Male or female? Can you tell the difference?
Photos: Instagram @genderless_nipples
By Jacqueline Atkinson
N

ipples. We’ve all seen them. Most of us have them. Some of them are pointy and some of them are round. Some of them are long and some of them are inverted.

Some can be proudly displayed during the Super Bowl and others will be banned from ever returning. The difference? Some belong to the white, male-gendered Adam Levine and others belong to black, female-gendered Janet Jackson.

The female nipple must work so the male penis can perform.

The Difference of Nipples

The nipple itself is not inherently sexed, as the Instagram account @genderless_nipples makes pointedly clear. The account works to challenge Instagram’s sexist standards of nudity which allows photos showing male nipples to remain but demands photos of female nipples to be removed.

The account posts close up images of nipples and challenges Instagram to tell the difference. Male or female. Remain or remove. Their argument? It is literally impossible to tell such a difference because nipples cannot be physically characterized by gender.

Yet nipples have often been incredibly gendered — according to whose body they exist upon. For men — assuming the nipples are mounted on perfectly toned pectoral muscles and accompany an equally toned upper torso — they indicate sex appeal and fierce, masculine confidence. Publicly displaying male nipples shows that you are doing masculinity right, and as such, proclaims that you are welcome to be physically present in the patriarchal public.

This is precisely why Adam Levine, front man of the popular band Maroon 5, exposed his male nipples — proudly ripping off his shirt during the band’s  Super Bowl performance. Levine presented the correct form of masculinity, as evidenced by the positive public celebration of his nudity. His male nipples simply had a self-proclaimed right to be there — and the patriarchal National Football League controlling this particular public space was in agreement.

As a black woman, Janet Jackson’s nipples did not. When her nipple was briefly exposed by Justin Timberlake during their 2004 Super Bowl performance, she was immediately crucified by the public and has never been invited back to perform since. Additionally, a $550,000 fine from the Federal Communications Commission citing ‘indecency’ was slapped on the producing CBS network, though this was later thrown out through appeal. What Levine’s recent performance reveals about this controversy – blown out of proportion as ‘Nipplegate’ 15 years ago – is that it was never really about a nipple but rather about female nudity in public.

So why is the nude female body indecent but the male female body is not? Put simply, this is because the nude female body is intended to be consumed for the purpose of reproduction, whereas the nude male body is to be presented as an expression of masculine might.

Nipples as Tools of Reproduction

As a prime focus of pornographic content, female nipples are expected to play a prominent role in stimulating men to orgasm. As our culture sexually objectifies them, female nipples are positioned to be touched, ogled and consumed by men — not only for male pleasure but so sexual reproduction, which is often narrowly defined by the ejaculation of sperm, can take place. The female nipple must work so the male penis can perform.

But the laborious job of the female nipple to reproduce does not end there. A child is born and immediately placed next to the mother’s nipple, with an expectation that the same nipple expected to help create the child in the first place must now sustain the child as they grow. The nipple is now seen in a nurturing light, but is still expected to be consumed for the sake of reproduction.

Both these reproductive expectations of the female nipple take place in the private sphere. This makes the public presence of the female nipple inherently explicit because it is actively defying the patriarchal social expectation that reproductive work should only exist in the private sphere.

Public display of the female nipple is then quite literally a challenge to the patriarchal limitations of where women can exist. So weaponized ‘public indecency’ accusations are used to suppress this challenge.

Reclaiming the Nipple

Adam Levine’s display of his nipples remind us of the power that men have over their bodies –  power women continue to struggle to assert. Levine can decide whether to mobilize his male nipples as a part of his masculine sex appeal during his performance, or render them as non-sexualized when partaking in a family swim day with his children.

A woman breastfeeding her child in public, however, is forced to cover up because her breastfeeding nipple has already been sexualized by public opinion. The use of the woman’s nipples is decided for her not by her. This reminds us that women are not permitted the same bodily autonomy that men have.

It is worth noting that women in Ontario do have the legal right to go topless in public (like men) since 1996. This was the year Gwen Jacob, a University of Guelph student was acquitted of charges of indecency for having removed her shirt on a hot day during the summer of 1991.

Yet legal rights do not necessarily translate automatically or easily to everyday actions. How often do you see a topless woman versus man in public? Also,  women continue to struggle to be topless in various spaces that are largely considered public, such as the Internet and private businesses

As women struggle to define the nature of their topless appearance in public as being sexual, maternal or otherwise, we can see how this legal right to be topless in public fails to equalize bodily autonomy among men and women.

A popular 2012 campaign, known as ‘Free the Nipple,’ connected the ability of women to bear their nipples in public with increased female bodily autonomy. Several celebrities, including Miley Cyrus, Chrissy Teigen and Rihanna supported the campaign by posting Instagram photos bearing their nipples.

These photos were of course removed and Rihanna even lost posting privileges for a brief period of time as a result. Nonetheless, the point of the campaign rang true with many throughout the world: women, like men, should be able to present their bodies however they choose to.

Though the campaign was wildly successful in calling attention to this issue, not much has changed to allow and facilitate the public display of female nipples.

Breastfeeding mothers continue to be shamed for showing their nipples in public. Nipple baring Instagram photos continue to be removed citing ‘indecency.’ Adam Levine can proudly display his nipples during the Super Bowl in 2019, but it is disturbingly clear that Janet Jackson would still never be permitted to do so.

The female nipple may look no different from the male nipple. Yet its feminized ability to create and sustain life has rendered it to be too large a threat to our patriarchal order for it to be proudly displayed in public life.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *