On January 7, 2014, Lina Esco, director of the awesomely controversial film Free the Nipple, posted a rousing bit of discourse in The Huffington Post. In it, she recounts much of the censorship she’s had to deal with in the making of and marketing of her film, a documentary that gives the history and controversy of women’s right to bare their chests, like men are able to without thinking about it. Apparently, men have not always been able to go shirtless (she opens her article with a short history of how men received their right in 1936 after nipples were deemed evil and activism was undertaken). Women, though, are still demonized for their areola, regardless of its anatomical similarity with that of the male.
According to Esco, who filmed leagues of women topless in New York City in protest of laws barring women to do so, only 13 states allow legal topless behavior, while some states arrest and fine women who just want to throw off their tops on a hot day. Not only that, social media (a universe of its own), has balked at Esco for her contributions to social change. Facebook removed her trailer for the film, even though another site, “Free the Boobs,” remains unhindered. Esco aptly observes here that the female nipple is the nexus point for this controversy, and it’s perplexing to see how significant one aversion to one body part (mostly in the United States) can be.
It seems that much of the problem revolves around (you guessed it) sexuality and responses to that particular biological imperative. Esco criticizes Facebook and other social media platforms for disallowing the female nipple, but saying nothing at the sight of monstrous amounts of violence. American kids see a myriad of creative ways to destroy a human body (in video games and films) with little censorship, but the site of the nipple on a female breast sends enraged parents a-runnin’. That demonstrates how America loves good ol’ fashioned violence but is still a dumbass teenager when it comes to sexual education and imagery.
Also, highly sexualized images without a single nipple exposed seem to be fine. That “Free the Boobs” page trucks along swell and dandy seemingly without disturbances from the higher ups. But the minute an areola appears, it doesn’t matter whether or not the intention is sexual; somehow, the image is obscene. Instagram calls the female nipple a violation of some term or another, but Esco reminds us that people buy guns there and share all manner of horrid pictures (but not nipples!).
An interesting factor is Europe’s reaction, which is very confused at the American take on obscenity. Europe is more or less over the female nipple, the site of an uncovered breast a normal sight in magazines, flyers for medical treatment, you name it. The human body can be utilized sexually and non-sexually; Europe tends to give people the freedom to make that distinction, not the other way around. Esco’s fight to help women uncover themselves shows the United States to be so very uncomfortable with sex, enough so that the powers that be try to dictate what is and what is not obscene (not at all conducive to a healthy nation of folks practicing safe sex, if you’ve noticed).
What strikes me is how many people ask Esco and activists like her about the importance of their causes. To me, this shows a very basic ignorance of how powerful body politics are, especially in regards to women. As long as there is over-censored body parts, sexuality remains in the shadow of fear and obscenity. Esco’s film could liberate culture from boobs and the body as only sexual, and take away some of the danger and stigma of the naked form (why is it still illegal some places to whip out a boob for nourishment of another human?). The roots of this argument run deep, and it should remain an important point until sexuality and the body are up to the individual and not mired in the decisions of popular culture and social media.