I was once in a town where women and men just wore loin clothes and walked around topless, even in the supermarket to do their shopping. Everybody went about their business and no-one stared – apart from male tourists who were quick to point their fingers or cameras. This place was not a nudist resort but an island called Yap in Micronesia. It might not come as a surprise that this is not a patriarchal society.
Here in the Western world, I am confused and annoyed by the censorship of the female nipple on one hand, and the objectification and sexualisation of it on the other.
Men walk around topless in town, work on building sites, jog, roller skate and swim semi-nude – no problem. But when I go topless on my local beach I get stares and often scowls, especially from mothers who pull their children in the opposite direction so that they do not see, god forbid, a pair of breasts. It is uncomfortable when being topless as a woman next to the endless topless men on the beach should be the most natural and normal thing in the world.
The French magazine Elle recently published an article about the fact that less and less French women choose to bathe topless. The Guardian responded to this news with a feature claiming that the topless culture never had anything to do with sexual liberation for women but a lot with given men the permission to eye up women. I dare to question that statement. I love being topless or naked – not because but in spite of sometimes being stared at. I love feeling the sun and sea all over my body. Being topless or nude has for me nothing to do with sex but with freedom and being one with nature. A breathing space without boundaries where I can just be.
Female bodies are not just taboo in a public mixed-gender environment. I am one of the few women at my local gym that in the female changing room goes naked. Other women undress laboriously under their oversized towel or use one of the private changing rooms if they are available. I often see young girls demanding to change in the private changing rooms, feeling ashamed and embarrassed to be naked in front of other women and girls.
And so the foundation is laid for a lifelong feeling of shame when it comes to the female body.
If we see topless women then it usually is in a sexual context, like the Page Three girls that get paid to strip down to their knickers to please the lads who read the tabloid paper.
But in the public realm breasts are notoriously censored. They are never considered for their original function – to feed a baby – but instead are always sexualised. When women reveal a breast and the odd glimpse of a nipple whilst actually breastfeeding, many consider this a provocative and sexual act, something to be done privately behind-closed-doors and not in public. Why else would many cafes and restaurants ban women who breastfeed their baby in public no matter how discrete the mothers are?
I recently had images reported on my Facebook page and was warned to remove them even though all that was visible was a couple kissing. Only on second glance I realised that apart from his erect nipples one of her nipples was (barely) visible in the shadows and out of focus. So in order to be able to keep this picture on Facebook I had to somehow disguise her nipple. I did this by slapping the popular hashtag #freethenipple over the shot.
It is a great and very valuable movement that has been started by filmmaker Lina Esco, and has recruited several high profile supporters, going topless in public to draw attention to this inequality. Some of them like the artist Narcissister choose to wear a mask when baring their breasts in public, the symbolism of this being this could be any woman. Those of us who want true equality, even (or especially) when it comes to how much of our bodies we may reveal in public, should have the right to do so without being harassed, or in some cases even arrested.
For those who want to make a statement but don’t dare to bare their breasts in public (maybe on a beach where it is actually illegal to go topless) there is the Tata Top: a flesh-coloured bikini top with pink nipples printed on it. But guess what ? – pictures of this piece of cloth featuring a nipple print have been reported as obscene to Facebook and a lot of social networking sites censor shots of women earing the Tata Top with pixilation or black bars because we must ban female nipples at all costs. I feel like changing the hashtag #freethenipple to #freethefemalenipple because male nipples are free and never censored anyway.
Who are we protecting from what by censoring and fetishising the female nipple at the same time? I just don’t get it. And I’m sure the residents of Yap don’t get it either.