With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
Leaving Disney and Hannah Montana far behind her, singer and actress Miley Cyrus now seems bent on appearing topless as often, and as in many places, as possible.
Pop star Rihanna and model Chrissy Teigen both are famously harnessing the freedom of social media to revel in – and promote – their birthday suits.
New York City has become home to painted topless women on its public streets; in August, Mayor Bill de Blasio assembled a task force to determine a legal method of booting the ladies.
Comedian Chelsea Handler, frustrated with Instagram’s censorship of her topless pictures, recreated a photo of a topless Vladimir Putin on horseback to illustrate and mock the hypocrisy. It, too, was removed – but not without enormous publicity.
The “Free the Nipple” movement and corresponding movie receives plenty of coverage from mainstream media, including a recent pro-con page in Time Magazine. Actress and new mother Alyssa Milano penned the “con” argument for Time, wondering why women who are photographed nursing their babies (or post their own selfies doing so) are still hearing the tsk-tsks.
“I worry that the images shared by the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign are defeating gender equality by encouraging women to be objectified,” Milano wrote. “We’re facing issues like wage inequality and paid maternity leave. I don’t see how being allowed to show your nipples is going to fix any of that.”
Despite Milano’s reservations, the opportunity to glimpse naked female breasts seems on the rise. Or is the reality different than the perception?
Amanda Littauer, assistant professor in the NIU Department of History and Center for the Study of Women, Gender & Sexuality, says “it does seem that recent efforts to assert women’s rights to expose their breasts without penalty or shame are more visible in the mainstream media than previously.”
“Some women’s liberationists in the 1970s did call attention to the legal and social double standard that allowed men to bare their chests but required women to cover up,” says Littauer, who is also co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History for the American Historical Association, “and toplessness was often a part of lesbian separatist cultures.”
Many of today’s women who are taking their tops off find inspiration from “Free the Nipple” or events such as the “Slut Walk” that encourage women’s bodily and sexual self-expression, she says.
Others, she adds, such as those who advocate for a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, are insisting on the right for women to show their breasts in non-sexual ways.
All are acting on and extending “long-standing feminist principles about women’s freedom and equality,” Littauer says, while they fight against sexual objection.
Unfortunately, “it seems that women who bare their breasts as a form of political or cultural self-assertion, rather than as a gesture of sexualized self-objectification, encounter serious backlash and resistance,” she says. “At the recent topless protest in NYC, for instance, organizers wondered out loud whether the spectators really supported their cause or just wanted to gawk at their bodies.”
Littauer points to words spoken to the crowd from a representative of GoTopless.org.
“I hope you’re all here for the right reason. I hope you’re here for equal rights and not taking perverted pictures of us. We’re here for equal rights. We’re here so that women do not have to get raped and go to a police officer and find out that the question they’re concerned about is, ‘What were we f-ing wearing?’ ”
“Though sexist ridicule and sexualization may drown out their voices, these protesters and cultural warriors have an important message to share,” Littauer says.
For some women, however, the challenge is even more difficult.
“Most of the celebrity and activist women advocating for the freedom to bare their breasts are white, and that’s no accident,” she says.
“American society has persistently over-sexualized the bodies of women of color, making it particularly fraught for them either to express sexual agency or to breastfeed publicly. African-American feminists have been insisting on black women’s right to sexual and reproductive autonomy for generations, though progress is hard to come by.”
Consider pop star Nicki Minaj, whose choices to uncover her body draw fire from feminists and anti-feminists alike.
“She has asserted that her intentional display of her own sexualized body is a feminist act, and it is hardly surprising that a woman of color boldly marketing her own sexual image would generate considerable backlash,” Littauer says. “As Nicki shows us, it is possible for celebrity women to employ nudity not only in the service of sales but also in their pursuit of freedom of self-expression.”
Indeed, celebrity culture can complicate the issue.
Some female actresses and singers “may be capitalizing on the cultural movement to promote their own brand, which is often overtly sexual,” Littauer says. For others, it’s not self-marketing but the result of “sexist pandering by male artists and directors.”
“With Miley Cyrus, what we’re probably looking at is someone who’s got a soapbox, and she’s experimenting with self-expression,” Ferris says. “She can use nudity or toplessness in ways that non-celebrity women don’t get a chance to do.”
Like Littauer, Ferris doubts that there are a greater number of naked breasts to peep at now than in the past.
“I’m not sure it’s happening more. I’m not sure it’s new. It’s maybe just getting reported more, and with social media, in immediately accessible ways. It’s not that there’s more nipples to see, but there are more ways to see nipples,” she says.
“If you hear that Miley Cyrus exposed her breasts on the MTV Video Music Awards, you can actually go look at that even if you didn’t see it happen. That’s one way social media creates phenomenon in ways it might not have 10 or 15 years ago.”
Think about Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl, Ferris says.
“Janet was so in trouble for that. The FCC levied fines,” she says. “But everybody’s celebrating Miley Cyrus for it because everybody can look. It’s easier for everyone to get a glimpse.”
Ferris also calls the current exposure as “cyclical rather than evolutionary.”
“Every generation or two, these issues come up again, and they’re often linked to breastfeeding. As trends cycle in child-rearing, breastfeeding goes in and out of vogue,” she says.
“Breastfeeding is currently recommended by the federal government and lots of experts, so women who do it – and who do it in public and get in trouble from other people when they do it – are saying, ‘Look, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing for my baby, and it shouldn’t be a problem for you.’ For some reason, we’re squeamish about nursing breasts but not pixilated breasts.”
Whatever the motivation of women whose breasts are on display, Ferris is grateful for the opportunity they create “to talk about questions of equality.”
“There are very few places where women have an equal right to go topless, at least in the United States,” she says. “People don’t think of that too much. They just think that’s the way it is. But it’s as arbitrary as any other gender double-standard.”