Nipples aren’t obscene. Sexism is.

Nipples aren’t obscene. Sexism is.

Let’s stop being such boobs about nipples. From Facebook censoring pictures of breastfeeding women to Fox News fuzzing up the chests of Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, America seems to be on a binge of mammary prudery.

At the Calvin Klein Collection Resort show on Wednesday (June 3), fashion designer Francisco Costa sent out two models dressed in clothes printed with boobs all over them.

The abstracted breast motifs, designed in collaboration with the painter Alice Lancaster, were fairly benign, as boobs go—but then again, aren’t most? I think so, and these boobs looked particularly friendly, with nipples that recalled cartoon eyes. But nipples, it would seem, can strike fear into many hearts.


Like other human body parts, nipples can be many things: erotic, functional, beautiful, and strange. But when those nipples belong to a woman, some would add adjectives such as obscene, shameful, and dangerous.

The sexist double standard is obvious and offensive, and while I enjoy covering myself with a shirt in public, I certainly wouldn’t want to be treated as a miscreant if I chose, say, to remove my top at the beach.

Guys can show theirs

That’s the point that a group of women set out to make in Los Angeles on Saturday (May 30), when they gathered topless on Venice Beach, where the neighborhood council recently voted in support of “women being afforded the same rights as men to sunbathe topless.” They rallied in support of the #FreeTheNipple campaign, which aims to empower women to bare their complete breasts, without consequences. Celebrities such as Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Lena Dunham have taken up the cause as well.

“I feel that women’s sexualities are taken at a young age and then sold directly back to us,” Ali Marsh, the 17-year-old organizer of Saturday’s topless gathering told i-D. “We are not allowed to show our bodies, yet every poster, ad, and movie has naked women trying to sell us something.”


“Nipple modesty”

At least in the US, many women feel they not only have to cover their nipples, they have to obscure their form completely with padded or thickly lined bras. (Magazines can just use Photoshop.)

“This nipple modesty thing is a number one issue,” Michelle Lam, founder of the research-intensive lingerie company True & Co., told Quartz last year. “Nips are probably not great in a co-ed board meeting situation—in the American landscape anyway.”

That goes for breastfeeding mothers too

In May, a man took and posted a photograph of Conner Kendall, an Indiana mother, feeding her son at a TGI Fridays restaurant, without her permission.

He wrote: “I went [sic] to know if this is appropriate or inappropriate as I’m trying to eat my Fridays, there are little kids around…”

After Kendall became aware of the photograph, she responded with a lengthy, thoughtful Facebook post that has since been shared more than 90,000 times.

“Let’s show everyone that we will not stand for being put down, shamed, and harassed for simply fulfilling our children’s most basic need,” she wrote.

Other mothers have responded to requests to “cover up” while breastfeeding by pulling their shirts over their faces instead of their breasts and babies—who sometimes prefer not to feed in the dark.

What if I’m a cartoon?

It’s only recently that the arbiters of good taste at Facebook and Instagram—where women’s nipples are generally not welcome—have made exceptions for images of post-mastectomy scarring and breastfeeding.

When Alice Lancaster shared an image of her painting, Naked Juror No. 2 (featured at top), in her Instagram feed, the company sent her a warning and removed the picture. (The company has since eased the policy on paintings and sculptures depicting nudity.)

Lancaster called the censorship “insane” in an email to Quartz. Although her work has been embraced by the #FreeTheNipple activists, she said her paintings aren’t political.

“I started painting boobs after I made a lot of nude figure paintings,” she said. “I wanted my art to be minimal and I concentrated on making the simplest lines when drawing or painting the female form, which included boobs.”

When another painting of boobs, Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, New York’s local Fox news affiliate blurred out the femmes’ breasts. (Butts were okay though.)

The reaction online to the absurd censorship was swift and merciless. I am optimistic that the support for Lancaster’s stylishly subversive Calvin Klein print will be equally strong.

Nipples aren’t obscene. Sexism is.

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