Nipples in Western Society

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Believe it or not, male nipples were previously considered obscene and unnatural by American legislation. However, in 1930, four men strutted topless around Coney Island, shocking all on the scene. Not much longer after this unexpected event, American cinema broke a barrier after Clark Gable sported his bare chest, nipples and all, in the movie It Happened One Night. Half a decade later, 42 men in New Jersey hit Atlantic City, proudly revealing their nipples to gamblers. After this mass arrest, New York legislated male toplessness in 1936. It sounds out of place in modern day, but men had their own “Free the Nipple” movement. Now, American women have stepped up to the plate.

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It is the natural evolution of society to accept the female breast. While the male nipple is erogenous, it serves no biological purpose. The female nipple, while being erogenous, is a mammary gland. The primary biological function is to nurture a child. Women are pressured by parenting books, magazines, and society as a whole to become mothers; we see this in the many protests against abortion, the stereotypical notion that a woman’s place in the home, and the gender roles that are enforced on young girls from the time they are born. So why is the nipple, the organ that enables breastfeeding (a signifier of motherhood), become a symbol for female promiscuity and obscenity?

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Facebook and Instagram‘s rules regarding the female body state that even if one millimeter of the areola is showing, the post is subject to removal. Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, stated, “We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple… We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures” (Jones). Basically, the female nipple is accepted as long as it is not attached to an actual woman.

With these new guidelines, Facebook imposes the social unacceptance of the female body. In a piece for Time Magazine, journalist Eliana Dockterman details the story of a photographer who posted a picture on the Coppertone Facebook page of her two year old daughter’s bare buttocks, revealing her tanline. The mother’s artistic goal was to mimic the original Coppertone ad in a modern-day setting. However, Facebook removed the image and banned the user from the website for “the sharing of pornographic content and explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved.” Notably, the original Coppertone ad has not been removed from Facebook. This promotes the idea that as long as the female nudity is making money, it is deemed acceptable. However, if not for marketing purposes, it is technological contraband.

Society has fully embraced the idea that breasts are for boys, and not for babies. It is illegal for a woman to go topless in the majority of American cities. However, I can walk into any convenience store and purchase a magazine where I can look through 50 pages of nude women. Breasts are for sale, but wearing them? That’s illegal.

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Why is it that America is so biased towards what is pornographic and what is not? Why is there no operational definition for obscenity? Perhaps it is America’s capitalist tendencies that do not permit the legalization of the female nipple. If the nipple becomes legal, and is eventually desexualized following the evolution of the male nipple, then corporations will no longer be able to attain profit from the marketing of the female body. Perhaps it is our Christian-based Constitution and legal system. While the US claims to be accepting of all religions, women are still exposed to Christian ideas in regards to health care, mainly apropos of abortion and the Republican push to deem the procedure illegal. This legal system also enforces traditional Christian roles in which women are expected to be mothers, while men are expected to be breadwinners. Evidence for these conservative, gendered stereotypes can be found in the legislation referring to maternity leave. In respect to laws discussing anatomy, women are clearly politically disadvantaged thanks to the legal sexism which allows for exposure of the male nipple but not for its female counterpart.

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In a film that was nearly impossible to release, director Lisa Esco targets the archaic American censorship laws in Free the Nipple. The film explores the contradictions in our media-dominated society, where acts of violence and killing are glorified, while images of a woman’s body are censored by the FCC and the MPAA (FREE THE NIPPLE). Esco discusses on the Free the Nipple website how these censorship laws objectify the female body, thus oppressing women in the US. These laws commodify women, rendering them second class citizens through the systematic obscenic rendering of the female nipple. By granting men the freedom to bare their chests, but not women, America becomes a nation of hypocrisy. As a country, the United States’ pride lies in the idea of freedom. But by not granting freedom to the female nipple, America’s promise of freedom is merely affectation.

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A tasteless and offensive opening to the 2013 Oscars ceremony by Seth Macfarlane. His message is clear: breasts are for male consumption. The song encourages the idea that the female breast is alien and out of the ordinary, promoting the stigma surrounding the female nipple. Note Macfarlane’s language when he describes Angelina Jolie’s breasts as “exciting,” this  further invigorates difficulties for women in Hollywood. The primary struggle for so many actresses is to be taken seriously, as a person, not as a sex object.

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