Asking for a Friend: Why Are Women’s Nipples Such a Big Deal?

Madonna has made a career out of being provocative and giving modesty the middle finger.

When she released the video for Like a Prayer in 1989, religious groups were aghast, the Vatican condemned the whole thing and Pepsi called off its sponsorship with her (she got to keep the USD $5 million though).

The singer has ruffled plenty of feathers since then and is still going strong with the controversies at the age of 63, again making headlines recently for posting racy photos of herself to her Instagram.

For reference, “racy” in this instance means that she had a nipple showing. Call the church elders to rectify this sacrilege!

Thanks to Instagram’s fairly strict policy about showing that particular part of a woman’s anatomy, the photos were promptly removed.

Maddy, not one to take no for an answer, then reposted the photos with her offending nipples censored and a caption in which she expressed her frustration that “we live in a culture that allows every inch of a woman’s body to be shown except a nipple.”

“As if that is the only part of a woman’s anatomy that could be sexualized. The nipple that nourishes the baby!” she wrote.

“Can’t a man’s nipple be experienced as erotic ??!! And what about a woman’s ass which is never censored anywhere.”

She ended the comment with a Thanksgiving message that read: “Giving thanks that I have managed to maintain my sanity through four decades of censorship … … sexism … … ageism and misogyny. Perfectly timed with the lies we have been raised to believe about the pilgrims peacefully breaking bread with the Native American Indians when they landed on Plymouth Rock! God bless America.”

So, what exactly is the big deal when it comes to women’s nipples? Why are they such a touchy (sorry) subject and why is it not okay for women to show theirs but not a problem if men do it?

I’m sure you all remember the infamous “Nipplegate” situation at the Super Bowl back in 2004 when Justin Timberlake revealed Janet Jackson’s nipple (which was covered with a nipple shield) for all of a nanosecond. The fallout was swift and ridiculous.

People got themselves up in arms about the hint of a nipple that had been seen and attributed it to the declining morality of America (which, in their eyes, is the whole world). MTV was banned from ever producing a Super Bowl halftime show again and Jackson’s invitation to perform at the Grammys that year was rescinded.

Timberlake endured exactly zero fallout for his role in the incident.

Meanwhile, Les Moonves — the CEO of MTV’s parent company Viacom — ordered that all of Jackson’s singles and music videos be blacklisted from all of its properties, including CBS and MTV, in order to restore some decency to the tainted entertainment industry.

Moonves was ousted from his position as Chairman and CEO of CBS in 2018 after his decades of predatory sexual misconduct in the workplace were exposed.

It hasn’t always been this way. Until the 1930s, both men and women were banned from taking their tops off in public, but then men campaigned for and won, the right to sunbathe naked from the waist up. Since then, men have happily showed off their abs, dad bods, beer bellies, six-packs, jungles of hair or baby smooth skin with abandon and, hey, I am not exactly complaining about that. I just wonder why it is considered such a lewd act for women to do the same thing.

Now, I am in possession of two of the scandalous body parts myself and, until falling pregnant and them starting to hurt all the damn time, I have never really paid them much attention. I’m not entirely sure why they are sexualised when they are such utilitarian additions to the bodies of those who choose to become parents and who choose and are able to breastfeed.

If people don’t like to see the “sexual” side of nipples, they sure as hell don’t like seeing the functional side of them either — ask any mother who has posted a pic of her breastfeeding her child. Chances are, there were people who had opinions about that and made them known.

Somehow, through the annals of time, women’s nipples have become so eroticised that society feels the need to keep them hidden. Of course, the taboo nature they have taken on as a result of that only serves to make them more erotic and appealing, thereby perpetuating the “need” to keep them covered.

As artist Micol Hebron said when her work depicting both her nipples and two male subject’s were removed from Instagram, “The fetishisation and censorship of female nipples gets to the point where the body is being seen only as a sexual object.”

Like Madonna’s bras in the ‘Vogue’ video clip, she has a point.

Because a woman’s nipple is seen as being something that arouses men and because, apparently, it is women’s fault that some men can’t control their sexual desires, women are forced to tuck their nipples away in public, lest they attract unwanted attention and spark moral outrage. Men can let their nips flap free in the wind though, presumably because no one finds them arousing and even if women did, they typically can keep their s**t together about it.

The #FreeTheNipple campaign, started by Hebron and run across social media a few years ago, further exposed the hypocrisy of the situation, with the artist encouraging women to pose topless and then photoshop male nipples onto their photos in order to make their “provocative” posts more Insta-friendly.

The ideals around nipples and their taboo factor also alienate members of the transgender community. If a trans woman were to show her top half on social media, prior to having any kind of surgery (if that was the path she was choosing and able to take) would it be a problem? Likely not, which would then lead one to believe that it was because her nipples were still seen as “male” therefore invalidating her gender identity. If she then had breast enhancement surgery and showed her nipples, people would likely object, because those nipples would now be attached to breasts, therefore vilifying the same action when carried out by one person at different stages of their journey.

Some of the ideas around nipples surely get planted in boys at a young age and I’m so curious to know how and why. How does the nipple go from being something that is used (for those who can and who want to go that route) for merely sustaining them to being the thing they would sell their right arm to see?

What comes to mind is that, for many young women who are starting to develop more intimate relationships with the opposite sex, our breasts can be the first thing we feel comfortable showing or having touched as we start to find ourselves sexually. It’s dipping your toe into adulthood while keeping one foot firmly planted in innocence.

For young boys, the knowledge that they are likely to see some breasts long before they are ever permitted to engage in intercourse or other genital stimulation probably makes boobs a hotter commodity because they are more within reach. Maybe some young men never outgrow those early memories of desire when the sight of what’s underneath a bra was seen as X-rated.

But why are we at the point where showing a nipple or two is categorised as the height of scandal? Especially when it comes to social media where far more sexually suggestive content is freely shared. Why is the insinuation of graphic sex okay but the visibility of just one small part of a woman’s body, shown in a totally non-sexual way, the end of the world?

I’d argue that the anti-vaxx sentiments and COVID conspiracy theories that run rampant on Instagram are far more dangerous to everyone than the sight of any woman owning her sexuality, breastfeeding her child or going topless because she wants to. Funny, isn’t it, how the platform just can’t seem to block all of the accounts spreading misinformation, but they can whip down a nip in record time.

With things rapidly evolving when it comes to equality and sexuality, there is a chance that we could see some positive change where this frustrating double standard is concerned. Until then, I will privately celebrate my nipples for all they will (hopefully) be able to do for my impending addition and graciously forgive them for causing me pain every time I move or put clothes on.

After all, they’ve been demonised enough.

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