Is the “Free the Nipple” Movement Too White?

Free The Nipple Brighton annual march in 2019, photo by Fiona Feej McNeilage (image courtesy Free the Nipple Brighton)

Free the Nipple is a movement of our time, epitomizing the power and peril of occupying both global social media and local social norms. Now ubiquitous, the slogan was introduced in 2012 during the filming of a movie of the same name. Thanks to real protests created for the film, and the fanning of flames on social media by celebrities, Free the Nipple protests soon cropped up internationally. Framing the issue for causes like women’s health, body equality, gender-based laws, and art censorship, it quickly became clear that a real and important movement was underway. 

Unlike other social-media-centric movements like BLM and #MeToo, Free the Nipple lacks central leadership, outlined goals, and an active website. Despite remaining a “hidden hashtag” on Instagram and TikTok, making it difficult for activists to organize, it has gained international recognition, legal successes, and a fervent base of support. Still, the movement has long been cast as a frivolous concern of bored and sexy celebrities and social media enthusiasts. This misconception reveals the paradox at the core of the movement: our societal tendency to sexualize and diminish women displaying bodily autonomy. 

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Free the Nipple embodies two identities: online, and offline. Online, the movement centers on calling out sexist and damaging community guidelines that hinder users from sharing information, art, and advocacy based on their perceived gender. Offline, it focuses on effecting legal change, gathering community, and changing minds.

Because offline concerns are often idiosyncratic by comparison, the public image of the movement is generally tied to social media. Therefore, that perception is shaped by algorithms and engagement, usually depicting younger, Whiter, thinner activists. This has contributed to a real problem Free the Nipple faces over intersectionality and representation. 

Free The Nipple Brighton annual march in 2021 (photo by DeadPlantz, courtesy Free The Nipple Brighton)

Bee Nicholls, founder of Free the Nipple Brighton, worries about the alienating nature of the popular image of the movement. “Given that the bodies of young women are overrepresented in the media it’s important that Free the Nipple too doesn’t become centered on them,” she told Hyperallergic

Nichollss’ yearly march brings together participants from all backgrounds and walks of life. This is critical, said Nicholls, because “the version of feminism that centers the experiences of the most privileged women in our society is at best unhelpful and at worst harmful to marginalized women. Free the Nipple is no exception.”

Free the Nipple has taken jurisdictions to court and challenged local laws, many times successfully, like in the case of Dorothy Stover, who passed a top freedom bylaw for Nantucket beaches last summer. While a victory for the movement, her experience underscores a major through line of opposition: protecting children from seeing breasts. From local laws to online spaces, protecting children is often the driving force behind prohibitions on nipple exposure, resulting in erasure and shaming of female-presenting bodies. But as Stover witnessed, it’s not children, but adults who “sexualize or are offended by female breasts.”

The premise that the nipple is inherently sexual has dogged nipple freedom fighters for generations, and perpetuated the concerning reality that despite being a body part all genders share, only the female-presenting body is held in contempt for it. Most social media operate with the same equivalency: a female-presenting nipple is nudity, nudity is sexual activity; therefore, a female-presenting nipple is inherently sexual. Exceptions can be made for breastfeeding, breast-cancer awareness, and some art, though moderation often targets these images anyway. TikTok follows Meta’s notorious anti-female-nipple stance, while Vero and Youtube draw the line at nudity that is intended for sexual gratification. Twitter enacts nudity placement restrictions and Tumblr allows for it but applies warning screens. All these platforms, and more, pair nudity with sexual content in their guidelines. 

Ada Ada Ada, “in transitu #65” (2023), documenting her gender transition on Instagram under the handle @In_Transitu_IG (image courtesy the artist)

Accounts like @In_Transitu_IG have been challenging social media by daring their own erasure. Documenting her gender transition methodically with images and gender recognition algorithms, Ada Ada Ada poses the challenge: “When does Meta consider my nipples female?” Such an argument was underlined when Meta’s Oversight Board recently took the company to task in their “Gender Identity and Nudity” decision. Centered on the dysfunction of gendering nipples, specifically those of trans and non-binary people, the Board scolded, “Meta’s policies on adult nudity result in greater barriers to expression for women, trans, and gender non-binary people” and called for Meta to “avoid discrimination on the basis of sex or gender identity.” Don’t be fooled by misleading headlines, however: The nipple is not yet free on Instagram. 

While Free the Nipple continues to be decentralized and debated, there is no doubt it is effective. As tenets of the movement become mainstream through legal changes, endorsements, and increasing awareness, there is reason to believe it will break free of its limited depiction. 

“We are hopeful that literacy around the topic of true bodily autonomy and intersectional feminism is spreading,” said Nicholls.


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