Did We Really Free The Nipple?

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Trigger warning: description of sexual harassment, mentions of rape and sexual assault.

“Hey baby, nice titties! I wanna lick them, fuck them.”

Crossing my arms in front of my chest, I steadfastly refuse to look at the man yelling obscenities at me from the other side of the road. Any other day I would tell him exactly where he can put the tiny penis he is shoving my way, but today I am less vocal. Today it feels as if I lost the right to my own voice when I took my bra off.

During the Victorian era showing a bit of ankle while crossing the street was a scandalous taboo worthy of that day’s teatime gossip, but in the century before Victoria’s decree of improper ankle etiquette it was not uncommon to see womxn wearing short sleeves and busty dresses. While acceptable attire is constantly changing to suit the times, controversy surrounding the female nipple has remained a constant topic of debate. To see what South Africans think about #FreeTheNipple and whether the campaign managed to actually change the perception of female nipples, I decided to walk around crowded areas during the middle of winter and see what people thought of my erect nips.

It didn’t take long for my experiment to reveal the worst in mankind.

Three years ago social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram came under attack for their harsh restriction on nip slips, purposeful or not. The public responded with outrage, #FreeTheNipple trended for weeks and celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Chrissy Teigan flaunted their bare chests in public. But what did we, the everyday feminist public, actually achieve by signing all those online petitions to allow female nipples into the public sphere?

Not that much.

While it is incredibly common to see men jogging, swimming or just existing without their shirts on, I myself am yet to see a womxn working out topless or going for a swim sans bikini. And yet, after walking around for a few hours with my nipples poking holes through my white t-shirt, I found that the average person I spoke to didn’t seem that fazed with my nips sticking out. In fact, most people agreed that female nipples should not be censored at all, whether on social media, in magazines or in public artworks.

When it comes to public nudity, however, the rules become slightly less precise than they are online. According to South African law a person can be accused of public indecency if they are “unlawfully, intentionally and publicly engaging in conduct which tends to deprave the morals of others, or which outrages the public’s sense of decency.” This means that, technically, womxn can walk around in public without a shirt on the grounds that no one complains. While that may seem like an empowering fact on paper, in real life only a handful of the womxn I spoke to said they would walk topless in public if they had the option, and even then it would depend on where and who was watching.

So where does #FreeTheNipple come in to all of this? With so much public attention and celebrity endorsement, one would think that womxn should be allowed to walk around topless without being harassed, but unfortunately that is not the case. In South Africa, walking around with a bra on can put you at serious risk, let alone walking around without a shirt on. Rape culture and victim blaming are so pervasive in this society that an estimated 40% of South African womxn will be raped in their lifetime, most of whom will be told that they were ‘asking for it’. That statistic might be shocking, but what is more shocking is the fact that it is a conservative estimate. The truth of the matter is that South African womxn do not feel safe walking down the road as is, let alone walking around baring their chests to the public.

I’m not here to bash #FreeTheNipple; I think it was a fantastic movement that brought attention to the fact that censoring female nipples is just another way for men to police womxn’s bodies. It forced social media sites to acknowledge the fact that their blind removal of all things nipple related included womxn who were breastfeeding, or womxn using images of their mastectomy scars to encourage and support others. In doing so, #FreeTheNipple brought to light gender biases in relation to nudity, and how female nipples are, in fact, no different from male nipples.

The campaign did not, however, change the fact that womxn are still persecuted for what they do or do not wear. It did not change the fact that womxn are still not safe in any environment regardless of how they dress. It did not change the fact that, walking down a busy street in the middle of winter, the last thing I thought of was all the selfies Instagram would ban if I tried to post any pictures of what I was wearing in that precise moment. Instead, I was focussing on not being assaulted by a man behaving indecently. I was focussing on not becoming a number on the long list of womxn who were ‘asking for it’ by showing my nipples in public.

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