Illustration by Chanté-Marie Young
"Choosing not to conform to all aspects of patriarchal desirability - such as ditching the bra and letting your nipples be seen - may feel daunting for any woman, but for those who are fortunate enough to be deemed conventionally attractive, chances are they won’t face too much of a backlash. But for those whose bodies have typically been less celebrated by society’s traditional beauty ideals, such as trans women, women of colour or fat women, freeing the nipple may be a progressive feminist concept, but it is also one that carries a lot more weight in the form of potential social stigma."
When the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign was first created in 2012 by filmmaker Lina Esco, it gained notoriety for its demonstrations, where women appeared topless in public to criticise the way women’s bodies are policed and regulated. Eight years later, whilst women roaming the streets bare-chested still isn’t commonplace, female nipples seem to have thankfully gained some points on the barometer of what is socially acceptable and appropriate.
Despite the fact that Instagram policy still (unbelievably) considers bare nipples on a female body shocking enough to warrant censoring, going braless under one’s clothing is not only widely acceptable, but fashionable; see Emily Ratajakowski, Kendall Jenner, and the eternally lusted-after looks of Rachel from Friends. The appearance of nipples through clothing has even
been viewed as a high-fashion accessory in their own right, satirised in an episode of Sex and the City which sees Samantha donning a fake pair under her outfits. Of course, outside of its supposed stylistic merits, going braless has been viewed as an act of feminism for decades, with the classic trope of militant feminists being “bra burners” dating back to the Miss America
protest of 1968.
I would obviously describe myself as a interesectional feminist, and I am in full support of the liberation of all women as opposed to the censorship and over-sexualisation of thier bodies. So why, when looking in the mirror and hyper-analysing the way my braless boobs sit in a crop top, do I always end up sacrificing the freedom of my tits by securing them away in a bra?
My relationship with my boobs has been quite a journey. As a pre-teen with a Peter Pan-esque determination to be a child forever, I saw wearing a bra as the dreaded gateway to a downward spiral: puberty and beyond. Unfortunately, once the aforementioned puberty kicked in and my boobs grew at a rather surprising speed, I waved the white flag and reluctantly made my way to the bra fitting service at Marks & Spencers. By my mid-teens, I was pretty happy with my ample set of 36Ds, and was well trained in neatly tucking them into a variety of bras so that they could sit cheerfully upright underneath my tops. Of course, I eventually reached the stage of my newfound womanhood where I wanted to 'maximise' my so-called 'assets', turning up to school parties in a Primark bra that had enough padding in it to act as a buoyancy aid for a child on a domestic flight.
I had grown pretty confident with my large-ish bust, but the idea of stepping out of the house without wearing a bra was still unthinkable. On nights out, many of my more petite friends would regularly embrace the bra-free lifestyle, but this was a style choice I didn’t deem suitable for me: I just wasn’t used to seeing people with bigger boobs going braless in public (unless they were the kind of big boobs that miraculously defied gravity and remained entirely perky), I’d been socially conditioned throughout my life to equate “saggy tits” with unattractiveness. And unfortunately at the age of eighteen - when I relentlessly sought out male attention for validation - being seen as unattractive was a horrifying possibility that I didn’t want to risk.
So when I ended up losing a fair amount of weight over my last two years of university, I was faced with a shocking new reality: I now had objectively small boobs. Suddenly gaining membership to the Itty Bitty Titty Committee™ felt bizarre; I’d become so accustomed to having a larger chest and the feelings of sexual desirability I believed they awarded me that I genuinely felt like something close to a different person without them. But whilst small tits may often be embraced in fashion and media culture these days, my previously-large pair unsurprisingly do not share the same enviable pertness that adorns the chests of those who have been long-term members of the IBTC™. Left with boobs that were small in size but haunted by the ghosts of my chest’s past in the form of some moderate droopage, it seemed I was left in a sort of lady-lump limbo, once again trying to work out how to ‘style’ what is merely a natural part of my body.
If you search the term ‘braless’ on Google Images, whilst there are a few images that promote body diversity, the majority of pictures you will initially see feature white, slim, cisgender women freeing the nipple under their clothing in public. As I think about the many times I’ve struggled to decide whether or not my mildly sagging small boobs should be tucked away in a bra to make myself feel presentable in public, I consider that if I - also a white, slim, cisgender woman - feel unable to confidently #FreeTheNipple, then for those whose bodies look nothing like this standardised ‘ideal’, the movement may just feel like yet another fashion trend that commodifies the female form, without truly celebrating it in all of its forms.
As explained in an infographic from the Instagram account @uomfeministcollective, choosing not to conform to all aspects of patriarchal desirability - such as ditching the bra and letting your nipples be seen - may feel daunting for any woman, but for those who are fortunate enough to be deemed conventionally attractive, chances are they won’t face too much of a backlash. But for those whose bodies have typically been less celebrated by society’s traditional beauty ideals, such as trans women, women of colour or fat women, freeing the nipple may be a progressive feminist concept, but it is also one that carries a lot more weight in the form of potential social stigma.
It is vital that with these sorts of movements, whilst public acceptance and normalisation via popular culture and the world of fashion can be beneficial on the whole, we do not forget the significance of the movement’s purpose beyond its aesthetics. If you look at photos from Free The Nipple protests, you will see placards demanding justice in regards to sexual harassment, rape culture and antiquated patriarchal values that determine what women supposedly should and shouldn’t do with their bodies. This is what we should be constantly striving for when promoting campaigns such as this, as opposed to allowing them to become yet another passing trend that turns certain kinds of women’s bodies into a fashion statement, whilst alienating others that don’t fit this mold.
Collective, via Instagram)
Article by Olivia Cox