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In 2012, filmmaker, Lina Esco, began making a documentary about a group of young women who took to the streets of New York  to raise awareness about the legal and cultural taboos of exposed female breasts, specifically nipples. The filming grew into a movement, and as more and more women joined in, evolved into seeking “the equality, empowerment, and freedom of all human beings” (freethenipple.com).

While naked nipples do not necessarily define equal rights for me, it does raise the issue of why naked nipples are such a problem to begin with? Did you know that, in the US, Hawaii, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, and Texas are the only states to legalize toplessness for men and women in public places? Did you also know that, 37 state laws implicitly or explicitly state that any exposure of female nipples is considered a criminal offense for indecent exposure, and five of those states include breastfeeding? In terms of public nudity for nudity’s sake, I feel that’s a personal choice. But because breastfeeding in public brings our nipples out to see the sun, these two issues have become intertwined. Only 9 states, New York included, expressly differentiate breastfeeding mothers from “public lewdness.”

Which leads me to several questions: Why is everyone in America so uncomfortable with naked female nipples? Why is pulling out your breast in public an infraction of other people’s rights? Why are we, as women, so uncomfortable breastfeeding in public? My sense is that it has never been something Americans are okay with. And it dates back to our puritanical roots.

There is a huge difference between wanting to feed your baby and wanting the freedom to expose your nipples, but we may not be able to separate the two.

From birth, we are socialized to believe that post-pubescent female nipples are taboo. They are covered up in magazines, only allowed in rated R movies, and, when accidentally exposed on national television, cause more controversy than bloody war victims.

But it is this very “hiding” of the nipples that makes them exciting when you do catch a glimpse. Even I, as a woman, had to get over the taboo of seeing bare breasted women in medical school. I was brought up to believe it was shameful, like looking at a man’s private parts. So imagine the stomach churning, desensitization health care professionals have to go through to stop seeing private parts as “private.” How can we expect our average Americans to get over the shame of on their own? Especially when they rarely see nipples?

I don’t know the answer, but, like all human nature, gradual change is adopted more easily than the in-your-face approach. Even though breastfeeding is natural, we are all sensitized to believe that naked female breasts are taboo. It may be annoying when someone heckles or stares at you breastfeeding your baby, but understand it is because they feel shame. We will only get over our discomfort when we get used to nipples. Heck, one day we could even get so bored with looking at them that we don’t notice them at all.

 

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