"Well, what are you doing for society?" Lina Esco shouts at me down the phone, from her home in LA, "What are you doing right now? Come on, tell me!" After six years of tirelessly campaigning for women's rights, directing and starring in her first feature length film, Free the Nipple, and, in doing so, launching one of the largest online movements of the 21st century, Lina's heard just about every piece of bullshit criticism there is to hear. "Yes, there are millions of other issues in this world," she says, exasperated, "but for me, there are no bigger, more important issues than gender equality. Did I know that topless women and their nipples would be the Trojan horse into launching this whole conversation? No, but it worked."
Born in Miami to very strict catholic parents, Lina's been rebelling for as long as she can remember. At 15 years old, she ran away to Europe to start a new life; what remained, though, was her innate desire to challenge the status quo. "Before I got involved with women's rights, I wanted to end poverty," she recalls, half laughing, "I was about 12 years old. It eventually led to nowhere." Combining her love of acting and filmmaking with this need to save the world, Lina became involved with The Cove, the 2009 documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan. What really resonated with her, though, and what she has since dedicated her life to, is the fight for gender equality. "The first time I became aware of gender inequality was at home when I was 10 or 11," she explains, "I noticed it in my father's behaviour towards my mother, how controlling he was over her and how scared she was to stand up to him."
Moved by an intrinsic desire to change how the world saw women, in 2010 Lina set the wheels in motion for a new film that would ultimately change her life. "I wanted to make a film about girls going topless for equality, in order to start a conversation." The film's title, Free the Nipple, arose by trial and error. "If I made a movie called Equality, no-one would be talking about it." It also helped Lina focus her argument on one particular injustice: the criminalisation of women's nipples in America. Currently illegal in 35 states, a woman can be arrested for going topless, whether it's a swelteringly hot day at the beach or just a mother breastfeeding her new born baby in public.
While the filmmaking process wasn't without its problems (Lina ended up being arrested along with a cast of topless women), it was finding a distributor that proved most challenging. "You have to remember this was at a time when no-one was talking about feminism in the way we are now," reflects Lina. "No-one wanted the movie; they didn't think it had an audience. Eventually I reached out to Miley Cyrus, who is friend of mine, who tweeted about it, and then it went viral." From celebrities such as Cara Delevingne and Lena Dunham repping a "Free the Nipple" tee to students and politicians instigating protests in Iceland, the movement spread like wildfire.
Free the Nipple eventually aired last year, but by then the movement had overtaken it. Type #freethenipple into Instagram and over 3,000,000 hits come up (three times as many as for #blacklivesmatter), but when it comes to Lina Esco and the Free the Nipple film, there's not nearly the same amount of traction. Is this something that bothers her? "The majority of people think it's a movement," concedes Lina, "which it is, I just thought the film would come out sooner and that the conversation would come later. But Free the Nipple is just a platform, it's not my thing, it's everyone's thing, it's everyone's responsibility to get the word out."
The rapid growth of social media and the dissemination of fourth wave feminism has meant that conversations about gender equality have become commonplace. The downside, however, is that it hasn't taken long for big corporate brands and click-bait journalists to tap into and exploit this new "trend" for female empowerment. Then, again, should this inauthentic brand of feminism matter if ultimately it's still getting the message out there? "I don't think it matters if people are using the hashtag to get more hits or to sell products," says Lina, shrewdly. "As long as people are talking about it."
It's been six years since she first had the idea for Free the Nipple, but for Lina she's barely scratched the surface. Currently working on her largest campaign to date, Lina has her sights set firmly on Congress. "All of this has been leading up to one thing," she says, excitedly, "and that's going to be to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in America. Not many people know this, but America doesn't have it in its constitution that men and women are equal. I've already aligned myself with some very powerful women in DC, I'm shooting a docu-series about it, and I've teamed up with change.org to create a petition. It will solve everything from breastfeeding in public to making sure you get paid as much as your male co-workers." With only three states pending until the legislation can be passed, Lina's certain that success is in her reach. As for Free the Nipple, Lina hopes to transform her fledgling idea into a globally recognised, non-profit organisation, dedicated to championing women's rights.
For someone who's achieved so much in such a short time, it's remarkable how down to earth Lina Esco remains, just as it is refreshing to know she's still as passionate about her cause as ever. Does she ever take a moment to step back and reflect on the incredible things she's done? "Yes," she says, somewhat uneasily. "It's amazing how far we've come. But there are women in Pakistan having their fucking noses cut off. My job is to continue spreading awareness, that's what's important to me and I'm not going to stop until I die."
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Naj Jamaï
Swimsuit by Lee + Lani for Free the Nipple collaboration