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The War on Female Nipples Impacts Body Image Too

This issue’s feature story for the newletter was going to be about our updated guidelines for picture uploads, but a little Facebook snafu provided a more provocative topic. On our Facebook page (which you should follow if you don’t already), we regularly post articles of interest about body image and body positivity. Sometimes these venture into areas that some people might consider risqué. We try to flag such articles as NSFW (not safe for work) or somehow indicate that the content might be problematic. Usually the thumbnail images accompanying articles have been chosen to be “Facebook friendly” (e.g. no female nipples), but occasionally they are borderline.


And so, on September 9th we posted an interesting article from the great website Women You Should Know about a photography project that seeks to desexualize women’s nipples. Our introduction to the article indicated potentially NSFW content. But it had a thumbnail accompanying the article with tiny pictures of topless women. In the image (below), you can hardly see the nipples. The image dissolves into something of a pattern. Since our post was taken down after someone reported it, this is a screencap of the original post on the Women You Should Know page (before it, in turn, got flagged and taken down).

The project, Bare Reality by artist Laura Dodsworth was created “because I have always been fascinated by the dichotomy between women’s personal lives and how they are depicted in the media; between how we feel about breasts privately and how they are presented for public consumption” (quote is from the Women You Should Know blog post). It’s clear that this project can help women (and girls) come to terms with body issues. One of the comments on the Women You Should Know post was a pediatrician who advised: “Facebook should not take this down. I am in pediatric medicine and you can't believe how many girls hate their breasts and think there is something wrong with them because all they know are the fake and photoshopped breasts that they see in fashion magazines.”

Numerous writers have called Facebook out on their misogyny and hypocrisy re: the arbitrary difference between male and female nipples. Male nipples are every bit as much erogenous zones as female nipples are, yet somehow it is okay to show one gender’s but not the other’s. A quick web search on “male erogenous zones” finds nipples on just about every list! Practices like shaming women for their nipples as inherently sexual (when their biological purpose is actually feeding children) or only showing fantasy airbrushed or photoshopped versions of nipples insidiously contribute to body image issues and promote body negativity instead of body positivity. Male nipples, since they don’t feed children, could even be argued to be more erotic than female ones because they don’t have any other function besides the possibility of pleasure.

At the same time as the Bare Reality image was circulating, another image (below)--publicity for a new romance novel--was making the rounds on Facebook with absolutely no problems. I can guarantee you that there is a healthy percentage of both women and men who look at this image and immediately think of something sexual being done to this person. When highly sexualized images of bare-chested men are unquestioningly allowed on social media but completely nonsexualized images of bare-chested women are forbidden it sends a clear (if subtle) message that women’s bodies are shameful and something to be controlled whereas men’s are not.

Because of Facebook and other social media platforms that deem female nipples “inappropriate content”, we at My Body Gallery have long required user uploads to have female nipples somehow obscured (either by clothing, hands/arms, or via anomyzation), but we (fully acknowledging our hypocrisy) don’t require this on our companion men’s site. We deeply appreciate that many of our users upload photographs in their underwear to better highlight what their “real” nonphotoshopped body looks like and that many of those women do not wear bras. We cannot expect members of our community to go out and buy a bra just to be able to upload a picture on our site without having to resort to creative body positioning (it’s difficult to hold a cell phone and take a selfie when you’re simultaneously trying to cover your nipples). The easy, if not very creative, solution was to provide the photo anonmyzation function during upload, but we are sensitive to the fact that blacking out bars or circles across the body leaves marks that scream censorship and also can be seen by some as oppressive rather than merely anomyzing.

What is the solution to this double standard of visible nipples? Should those of us who are activist-minded fight to have men’s nipples deemed inappropriate content? Perhaps by starting a movement to flag any shirtless male photos? Or should we try to get the powers that be at Facebook to realize that female nipples are no big deal? Projects like Bare Reality and Free the Nipple (a documentary film about our cultural discomfort with female nipples) are definitely bringing some attention to this plight. When we think about places like New York City, where women have the legal right to walk topless down the street, or how topless women are a regular feature at most beaches, public parks, swimming pools, etc. in vast swathes of Europe, one can hope that American Puritanism might start to wane sometime in the near future.

Our deleted post also had a very engaging discussion going on re: the question of whether My Body Gallery should begin to allow people to post photographs with visible nipples. Sadly we can’t retrieve any of those comments as they were wiped out along with the post by the Facebook powers that be, but what I was able to read earlier in the day before the post disappeared was overwhelmingly positive toward nipples being allowed. We’re not quite ready to go there yet, but we are definitely curious to see what might happen in the future. Please do send us your thoughts about nipple visibility and My Body Gallery. You can post on our Facebook wall, Tweet your thoughts to us, or just email me at the address below.

Anna Friedman

Creative and Marketing Director

My Body Gallery

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