast, seen as part of the wider ‘Generation Snowflake’ group. Generation Snowflake refers to millennials who are deemed to be overly sensitive or hysterical in their demands for ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’. Feminism is also subject tothis infantilization as it is often felt to fall within this category and be followed by ‘Snowflakes’.

Movements must be more reflexive

“Experiences of gender inequality differ depending on ethnicity, class, sexuality and gender identity.”

Although there will always be malicious reactions from certain groups, and calls for equality by others, movements perhaps do need to be more reflexive. Many women (and men) are for gender equality, but in my experience, struggle to label themselves as feminists, because of the (real or imagined) connotations of the label. We would all benefit from more education and exploration of what feminism does and can mean for us. In reality, everyone’s experience of gender inequality is different. Calls for a unified feminism, a feminism which ‘unites’ all women, may actually be inadvertent calls to silent dissent. Experiences of gender inequality differ depending on ethnicity, class, sexuality and gender identity. Movements like free the nipple, if they claim to be for such equality, should be reflective of this diversity.

Radical movements for change are supposed to be uncomfortable. It is supposed to be challenging to reassess norms you have had internalised for years. It is supposed to disrupt your view of the world by trying to disentangle yourself from the constant scrutiny the female body is under. It is not easy to suddenly desexualise and take ownership of something that has never been yours. We are sold breasts by advertising and yet cannot have full use of them ourselves. The moment we do in public we are in serious violation of modesty.  Women are often told the law protects them from the “natural” tendency of men to violate them if they are exposed, yet cannot use their breasts in public to feed their children naturally without fear of disapproval.

The campaign needs more than just nipples

“To create real discomfort, all bodies should be fighting to be free”

In these ways, the Free The Nipple movement actually cuts right to the heart of what is at stake when it comes to gender equality. Women can’t seem to have the same kind of bodily autonomy that we afford men. What is it about the way we are socialised that has led to such fetisiation of a partcular body part? Why are men, once again, exercising control over the bodies of women? The Free The Nipple movement cannot be seen as altogether separate from other fights for bodily autonomy.

 It has to face the discomforts people have with shirking these types of norms and visually disturbing societal peace. But it shouldn’t be just for instagram, or the able bodied white women whose nipples are not regarded as wholly offensive. To create real discomfort, all bodies should be fighting to be free.

I certainly agree that a woman should be able to “free her nipples” if she wishes, and that there is nothing offensive about them. However these campaigns cannot be viewed as a simple equation of removing ones top and in doing so, contributing to an overall fight for gender equality and freedom of all bodies. We need to look for more inclusive, challenging measures to make the voices of different subgroups who face inequality within feminism heard. That being said, campaigns like free the nipple may be important gateways to young women who can identify with the frustration of not being able to do the same as young men.

If you can’t let your hair down and take your top off at Knockanstockan, then you definitely can’t anywhere else in Ireland. This is silly to me and to many other young Irish people. Hopefully we will reach a point where nipples do not make national headlines.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.