free the nipple isn’t just about nipples, it’s about equality

It's the viral movement that has gripped social media over the past couple of years, but beyond the hashtag, what is Free the Nipple and why do we need it?

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25 August 2016, 2:20pm

The year is 2016. Women are still paid 18% less than men, 62 million girls across the world are denied access to education, and women are still much more likely than men to suffer sexual violence. Women's bodies are used by the media to sell anything from cars to cheese, and young girls are feeling the pressure to be 'sexy, famous and perfect'. It is frowned upon in some places and illegal in others to breastfeed in public, adverts for tampons and sanitary pads demonstrate a clinical blue substance when demonstrating periods, and nipples are banned on Instagram. As women, we are expected to be beautiful, slim and hairless - but god forbid we have autonomy over our bodies, or try to own our sexuality for ourselves. With the rise of the internet and social media, though, it is possible for more women to engage with feminism: there is the potential for more women than ever before to have their voices heard. But, there is still so much more to be done.

Free the Nipple is a global movement, founded by actress and activist Lina Esco. Starting with a feature film, the movement and the hashtag went viral on the internet, inspiring protests and activism worldwide. The movement attempts to address gender inequality by challenging the fact that in many places (including Instagram) it is legal for men to show their nipples but not for women, directly confronting the notion that female exposure is shameful and that female bodies are always sexual when naked. Free the Nipple is not a call for widespread nudism, but instead the nipple has become a metaphor for equality: by defiantly showing their nipples - whether on Instagram, Facebook, on the beach or protesting in public, women across the world are demanding the right to choose what they want to do with their own bodies, and most importantly, when. In a world where a woman in a short skirt is seen to be asking for it, where a rape victim is interrogated in court about her sexual history whilst her rapist's swimming achievements are weighed against his crime, where 1 in 6 women are likely to be a victim of sexual attack - we need this more than ever. Women are showing that with their bare nipples on show, they are still not asking for it.

There are some arguments that so called 'internet feminism' is problematic. You could say that hashtags and Instagrams are fighting for an aesthetic change, rather than an ideological one. In Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive, and in India and Pakistan there are 1000 honour killings a year. In a UK survey, 1 in 3 girls thought it was OK for a woman to be hit or forced into sex, and according to a UN study, women aged between 15 and 44 are more at risk from rape and sexual violence than car accidents, cancer, malaria or war. You could argue that naked selfies from celebrities that are described as 'feminist', and grown out armpit hair and bare nipples alongside a hashtag - seem somewhat irrelevant in the face of violence. You could even argue that these play into the same aesthetic that we are supposedly fighting against - that this is feminism with a 'pink tinge', restricted to attractive, white privilege and perfection, and un-inclusive of women with 'imperfect' bodies - rather than demanding real equality, for everyone, now. You could even argue that Free the Nipple is dogmatic and confused about what it is saying - that not everyone even wants to free their nipples at all - and that you can fight for empowerment whether showing your nipples or not.

However, to anyone who argues this, to anyone who questions intelligent, political young women getting arrested at protests in the name of gender equality - I would say that we need radical action like Free the Nipple to incite us to change. Without movements like Free the Nipple or Gurls Talk, raising awareness and offering a way for people to involve themselves in the debate - women will remain unaware of the work that still needs to be done. "Be more aware", Joan Levin, grandmother of young activist Ali Marsh offers when asked what advice she'd give her young self says. "I was so unaware of sexism. I would tell myself to wake up and have more self confidence", she adds. With 500 million Instagram users in 2016, feminist initiatives that exist on social media are able to do exactly that - to make young people aware and 'activate' them to change - which is what Lina Esco wanted to do in starting the movement.

For someone to just see a tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram with a feminist message makes a difference. Whether they act upon it or not, any kind of awareness and engagement helps. Someone who did act on what she saw was activist Ali Marsh, featured in the Gurls Talk film. Having developed breasts at 9, Ali experienced slut shaming and sexualisation from a young age. When she heard about Free the Nipple online it struck a personal chord with her, and lead her to found Free the Nipple LA, involving all her friends and family in the conversation about equality. Through Ali inspiring her friends, we can see that the knock-on effect has the potential to be profound. If Lina can inspire one person, who can inspire another, who can inspire another - then the conversation can only keep getting bigger. The same goes for Gurls Talk - by inspiring girls to talk about addiction and depression, Adwoa Aboah is helping to start to destigmatize mental health issues, and encouraging young women to support each other. After protests last year by Lina and Ali among others, this summer it was made legal for women to show their nipples on Venice Beach. It's a small change, but we have to start somewhere. We urgently need to normalise female sexuality and nudity, not only to end discrimination but also to protect women from violence. Freeing our nipples doesn't seem like a bad place to start.

Credits


Text and photography Lily Rose Thomas