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By Hein Kaiser


Free the nipple movement

For centuries, popular culture and classic society portrayed the female body as a sexual object, labelling it as inappropriate to display in certain ways.

How one film changed society

The free the nipple movement has become one of the most sustained social justice protests this century. And it has a movie to thank for it.

Free the Nipple, based on a 2014 film of the same name, began as a top freedom campaign to allow women the same rights as men when it comes to being topless in public. When men do it, it’s considered okay when women do, it became sexual. It argued that it should be socially and legally acceptable for women to bare their chests publicly.

Filmmaker Lina Esco starred in her movie, where she took to the streets of New York, topless.

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Free The Nipple has since become a war cry for change, for women to take charge of their bodies and the aura of social construct prejudice that accompanies it. 

For centuries, popular culture and classic society portrayed the female body as a sexual object, labelling it as inappropriate to display in certain ways. The argument for freeing the nipple suggested that this objectification essentially dehumanises women, reducing them to their physical characteristics.

This millennia-long way of life has paved the way for societal acceptance of objectifying women in media, advertisements, and public discourse, which, in turn, influences how the public perceives the exposure of women’s bodies.

Lisa Welsh is a sex educator and said that the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies are undeniably damaging, leading to various adverse effects, from mental health issues such as low self-esteem and body dysmorphia to perpetuating a culture of violence against women. It’s time we faced these realities head-on, calling out the cultural norms and societal perceptions contributing to these issues.

Gender equality

It is this foundation of gender inequality that the Free the Nipple movement challenges. Launched in 2012, the movement continues to advocate for gender equality in societal perceptions. Women participating in this movement argue that they should have the same right as men to be shirtless in public, for example. In essence, it isn’t just about the right to go topless; it’s a broader fight against gender discrimination, objectification, and the sexualization of the female body.

In an age of never-ending social media content streams, Welsh said that the problem has been exacerbated.

“Media outlets flood us with unrealistic body ideals, leading to body image dissatisfaction and mental health disorders. Additionally, women are often boxed into ‘acceptable’ clothing norms labelled as either ‘provocative’ or ‘modest’, limiting their freedom to dress as they please. This type of societal policing harms women’s self-expression and undermines their autonomy,” she said.

free the nipple
Freedom to express your body by your own rules. Picture Supplied

The movement has gained traction, not just via online influencers, media reportage and even red carpets. It has split into fashion. Not wearing a bra and, in some cases, underwear too, is a visual, and public manifestation of the point that the movement wants to keep making. It breaks taboo barriers and is a subtle but important protest.

Welsh said that rather than conforming to societal norms, the focus should be on personal comfort, self-expression, and individual autonomy.

“Encouraging women to question and challenge these societal norms and stereotypes will foster an environment where clothing does not equate to a person’s worth or femininity.”

Welsh added that it’s about encouraging open dialogue. “While some may disagree with movements like ‘Free the Nipple’, the goal is not to impose a particular viewpoint but to encourage open dialogue, challenge damaging stereotypes, and foster understanding and respect for bodily autonomy and gender equality. It’s about creating a more equal society where each person’s autonomy over their body is respected and upheld.”

Yet, the journey of deconstructing these societal norms is not an easy one. The stigma around women’s toplessness is deeply ingrained in societal perceptions, with implications that ripple into numerous areas of life, from workplace attire standards to breastfeeding in public.

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Welsh added: “We need to understand that breasts, much like a man’s chest, primarily serve a functional purpose. They are designed for breastfeeding, not sexual gratification. The sexualisation of the female chest is a societal construct, one that can and should be questioned.”

The answer may lie in how we educate men and women. Welsh suggested that sex education should extend beyond simply explaining the biological aspects of sex. It should incorporate lessons on consent and body positivity, and challenge harmful societal norms. 

“By broadening the scope of sex education in this way, we can shift the narrative around nudity and sexuality, promoting a healthier perspective of the human body as natural, not inherently sexual or shameful,” she said.

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sex education sexuality women women empowerment

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