Nipples, Instagram and obstructing the male gaze

By Sarah Hombach


The Nipple: it is the much-heard-but-yet-unseen specter of social media today.  The #FreeTheNipple movement is gaining a swell of public support for the authorization of female nipples appearing online, but as of yet, Instagram and most other social platforms have not budged. Some of those opposed to the nipple’s freedom argue that women’s nipples are conclusively and strictly sexual, citing “biology.” Others worry that this particular debate is veering attention away from more pressing feminist issues, and towards a meaningless, even inherently objectifying social app. Some even fret that — if nipples were out and about all over the place — they would lose their power and elusive “mystique.”

Currently, to remain in accordance with Instagram’s nudity policy, any “free” female nipples must be either scarred from a mastectomy, or actively feeding an infant. They can also appear in painting or sculpture, raising questions about photography’s place in the artistic hierarchy — when it comes to nudity, should realism really equal pornography? Either way, to make matters worse, these nipple depictions were sanctioned as recently as April 2015. What are the consequences of decreeing all female nipples (except those scarred or attached to a baby) sexual and inappropriate?

Like most people, a great deal of the time I spend nude has nothing to do with sex. I bathe, cook, sleep, and clip my toenails naked. But when a nude woman appears in film or TV, during sex or otherwise, her nudity almost always exists for the arousal of her audience. It is near impossible to find media accurately imitating the banality with which a female’s nudity appears to herself.

To insist that there is an inherent sexuality to a part of the female body is to side with males who find it to be so. The argument for nipple concealment hinges itself on the same logic as egregious, highly arbitrary dress codes — three-finger straps, no midriff, skirts to the knee — the responsibility to palliate male overexcitement is placed on the shoulders (and in this case, the bras) of women, not the men themselves. We leave unchallenged the masculine proclivity to orient the world around their sexual fascinations — in turn, female nipples are deemed to be objectively sexual despite having only the male subjective as testimony. And if we think back to Instagram’s nudity guidelines, does it not seem dangerous that the only things by which we can unanimously cool the jets of male attraction are motherhood and cancer?

Young males are no strangers to what a female nipple looks like through the glare of a screen — the accessibility and mass popularity of online pornography renders nipples available to anyone, anywhere, any time. Since all of these nipple depictions appear in a sexual context, society has a very skewed, imbalanced perception of how one should react to nipples, and for whom they exist. If most men’s primary exposure to nipples is through porn and real-life sex, nipples will continue to be cordoned to this narrow box, giving men the arousal green-light at the mere suggestion of one.

Among many women, there is a collective frustration that bearing our nipples outside male-defined boundaries has the power to send people rocketing around in discomfort or arousal. We find ourselves in uneasy and even dangerous situations if our nipples make appearances, even within the most mundane contexts. We choose to cover up because we are conditioned to believe that parts of our body, in spite of their actual, anatomical importance, are taboo and don’t really belong to us.

I do not wish for a world where female nipples are completely nonsexual, but rather one where males are able to contextualize their attraction, allow it to manifest when appropriate. The nipples of a topless stranger at the beach should be unmoving and unremarkable. The nipples of a woman in bed with you — one who is more than happy to have you touch/lick/bite/etc. them — should be, and would remain very exciting indeed. There seems to be no Catch 22 here — some of that beloved “mystique” may be lost in the process of losing the female nipple taboo, but that’s one silly, limiting candle that needed to be snuffed out anyway.

Another candle requiring snuffing is the smug “biology” argument. People say that the mere sight of a female nipple is proven to send violent waves of neurological pleasure, to release unconquerable hormones, even to rouse a weird, vaguely Oedipal-sounding suckling fantasy. Well, back in the day, we also used to pick partners based on their pubic odor. Clearly we are more than happy to harness our biological reflexes in some cases, so why not this one?  

And finally, to those who protest the triviality of this particular issue: yes, in a world where women are educated and paid less but sexually assaulted more, perhaps fighting for one app to sanction our nipples should not be the first order of feminist business. But with over 400 million users and an immense cultural significance, can we really dismiss Instagram as just an app? We need better, more balanced depictions of female nudity across the board, but we don’t yet have the power to determine what appears in film, television, and advertisements the way we do what appears on our Instagram page. People so often dismiss Instagram as a narcissistic platform to “curate” yourself, but perhaps therein lies the app’s largest potential to incite change, especially for women.  We do not have sufficient control over the ways our bodies are perceived — too often, they are treated as trays we hold up to the world for the taking, pleasure and appraisal of others. Being able to present one’s own nipples in a self-determined context could allow women to reclaim both a literal part of our body and its imposed connotations. The work would not end there, but it is my hope that allowing nipples on Instagram would incite change, perhaps leading to a society in which women own and inhabit their bodies in a wider sense.


Originally published 12/09/15


Kaylee WarrenComment