Nipple visibility, why the stigma?

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A man’s nipple. A woman’s nipple. But what makes these nipples different? And what small feature about them divides the public’s perception? Let’s talk about it. 

The dreaded wardrobe malfunction:

We’ve all heard of a wardrobe malfunction. An unintentional slip of fabric at the wrong moment, particularly when captured by a quick photographer, can get a celebrity all sorts of unwanted press. Historically, the recipients of pity or even ridicule have been women. Specifically, women with exposed chests. 

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As Madonna proclaimed in an Instagram photo caption in November 2021, “We live in a culture that allows every inch of a woman’s body to be shown except a nipple.” Why the separation between a man’s and a woman’s? Why sexualize the part of the body that can feed a child?

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Men and women told to cover up:

Until the 1930s, both men and women were prohibited from exposing their chests in public. Men protested these restrictions by pulling off their shirts once they hit the beach. They were fined and even jailed to the point of mass arrests until 1937, when a judge in New York overturned the ban. Since then, men have been largely free to bare their chests in parks, on beaches, in ads (both on billboards and online) and most outdoor spaces.

A disastrous Super Bowl halftime show (2004):

Although current college-aged adults were too young and not even remotely concerned with the social taboos of chests yet, the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show is ingrained in the minds of everyone who witnessed it. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performed a medley of songs that ended in Timberlake exposing Jackson’s nipple shield in a choreographed dance move to about 100 million viewers. 

The result was MTV being banned from ever producing a halftime show again, and contempt for Jackson so bad, she was linked to the decline of morality in America, while Timberlake barely felt the fallout. MTV issued a statement following the show that they regretted the incident and “apologize to anyone who was offended by it.” 

After the Super Bowl that year, the FCC received over half a million complaints. The chairman, Michael Powell, referred to the incident as a “classless, crass and deplorable stunt.” Half a million complaints. Did the public always swoon at such lack of decorum? 

Miss Flo says NO to double standards

Today, women have protested claims of indecency by “freeing the nipple” in various ways. Florence Pugh, acclaimed actress and producer has attended events in a number of semi-sheer looks. 

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This past July, after attending a Valentino haute couture show wearing a see-through Valentino dress, critics called her disgusting. The backlash was considerable, to the point where Pugh addressed it in on Instagram. 

“What’s been interesting to watch and witness is just how easy it is for men to totally destroy a woman’s body, publicly, proudly, for everyone to see,” says Pugh.

Valentino’s own creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli weighed in, commenting “Respect.” We can see now the contrast between an event like the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 and Valentino’s haute couture show in 2022. Admittedly, the scale of the Valentino show was much smaller, but the ability for images to circulate and subsequently be criticized is greater than ever before. 

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Because a woman’s nipple is something that can be seen as arousing, it is up to women to cover them and reject unwanted attention and advances. Public perception of nipples also alienates transgender and non-binary individuals who are forced to adhere to a strict set of rules. 

Vilifying those who may be uncomfortable with declaring who they are at different stages of their journey only further limits conversation on bodily autonomy. Thankfully, public conversation continues to include gender identity and deconstructing sexual double standards. Acceptance for those who want to explore their own autonomy can lead to the potential for positive change. 

Do you have anything to add to this conversation? Let us know by tweeting us @VALLEYmag. Be sure to follow us on Instagram @VALLEYmag!



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