I was asked about “Free the Nipple”……
26/11/2015 § Leave a comment
A student from the US emailed me recently to ask my opinion on the “Free The Nipple” campaign.
Until I received this email, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, but I took the opportunity to reflect on this question, and here is my response to it.
The “Free the Nipple” campaign is concerned with perceived double standards with regards to what parts of the female body can be shown without censure, compared to the male body. It was started by a film maker called Lina Esco, in response to Instagram banning all pictures of female nipples, and resulted in a variety of Femen-esque topless protests in New York and L.A.
I’ll start by saying that I don’t really have a great deal of time for Instagram.
The activity of taking and distributing “selfies” and the use of this activity for self promotion (because, lets face it, what other purpose does it serve?) is a neurotic cultural practice that shows absolute obedience on the part of its practitioners to dominant neo-liberalist ideas about “individuality” and the self, and self-promotion, to the neglect of all other human relations.
It also promotes the pre-eminence of models of “personal achievement” determined by neoliberal capitalism social norms. Success is measured in terms of conventional popularity and social approval – and the people who do best on the internet are the pretty, young, white girls, the ones with good skin that comes from always having good quality, nutritious food and never going hungry; the ones whose bodies fit a very narrow definition of attractiveness that has largely been determined by western patriarchal culture anyway; the ones who are always doing something fabulous somewhere exotic and/or exciting but who are never seen reading books, or marching in support of a difficult cause; the ones who never have to say anything, or do anything, or even think about anything, because a picture of their arse is enough to make their very existence socially, culturally and economically relevant.
I’m actually in quite good company with this one – Grace Coddington, the former model and creative director of US Vogue recently went public with her views on instagram, and she was even less complimentary than I am about it.
And then there’s social media itself – the venture capitalist’s wet dream, where fat profits are to be made from millions of people all over the world who are all sitting at their computers, ready, willing and able to have their data mined and to be advertised at. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Social media users are the product that is being sold here, and it is naive to think otherwise.
And in the middle of all of this, we have a bunch of young women campaigning to be allowed to show their breasts on a particular for-profit internet platform that has decided to have a no-female-nipples policy. As if there aren’t enough media platforms that display female nipples as it is?
The wider question is about what body parts can be exposed in public without censure – the “Free the Nipple” campaign seeks to address this question, and is concerned to “desexualize” women’s bodies, particularly women’s breasts.
The fact is that we see women’s naked breasts on the pages of newspapers on a daily basis. We see them in cafes if they have an infant that needs breast feeding. We see clothed breasts (that are, nevertheless, clearly and manifestly, breasts) in lingerie adverts on billboards, and at the beach in the summer when people are wearing swimming costumes. And so on and so forth. The body, and particularly the female body, is everywhere. Questions about how a particular part of women’s anatomy, and its representation, firstly is interpreted and secondly relates to feminism are vexed. The response to images of women’s bodies varies depending on the viewer, and also the context of the image, and it is possible that one image can be seen as both feminist and as misogynist or sexist, depending on whom you talk to.
What I would say is that the Free the Nipple movement, which aims to desexualize women’s bodies all together, is fundamentally misguided. The idea that gender equality will be reached simply by showing female nipples on social media on the grounds that there is no difference between mens and women nipples assumes that if we just ignore difference it will go away. Sadly for the “Free the Nipple” campaign, this is not enough to overturn centuries of ideas about the many and varied psychosocial and the cultural meaning of the body. Indeed, the idea that corporeal equality exists at all is hopelessly optimistic – not least because it doesn’t seek to question these deep and profound meanings that are attached to the body. Instead it presents a naïve and largely uncritical response (that’s not fair!) to predicatable, rudimentary corporate censorship (Instagram rule 1 – no tits.)
Free the Nipple is asking the wrong questions. For the purposes of gender equality, the difference between male and female anatomy, and the various levels of social acceptability thereof, are, in a sense, neither here nor there. The fact is, differences exist, as surely as the sun rises in the east. The precise form these differences take is incidental, and these differences will not, in and of themselves, be negated by the newly neutral appreciation of tits that will apparently arise as a result of women exposing their breasts. Instagram censorship is a separate issue, and should be treated as such.
What does need to be questioned is the constant scrutiny that womens bodies are under, and the mechanisms for enforcing that scrutiny, from men’s cat calls in the street, that start when girls reach puberty and continues until they are menopausal women, to music videos that perpetuate feminine sexuality as heteronormative and reliant on male desire for its validity, and everything in between. It is not sexuality per se that is a problem. Nor is it the sexualization of womens (or mens) bodies that is a problem. The problem is that sexuality is firstly circumscribed and used as a mechanism of psychosocial control, and then deployed as a way of shaping feminine experience. Exposing ones breasts is, frankly, a woefully under-thought and inadequate response to this, and however radical one may think ones breasts are, getting them out in public is not going to change the misogyny that runs through women’s lives like Brighton through a stick of rock.
I would also say that the belief that it is possible, or even desirable, to desexualize the human body is a bit silly, given that the very essence of human subjectivity, as well as all human relations, is predicated on sexuality of one sort or another. With this in mind, I suggest that all these instagramming free-the-nipplers stop taking selfies of their tape-covered chests, and go and read some Freud instead.