The Ambivalence of Empowerment

The Free the Nipple campaign has been in and out of the media limelight since December 2013 when Lina Esco met an onslaught of censorship during her attempt to release a new film. The feature length movie follows a group of young women who take to the streets of New York City to challenge the taboo and criminalization of females going topless in public. Despite censorship bans, the film was eventually released and a campaign was ignited to set the nipple free.

The goal seems straightforward at first glance, but the meaning of that freedom raises questions that require deeper answers than just the unbuttoning of a blouse. Is concealment synonymous with confinement? And what is the nature of disclosure if it is only a response to restraint?

Shortly after the campaign was launched, the internet quickly became inundated with selfies of young women baring their breasts to their smartphones. Lifting one corner of their t-shirt to reveal the infamous nipple, many girls chose to leave the other hidden from view. While the selfies and the enthusiastic support of Miley Cyrus didn’t exactly inspire my confidence in the movement, it was hard not to appreciate some of their points. “If porn is the only place where we do see topless women,” says Liz Plank, the senior editor of Mic, “no wonder we have trouble overcoming how women are constantly being objectified.”

Plank did a short segment on the subject in which she interviews men on the streets of LA to gauge public reaction to the movement. She stops a muscular shirtless man out for a run to ask if he is concerned about showing his nipples.

“So you don’t feel that people are going to be like, ‘Ohh, he’s totally asking for it. I can do whatever I want to his body?’”

The man is bewildered. “No,” he laughs. “No.”

She stops a second man, also shirtless.

“Don’t you feel like it’s distracting? Like people will see you and they can’t do anything else?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, because you’re like topless.”

‘Yeah, but everyone does it,’ he replies.

Perhaps he was unaware that until the 1930’s, not even men were allowed to show their nipples on the beach. They had to wear a one-piece suit and were subject to the hefty fine of one dollar if they broke this rule.

Conversations such as these reveal the absurd inequality of our cultural standards, but while the policing of women’s bodies is problematic on several levels, I question whether a campaign of disclosure will be the path to freedom either. Exposure is not inherently empowering.

As much as I wanted to believe that I had outgrown the conservative ideology of my youth, I still felt myself shrink inside my shirt when I heard about this topless revolution. I was born into a home where my mother stripped down to give birth to me, but then went through the photos of the event and placed stickers over her breasts and vagina. From the very beginning it was well understood that there was something to hide, and to be hidden from.

I was only six-years-old when my mother warned me not to wear shirts with images on the front to avoid drawing unwanted attention to my breasts. As a flat-chested child, it was difficult to understand her reasoning, but as I grew older, my father’s addiction to porn and my grandfather’s sexual abuse shed new light on my mother’s warnings.

I was in my twenties the first time I took off my bra in front of my boyfriend. The sensation that I remember most is not freedom, but an inability to breathe. It was not his first time seeing a woman’s chest, but he understood that my disclosure mattered even if it was only for a brief moment, before I exhaled and withdrew back beneath the sheets.

Now in my early thirties, I wonder at my body’s remaining reticence. Am I any less a feminist if I choose not to share my nipples with the world? A preference for privacy is nothing to wonder at, but why do I feel threatened by these other women’s unveilings? As I scroll through the selfies of perky and voluptuous breasts, I do not feel empowered. I still see many of them responding to a gaze, looking back at a man either in defiance or invitation and usually a mixture of both. The exposure that for me had been a significant step of vulnerability feels somehow demeaned by the flippancy of these photos that seek to make the nipple commonplace. When everything has been seen, what is left to be revealed?

The option to conceal was an important part of my decision to do otherwise. It gave meaning to the moment when I trusted someone enough to be held within their view. It was an intimacy that did not reduce me to what was hidden or exposed, yet retained the significance of both.

At the turn of the 20th century, the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first modernist woman artist to paint nude self-portraits. Long before the Free the Nipple campaign began championing the naked breast, she was learning to paint her own. One of her most well-known and striking paintings is a full-frontal from the waist up with only an amber necklace hanging at her chest. Her eyes are dark and wide with a deep blue sky and bright flowers behind her tilted head. She is smiling slightly and her gaze is an internal one – as if she were looking into a mirror. Her image fills the frame, the head and chest taking up equal measure. There is an immediacy to her nakedness, an almost startling presence from which the dark pink nipples do not distract.

The image is a self portrait painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her chest is bare except for an amber necklace, and she holds pink flowers in her hands. The same pink flowers are also in her brown hair. In the background, there are dark green, leafy plants and a light blue sky.
Self Portrait, 1906. By Paula Modersohn-Becker.


I think of Caroline Knapp’s insightful critique of the media’s representation of women. She observed that a model’s gaze from the pages of a magazine usually says two things: to men, “Fuck me,” and to women, “Fuck you; you will never be me.” Becker’s portrait says neither. Instead, there is a seemingly effortless refusal to be objectified. There is no separation between her body and the wakefulness of her conscious mind.

I sense a subtle but significant difference in this example of exposure that is not threatened by its own vulnerability. When Becker steps within the frame, she is not on the defensive, nor does she have an agenda for what is seen. Thus what can possibly be taken from her?     

Whatever empowerment is, I feel that this painting offers a clue. It is not power over or against anyone, or possession by desire as is often exulted in contemporary media.

Outside the structure of patriarchy, the fear that Paula’s self-disclosure could be invalidated by a picture of another topless woman becomes almost laughable. Her existence cannot be subjugated to the narrow framework of a gaze because it was never created by one. Her power is not based in exposure or concealment, but in the actuality of who she is.

The Free the Nipple campaign continues to instigate an important dialogue about our culture’s perception of women, but while Facebook and Instagram carefully navigate new censorship battles over whether the photo of a nipple is porn or progress, it is hard not to wonder if we have somehow missed the point.

The power never did lie in the eye of the beholder. The body retains a reality that transcends poor interpretation, and perhaps it is only a poor interpretation of power to believe it can be so easily taken away.



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