The world is a little boobed out at the moment, breasts having become the new arm band – an emblem of protest. They're popping out everywhere, in a bid to call attention to everything from women's rights to censorship laws.
The #FreeTheNipple campaign in the U.S. is the most prominent of these breast protests, although its proponents aren't alone. Engaging in topless activism – being a breastivist? – is becoming a global phenomenon. In the Ukraine, the feminist group Femen regularly stages topless demonstrations to draw attention to a range of issues, including gender rights, sex tourism and the treatment of women worldwide.
But are these campaigns effective? Or do they exacerbate the problem the protesters purport to be fighting? If you want to have gender equality, to be out of the leering male gaze – seen and appreciated as more than a lovely combination of body parts – why put yourself so squarely in it?
Free the Nipple (FTN), which calls itself a "real-life movement" to empower women around the world, aims to change censorship laws in the U.S. and draw attention to the "hypocritical contradictions in our media-dominated society" that tolerate violence but "not the [female] nipple," according to its founder, Lina Esco, a 29-year-old actor and emerging filmmaker in Los Angeles. In some American states, it is still illegal for a woman to be topless when breastfeeding. The average American child "sees over 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV before they turn 18 [but] not one nipple," Esco writes in a recent article. Social-media censorship also comes under fire. "Why can you show public beheadings on Facebook but not a nipple?" she asks.
Four years ago, when Esco played a part in the romantic comedy LOL, she told the film's director, Lisa Azuelos, about her FTN idea. "She got it straight away," Esco tells me in a telephone interview. Azuelos is French-Moroccan and "the freest woman I know. I grew up Catholic, very repressed. There was a lot of shame about the body."
FTN has since become a viral sensation. In 2012, Esco raised $1-million to shoot her movie, Free the Nipple, which marks her debut as a filmmaker. A comedy about a group of women who take to the streets of New York to stage topless protests and graffiti installations, the film stars Esco as a journalist who meets up with an activist, played by Lola Kirke, the younger sister of Jemima Kirke, best known for her role as Jessa in the hit TV series Girls. It has recently received two distribution offers.
"I knew I had to do this," Esco says, adding that her agent warned her against making the movie, advising her that "it would ruin my career." The last six months have seen a grassroots movement of "people coming to this movement on their own," she explains. "It's hitting a nerve. The nipple is just a Trojan horse. It's opening up a discussion about lots of issues. Who would have thought a nipple could do that?"
Well, I hate to be a killjoy when it comes to nipple freedom, but what would make you think that a topless publicity stunt wouldn't get attention? And how can you be sure it's anything more than soft-porn entertainment? One of the images on the FTN website, which is from the movie, shows a group of topless women in New York with pink ski masks over their head. It has a certain kinky eroticism to it and made me think the movie should be called Fifty Shades of Pink. So much for desexualizing the female body.
Esco defends the image as an "art installation. The women standing there are stoic. It's very powerful, " she says, adding that the women in her movie all have different body shapes and sizes, which is different from Femen, where the female activists are all "thin and beautiful."
It hasn't hurt that celebrities have jumped on the FTN bandwagon. But I would wager they're baring their nipples in part because they know it draws attention to them. Miley Cyrus, best known for freeing the tongue, supported the movement immediately. Lena Durham of Girls fame did, too. Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, has strolled around New York City topless. Rihanna is also on board, which is not surprising, given her proclivity for baring her body in sheer dresses. Cara Delevingne, the model of the moment, has tweeted about it. And the publicity seeker of all publicity seekers, Lady Gaga, recently Instagrammed a picture of herself on a private plane, wearing vintage Mugler with her right breast in view. (It was later deleted.) A nip-slip pic that was unintentional? Does Gaga release anything that's unintentional?
Esco has heard all the criticism and none of it distracts her from her mission. "This is about normalizing the female breast," she says. "It's so puritanical and unevolved to be so shocked by a boob. It's a boob! It doesn't mean you can grab them 'cause they're out. We're not saying we want the whole world to go topless. This is not a radical feminist movement. It's gracious, all about love and acceptance. We're not here to push our truths on others."
Esco has experienced the feeling of empowerment first-hand when she ran through Times Square topless for a scene in her movie. "Everything changes," she says. "I have jumped out of an airplane and the feeling doesn't compare to that. Once you do it, all that inner dialogue about 'This is wrong' and shame about the body disappears."
I, too, have run topless through the streets. Once. It was in Northampton, Mass., when I was a student at Smith College, an all-women's liberal-arts college. I was about 20 and a group of other students and I did it as a lark and for the giddy feeling that we were radical gals of the seventies who could have it all. But then we moved on from girlish things and got into the hard work of making real change.