‘Free the nipple’ sparks a moral debate

The KZN woman who sparked the nipple debate.

Activists say ‘the normalisation of the nipple will take time’, and comments about a KZN woman in a revealing dress suggest that’s true.

Morality. What is this beast, and who has the monopoly over defining it? Are some of us allowed to define it for others? These were among the questions many on social media asked after a picture of a KZN woman wearing a transparent top that showed off her nipples emerged on social media.

Well, denotatively, morality refers to “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour”. For others it is about following religious beliefs, while for the rest it’s about living life the way you see fit, even if it means walking naked publicly.

“Free the nipple” has become a gender equality campaign that argues that women should be allowed to show their nipples in public. It’s named after Lina Esco’s 2014 film Free the Nipple. Esco’s argument seems to resonate with many people on social media who believe that we should not only free the nipple, but women, or any person in society, should be free to do whatever they wish with their bodies.

Lina Esco topless in Times Square, New York. Picture: film screenshot

Lina Esco topless in Times Square, New York. Picture: film screenshot

This past Sunday’s episode of Carte Blanche also coincidentally did a segment on Esco’s campaign, looking at how men’s nipples used to be considered “indecent” up until the 1920s in Europe and America, and how men needed to launch a campaign to allow them to go bare-chested on public beaches. Now, nearly a century later, women are still trying to gain the same freedoms.

The KZN woman wasn’t the first to topple the said patriarchal notion that nipples are not to be shown uncovered. Pop star Rihanna and many other global celebs have often been pictured wearing transparent tops that show their nipples. Sometimes it causes a sensation, but mostly we don’t care.

So why the big deal in South Africa over the picture below? (Note that it’s been censored … perhaps ironically so).

The KZN woman who sparked the nipple debate.

The KZN woman who sparked the nipple debate.

Lina Esco, founder of the controversial Free the Nipple Campaign, shook many out of their comfortable way of thinking when she started her campaign. She said: “I came up with ‘free the nipple’ because it’s engaging and funny – and the fuel we needed to start a serious dialogue about gender equality. The shaming of the female nipple is a direct reflection of how unevolved this puritanical country [the US] is. You can pay to see women topless in porn videos and strip clubs, but the moment a woman owns her body, it’s shameful.

“The normalisation of the nipple will take time. In New York, it wasn’t legal for men to be topless in public until the 1930s. Bare ankles used to be considered inappropriate for women. Now we look back at that and laugh.

“Women should be able to do what they want with their bodies. In some states, women can get jailed or fined for being topless. If it becomes legal to show your nipples in public, do you honestly think all women are going to run around topless? ‘Free the nipple’ is simply about having the choice.”




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