According to Instagram, Facebook, and several other platforms, the sight of a woman’s nipples is potentially offensive, too sexually charged for the general public.
The exceptions to that rule are interesting.
When a woman’s nipple has been injured, scarred, or rebuilt after a mastectomy, it can be shown. When a woman’s nipple is hard at work feeding an infant, it can be shown. And no one will object if a woman’s nipple has been distanced by history and glammed up by a gold leaf frame. An artist from the Renaissance may reveal a woman’s nipple with impunity.
A contemporary art photographer must blur the nipple with Photoshop, hide it under a patch of the woman’s flesh-tone so she seems to lack nipples altogether, or slash the breast with a censor’s elegant black bar.
Oh, and if the photographer’s model happened to be outdoors in any state except Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma, she was breaking the law.
Remember GooglePlus? It had a revealing exception: The female nipple could be shown in a cartoon.
So there you have it. Caricature, illness, mutilation, functionality for someone else’s sake, or distant history—those are the conditions in which the female breast may be seen in its entirety.
Why would we hide, shame, and censor the female nipple? It is one of the first things we see when we join the world. Nearly all of us have already seen at least two. I would have thought the fullness around the nipple would be more subject to censorship, as it makes the difference. But, no, it is the nipple.
And the societal recoil is strangely recent.
The first shop mannequins were made of wax, and they had human hair, porcelain teeth, and, yes, nipples. It was only in the Forties and Fifties that those nipples were sliced off, leaving pale, unnervingly smooth mounds. In the Sixties, the mannequins getting a little more color in their skin and looking more normal. Women were burning, at least metaphorically, their bras. Fast forward a few decades, and young women are talking about “modesty panels” and lined bras and how embarrassing it is if your nipples show through your clothes. While swiping right and screwing anybody who looked good, they had become demure about half an inch of their bodies.
The female breast is rather lovely, I think, and far more sculptural when it ends in a pleasing little point than when it looks like a rounded lump stuck on with Play-Doh. If air conditioning makes that point a little more prominent, the world will end? Granted, arousal has a similar effect, and that is the censors’ main argument. When it is not serving breakfast, the female nipple is an erogenous zone.
What the censors may not realize is that a woman’s entire body is an erogenous zone. Besides, some men find their own nipples to be erogenous, too. The worry hidden beneath that delicate coded language is that the female nipple arouses others.
“If you’re going to be topless, I can’t help it, I’m going to non-stop look because I’m going to see them as sexual things,” a man told Lina Esco, who made an activist film called Free the Nipple a few years ago, evading the cops to film women bare-breasted in New York.
“Okay,” she replied, “so what if we sit down for about five hours, and I’m still topless the entire time. Aren’t you going to get tired of looking at them at some point?” He conceded the point. Later, Esco had an epiphany: “Maybe that’s it—maybe America just needs a big blast of boobies.”
The Free the Nipple campaign spread to other countries. In 2015, a teenager in Iceland posted a photo of herself topless and was so relentlessly harassed that a member of Parliament posted a photo of herself topless in solidarity.
But little has changed since.
I admit to a perverse glee, watching social media stammer and grope for a rational policy for transgender or nonbinary individuals. Tumblr came up with a ban on “female-presenting nipples,” a phrase that conjures giant nipples proferring silver trays of women.
But the quibbling distorts reality. When supermodel Heidi Klum rescued her son and his nanny from drowning, one headline read: “Heidi Klum Suffers Nip Slip While Rescuing Son and Nanny From Drowning in Hawaii (PHOTOS).” Because when you are dragging two human beings out of the water and your breast happens to slip from your bikini top, that is the story.
Ellen Cooney, an Irish burlesque artist with her own blog, recently challenged any reader “to distinguish between a close-up picture of a male (not scary) nipple, and a female (really scary) nipple.” And the absurdity peaked when artist Micol Hebron created a male nipple pasty that women could use to cover their own breasts, thereby obeying the law.
But the real absurdity is the grotesque violence, cruelty, horror, and morbidity we gobble up instead, no censors in sight.
We have some evolving to do. Researching mannequins, I found a startling amount of outrage about their nipples—why on earth did they need them, etc. And even I felt a little queasy when I read young people’s responses to “Why do women cover up their nipples?” on Quora.
“Boys like them so why don’t we just show them if they want to see them,” one girl wrote. “Girls around 13 when they hit puberty should show that they’ve hit puberty and show off their boobs; this is a perfect way to build up relationships.” Um, no. It is not.
A young man predicted: “If nipples are made public tomorrow, sexual arousal for a female body will decrease among males and ultimately there would be No Viagra, no clothing industry and of course no porn industry. Kind of good IMO because if females dnt stay as Male Centre of Attraction then men would lose interest and start mating with animals plants and other non living objects.” No, again. I am virtually positive we will not be replaced by philodendrons.
And then there was the young man, writing English as a second language and confusing a few pronouns, who wrote that “if men get freedom to see women personal body parts and women get freedom to see men personal body parts and also grant permission to touch the that parts so I will go out on road and any beautiful and sexy and big boob girl without cloth so I touch their boob and drink his milk.”
It is easy to use his unbounded fantasy as justification for censorship. But would he be calmer if the rest of us were?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.