Free the Nipple Movement: Is it Feminism and Why?

It depends on the type of feminist you are.

In December 2014, Netflix released a drama documentary titled Free the Nipple that follows a group of young women in New York City who begin a campaign to protest criminalization and censorship of female breasts. This led to the “Free the Nipple” campaign becoming a global phenomenon. The Free the Nipple campaign is part of a larger mission to reclaim women’s bodies, sexuality and safety. The campaigns main focus is on equality and empowerment of all human beings.

I believe feminism is imbedded into this movement as it advocates women's rights on the ground of equality of the sexes. It is about thinking openly on the subject of equality using the human anatomy as a foundation to demonstrate that women and men are equal. Toplessness serves the Free the Nipple campaign not only as a platform, but also as a protest and consciousness-raising tactic to de-sexualise women’s nipples. The Free the Nipple campaign is not a movement that aims to force every woman to go topless (I’m not one for nudity myself). It is about giving women the option to be shirtless, free of harassment and judgment.

The movement argues that both men and women have breasts, whether big or small. They share the same characteristics such as breast tissue, areolas and nipples. The major difference between men and women’s breasts is that the ability to produce milk for offspring. The Netflix documentary argues that the media glorifies violence but censors women's breasts which creates mystery and the fetishization of women's breasts. This then defines our chests as being inherently sexual rather than a feature of biological functions.

In many countries it is deemed illegal to publicly breastfeed as it may provoke sexual urges in men. Social media sites such as Facebook have censored breastfeeding images. However, the depiction of violence and women posing seductively have not been censored in the media. This is the issue that many women find problematic and why they are advocating for the Free the Nipple campaign. 

Oppositions to the movement are plentiful, with revolutionary feminists calling out the movement to be serving a feminism that does not include all women that are marginalised. ‘Intersectionality’ is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw that argues that one cannot look at one oppression at a time, but should link oppressions together to include all people facing discrimination. This implies movements such as the Free the Nipple should not exclusively fight against sexism, but fight against race and class oppression as well because all these forms of discrimination are interlinked and form how we experience our daily lives.

Many also criticize the movement for using female breasts to grab attention to fight for the equality of women in a male-dominated world because men have consumed women's bodies for their own pleasure for years. Others believe it’s putting power back into the hands of women.

As they say, sex sells and the Free the Nipple movement has brought in the discussion of femininity and violence against women globally, creating a space for women to discuss issues deeply affecting us in an unequal society.