The title of this text means no offense. On the contrary, it aims to enlighten. Let’s look at the facts: we’re well into the XXI century and we continue to (try to) hide the feminine nipple as if it were a mass destructive weapon. Something very wrong is happening here. What could ever justify the (constant) persecution of women’s breasts, whether in real life or online? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We’re sorry to disappoint any conspiracy theory fans out there, but they’re just boobs.
An assault on modesty. Indecent exposure. Lascivious behavior. Lack of decorum and/ or good common sense. The relationship between society, and history, and the female nipple is intertwined and insidious. On one hand, it is through it, the feminine nipple, that everything begins – through it comes breastmilk, that feeds the very same men and women that, years later, will condemn it. On the other hand, it seems that it, the feminine nipple, is bound to be seen as something erogenous, pornographic, sexual, teasing, and never, ever, as an anatomic part transversal to both women and men, since the moment of birth – up until, years later, when they condemn it. Small parenthesis as to avoid misunderstandings: is the female nipple sexy? It is. And very much so. Plus, there is a type for everybody, it comes in many ways, shapes and sizes, and there’s no indifference when it comes to it. Them, both he’s and she’s – because when it comes to desire gender is as relevant as other people’s opinions, it counts for nothing – might be brought to their knees just with the thought of having a female nipple around (or in a screen). Some prefer bottoms, some have a feet fetish, some feel their heartbeat pound faster with the thought of noses, legs, hands, you like it, you name it. Having written that, may the defendant rise and stand (the female nipple, that is) before the jury that presides this mad court: after all, how many wars have started because someone had a glimpse, sometime during their existence, of Mr. Female Nipple? None, your honor, none. That’s what we thought.
And yet, here we are again, barking at the same tree. Precisely a year ago, Vogue published an article about this theme: Nip(ple) & Tuck was the motto for a reflection around the revolting, though rather urgent, battle for the freedom of the female nipple, which has become quite well-known through the movement Free the Nipple – which is also the name of a movie directed by Lina Esco, whose premiere in 2014 forever shook the perception of how the world has a double standard when it comes to breasts. Because that’s what this is about. Boobs. B-o-o-b-s. B-O-O-B-S. We’ve got to repeat it until it is no longer shocking. And yet, here we are again, barking at the same tree. Because 12 months later, little or nothing has changed. In many corners of the globe, women are still incarcerated, or accused of “disturbing the peace”, for being topless. The hashtag #nipple still doesn’t exist - #nipplepiercing, #nipplecovers, #nipplerings, do, but #nipple… Well, let’s take it easy because we’re only in 2021. The “cause” still lacks supporters, people who will scream, loud and clear, “free the f****** nipple.” The wedge between what one can and cannot reveal, and under which circumstances, has worsened, because the censorship gods managed to install, in the majority of women, the feeling that walking down the street without a bra is a felony, or that posting a selfie where breasts are as much the main character as their faces is to be “asking for it” – and, in all truthfulness, it kind of is, because any social media will see to it that the photo is taken down in less than a second. The justifications to this type of censorship remain, however, empty, as if they had been written by someone of the XVI century. It is still culturally acceptable to share images of objects that could be potentially dangerous, such as guns, knives or weapons of any kind, or videos of the alien-like speeches of Jair Bolsonaro, but breasts – because they’re breasts, people, and we can’t repeat it enough – breasts are inconceivable. And these are not any boobs, they’re women’s boobs, since those are the ones that cause the greatest harm to this world. This is more or less how algorithms (that were created by people, let us not be that naïve) behind every social network, where we spend a great deal of time in our days, operate.
“Recent publications with the #freethenipple hashtag were hidden because they did not follow Instagram Community Guidelines.” This is the message that pops up above the more than 4 million images shared on Instagram with the hashtag #freethenippple. They could have been much more, were it not for these “guidelines”, as ambiguous as the functioning of Donald Trump’s brain. Let’s get to the point then, because not even Mark Zuckerberg (who bought the app in 2021), who’s been terribly busy managing his fortune, could explain this one. Topic number two in this list of rules is titled “Post photos and videos that are appropriate to a diversified audience”, something as innocuous as saying “be yourself, but not like that”. And it develops as follows: “We are aware that, sometimes, people might intend on sharing images with nudity in an artistic or creative way. However, for various reasons [that we leave to each user to guess], we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. That includes photos, videos and other content digitally created that might contain sexual relations, genitalia, and buttocks completely exposed. It also includes photos of female nipples, except in the context of breastfeeding, labor and postpartum, health-related situations (for example: after a mastectomy, sensibilization for breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or as an act of protest. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is also acceptable.” Long story short, post photos and videos that are appropriate to a diversified audience – though no one knows exactly who/ what that is – just don’t post photos of boobs in trivial situations. Like, that moment when you’re standing in front of the mirror, after showering, and realize: “Damn. Three kids, 43 years old, and these boobs still got it.” This is what will wreck the system. End of the line.
For many artists, who use this platform as a way of showcasing their work, might not be the end, but it’s a ginormous headache all the same. Alina Gross is a photographer and regularly collaborates with Vogue. She was born in Ukraine but moved to Germany when she was still young. It is from there that she recalls her experience with the “community guidelines” of social media. “I’ve been using Instagram more often since 2018. My work The Nipple Instinct, for example, was censored. One of the photos showed a flower blooming from a breast. It symbolized the vital force and milk that feeds the newborn baby. The photo was censored because of the nipple. In the end tail of 2020, my account was banned for a month.” A month when she was forced to resort to the help of other users in order to ensure her editorials were still being seen. “As my work [is shared] by bigger accounts, the number of followers usually increases largely. There are also likes and comments. There are also more negative comments, real storms of people that feel offended by the content, real or imaginary, of the images. They might be opponents to the lifestyle, or the supposed lifestyle, of artists, and their art, they might be other artists. Even those who are against breastfeeding sometimes consider the pacific images of babies being breastfed as something utterly terrible. In what stage is this war when the top place is already taken by breastfeeding? Well, [it is in the stage of] outrage culture. Lastly, Instagram informed me that the account would be hidden in 48 hours because the following rules were broken: artificial likes and followers; posts protected by authorship rights; selling of imitation products; nudity and sexual content.” Alina ended up recovering her account – after a long and painful process, which led her to create a backup account, in case she finds herself forbidden to post certain images, which happens recurrently – though she confesses that all this is tiring and demoralizing. “This censorship forces artists to wear a corset. You need to censor your own work in order to post it on Instagram. No need to mention how important Instagram has become as an imagery platform for artists. Especially during the pandemic, social interactions are even more conditioned by social media. An artist that isn’t allowed to showcase their art becomes desperate.” And she recalls: “To me, there’s nothing more natural than feminine nipples. This applies to the human body in general. The same goes for other people, ages and cultures: breasts shouldn’t be this shocking, after all, the history of mankind is filled with images of breasts. Instagram also includes one exception: art that is ‘old’ or regarded as ‘visible art’ can portray nudity. I believe that through education, but also through personal irritation and belligerence, many people see the same things as others, but only perceive them sexually. While out shopping, you might look at pumpkins and cucumbers and think both of Halloween and of a salad – or you can ask the owners of the grocery shop to not exhibit those vegetables at all.” That is why, for Alina, the Free the Nipple movement is still relevant. “I am astonished that male nipples can be shown, and feminine nipples can’t. Why shouldn’t they? At least in art and illustrations. I consider the public – meaning, the streets, where we walk around – a different audience than the one going to a museum, visiting my studio, or that follows my account on Instagram. I believe those [places] are much more protected, a space of semipublic space. I find it odd when someone enters my vernissage, walks into my studio or checks my Instagram page only to get irritated with what they are seeing, and asking me to hide it away.”
The trick is to cover, cover, cover. Whether with emojis, photoshop, or the infamous black bars… Or better yet, to push back, push back, push back. In May 2020, Madonna, always the queen, shared a photo on her personal account where she appeared sitting on a couch wearing nothing but a transparent bra and black panties. The nipples (or one of them) revealed itself in all its splendor and the queen of pop, ahead of the haters, disclaimed: “And for those of you who are offended in any way by this photo then I want to let you know that I have successfully graduated from the University of Zero F*^ks Given.” The image is still there, with more than 1 million likes. Was it sheer luck or, during that night, did the algorithm that censors feminine nipples happen to be asleep? We’ll never know. Anyhow, and predictably so, no comet hit planet Earth, and the sun continued to rise every morning since. It is safe to say, it was a small step for mankind, but a giant leap to the female nipple. What leads us to this short final reflection. If one female nipple has the power to bother this many people, four billion*, give or take, will bother many more. Let us then imagine this scenario: one of these days, the four billion women, give or take, that inhabit this wonderful planet of ours, decide to take off their bras, tear down their t-shirts, strip their turtlenecks, and go out on the streets with their breasts out, just like when they were born into this world, while stopping to take photographs and share the moment on every social media that exists. Ah! That’s when the moral and good practices house, pardon, castle of cards would come crumbling down. It would be an amazing thing to watch. Maybe in a parallel universe. Until then, don’t forget the basics. They’re just boobs, you moron. Even you, who are bothered by their presence, have some.