Tiffany Jenkins: Women’s bodies a political issue

Breastfeeding in public still invokes a negative public reaction. Picture: TSPL
Breastfeeding in public still invokes a negative public reaction. Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

#FREETHENIPPLE and No More Page 3 make women’s bodies a political issue. There are bigger battles to fight, writes Tiffany Jenkins

A film is doing the rounds that is said to strike a blow for freedom. It opens with uplifting organ music. A group of young women run in slow motion through the streets of New York City. A quote, from the French poet Victor Hugo, flashes up on the screen: “No army can stop an idea whose time has come.”

The beginning promises something inspiring, something that you might want to join. The women then remove their tops and expose naked backs. They turn around to face the viewer – topless – and place pink balaclavas on their heads. After which, another woman stands in Times Square naked from the waist-up, stretches her arms up into the air and smiles. “We need new heroes, new stories, and we need them now” a voiceover intones.

This is the film for the #FreeTheNipple campaign which aims “to end this insane war on women’s boobs.” #FreeTheNipple has been raging for a few years.

Through a series of stunts, campaigners have called for the bans which still exist in 37 US states on women going topless in public to be lifted. They also campaign against restrictions on images, such as those on social media sites, especially Facebook and Instagram which have no-nudity policies. As you would expect with any large social media enterprise monitoring millions of users, the implementation of the no-nudity policies is uneven.

Sexually explicit images are allowed so long as the breasts are covered, but non-sexual pictures of breastfeeding mothers are not permitted. It’s daft and Facebook has just sensibly announced that the female nipple ban no longer exists for breastfeeding mothers.

Many have joined #FreeTheNipple. In particular, attractive celebrities. As they have done so, they have pictured themselves topless, which has achieved considerable media attention, ostensibly for the cause – and who would have thought that pretty girls with their nipples exposed would trigger such extensive press coverage?

The latest to join up are Elizabeth Jagger (whose nipples regularly appear in women’s magazines, though it’s not clear if this is a political statement); Scout Willis, who wandered around New York with her shirt off in protest against Instagram’s policy, and her sister Rumer. Scout and Rumer are the daughters of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who once got a fair amount of attention herself when she posed naked when pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair.

With so many women pictured topless, you have to wonder if #FreeTheNipple is overstating the problem, but they might have a smidgin of point, though describing the problem as “a war against the nipple” may be a tad extreme. The campaign exposes the contradictory feelings our society has towards the body, especially certain parts of the female anatomy, and these feelings are not always all that rational or healthy – they can be prudish and censorious. But I remain unconvinced that #FreeTheNipple is an idea whose time has come that no army can stop, or that letting it all hang out is revolutionary. “I believe these laws do not reflect the dream upon which the United States was founded” proclaims one of the voices on the film. Now I don’t know for sure what the Founding Fathers of the United States of America would have thought, but I doubt that when they broke from the British Empire and set forth to create a new nation that they were fighting for the cause of parading around topless.

Wouldn’t a better fight to have today be to reorganise the public sphere so that it is more amenable to female equality?

This campaign inadvertently exposes the low ambitions and confused state of contemporary gender politics. And it’s not the only one. Take another cause raging at the moment under the guise of feminism – No More Page 3.

Activists would like pictures of topless women in certain newspapers (ones that, if we are honest, are aimed at working-class men rather than, say, fashion mags aimed at middle-class women) to cover up. They focus on the Sun newspaper and the Page 3 “stunner”. A petition, which at last count has 194,800 supporters, asks the Scottish editor of the Sun, David Dinsmore: “to drop the bare boobs”.

No More Page 3 has a list of statements on its website. One asks: “What are we teaching kids? They see page after page of pictures of men in clothes doing stuff (you know, running the country, achieving in sport!) and what are the women doing in this society they’re learning about?

“Er, they’re standing in their pants showing their breasts for men. It’s not really fair, is it?”

But whilst Page 3 may be antiquated, campaigns to ban it can sound prurient and censorious, a bit like the attitudes inspiring #FreeTheNipple. It’s odd, isn’t it, that two prominent campaigns du jour are fixated on our breasts? One group would like to see more boobs, the other fewer. I get the point that how women are represented and depicted should be up to them, as Scout Willis explains on her blog: “What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body.” But the women who pose for Page 3 have chosen to do just that.

More importantly, is the way our boobs are displayed or not the most important issue facing us today? No More Page 3 says “Boobs are not news” but they seem to be doing everything to make them so.

These two campaigns, one to expose and one to conceal, are two sides of the same coin. They have more in common than may first appear.

Both target the body and the representation of it as a place for political action and agitation. And this has limitations, because it is a narrowing of demands.

There is more to equality and progress than taking off our T-shirts, or putting them back on. If anything, we women are already too worried about various aspects of our bodies and how it is clothed or not. We could do with fighting other battles instead.