An intersectional feminist critique on the Free the Nipple movement & the term double-standard which we so often use
To preface, the terms sex and gender must be defined and contrasted: The World Health Organisation describes sex as characteristics that are biologically defined, whereas gender is based on socially constructed features.
The term “double standard” often used to describe the discrepancies between what is expected of cis-women and cis-men regarding the exposing of nipples in contemporary society refers to gender as a polarity, which, those who are not limited to the confines of gender would deem as oppressive. Although the Free the Nipple movement aims to desexualize the cis-female body and empower women with the choice to go topless by expanding the dialogue of gender equality, the movement is a part of radical feminism that fails to highlight the fluidity of gender, and that gender itself is a social construct.
Free the Nipple is a radical feminist movement where advocates seek equality between cis-women and cis-men, ignorant of the other intersectional facets that shape one’s identity. This movement, broad as it is, does not take into account the intersectionality of class, race, sexuality, nationality, and a myriad of other markers of identity, and such does radical feminism. Many posts on social media using the #FreeTheNipple hashtag are often posted by ethnically white, upper-class, and influential, American women, and inconspicuously support the notion that Free the Nipple is merely a radical feminist movement.
Although the movement does not intentionally exclude people of color, the general perspective of radical feminism has little to no stance on racism, because they define feminism as merely a fight for gender equality and calls for the elimination of male supremacy. Many participating in public protests are white women, overlooking the unique issues people of color face when it comes to gender inequality and harassment from nudity, while only supporting the rights of white cis-women who belong to the upper class. Intersectionality, however, does take into account these facets of one’s identity and fosters an understanding and solidarity amongst diverse groups of people.
This idea was discussed by Linneah Shanti in The Lily Pod podcast, in an episode titled feminism: what does it really mean??? pt. 1: “Intersectional feminism was coined by black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989… What intersectional feminism is focused on is the consideration of multiple facets of identity and how these parts of a person’s identity intersect.”
Intersectional feminism allows for the consideration of all identities. If only gender was examined, which is what mainstream feminism focuses on as the main source of oppression, then all the other facets of a person’s identity that greatly affects their position and treatment in society are ignored; class, age, race, religion, sexuality, ability, and disability. Feminist movements that are not focused on collective liberation for every single person of every walk of life of every identity, cannot be called feminist.
Gender is a rigid categorization that exists as a form of oppression. Radical feminism supports the binary perspective of gender, where only the labeling of male and female exists; there is no spectrum in gender, only opposites. Therefore, the only genders recognized by radical feminists are cisgenders of male and female, upholding the belief of biological essentialism which deems identities as pre-determined from birth, as opposed to shaped by self-discovery.
An example of this belief being passed down from one generation to another is highlighted within Lindsey Lee Johnson’s novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth (page 88) when Dave, a student, asks the teacher, “‘…excuse me, Mr. Ellison, what if you don’t know if it’s a he or a she?’”, to which the teacher replies with “‘Check for the Adam’s apple, Dave, everyone knows that’.”
This form of categorization is rigid and was designed to limit and control and erase identities, which comes from our desire to police bodies based on our biological and historical understanding of how the world should work, who should be with who, and who should identify as what. Although some might argue that censoring cis-female nipples would contribute to the perpetuation of gendered stereotypes, which are harmful to both sides of the gender binary: gender itself is a construct, and this construct is brushing off and bringing down those who lie beyond the conventional gender binary.
The term “double standard” alludes to the idea that there are two of something, which, in this case, is two genders. Meanwhile to the minds of the progressive, gender is not something of a countable nature. Instead, gender as a facet that defines one’s identity is ever evolving, much like one’s sexuality and who they feel attracted to; change in oneself throughout the course of their life is a given; nothing is set in stone, unlike what is believed based on the notion of biological essentialism.
The author of the memoir titled Beyond the Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon, said it best: “Gender is not what people look like to other people; it is what we know ourselves to be.”
Free the Nipple is exclusionary of those who identify as transgender and non-binary. In an interview with Huck Magazine, Brit Hoagland, who identifies as non-binary, said “‘I definitely think that some Free The Nipple campaigns lack conversation around gender fluidity… It’s taken such a backseat that you rarely hear about it’.”
The liberation of cis-female bodies is so readily talked about, but when it comes to the bodies of transgender or non-binary people, discussions are met with indifference. The term cisgender describes a person whose gender identity is the same as their sex assigned at birth, and is the antonym of transgender. The elasticity of transgenderism has forced a discussion of what sex and gender mean, and whether that is determined based on one’s genitals or identity.
Radical feminism is exclusionary of transwomen, and views transwomen as inherently oppressive rather than oppressed, and that they maintain their oppressive power as a biological male even after they transition, holding the assumption that transwomen cannot understand cis-women’s struggles because they do not have the same reproductive system. Although radical feminists might not necessarily be anti-trans, but are only reluctant, and understandably so, to give transwomen what they have fought and are continuing to fight so hard for, just because these biological males feel a certain way – transwomen are battling a different, but equally challenging, war. This is evident in the following statistics: 41% of trans people have attempted suicide – a painful number, which shows that fighting for the normalization of gender fluidity is vital for our reformation into a safe and inclusive society (McGraa).
In the same interview with Huck Magazine, Sam Six, an advocate for trans and non-binary issues, says “‘The problem is that a lot of the language [in laws] erase trans and non-binary people, so when we try to have a conversation about it, it’s very ‘male’ or ‘female’ orientated’.” Clear as day, this should not be a fight for the freeing of cis-female nipples, it must, instead, be a fight for the freeing of all bodies, all nipples, with no attachments to the rigid labeling of male or female.
Gender fluidity must be brought into the politics of the nipple. The term “double standard” promotes and perpetuates the idea that there exists two, and only two, genders. Although once prevalent, this viewpoint is no longer valid in our rapidly changing world. The recontextualization of the Free the Nipple movement must therefore be encouraged – it is not just a fight for those who identify as women, but a fight for all bodies.
The aim of the movement must instead be to end the policing of the human body and promote bodily autonomy, regardless of one’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Freeing the nipple can no doubt serve as an act of liberation and feminist resistance for cis-women, but it must not be limited to those whose identities lie at one end of an ever-changing and ever-expanding gender spectrum.
Like everything else in life, gender identity is not black and white, and it is not just male or female, either. Ultimately, regardless of what one identifies as, as long as they are a living, breathing human, they must be entitled to making their own decisions about their own body.
That sentiment ought to be timeless and universal.
Alok Vaid-Menon. Beyond the Gender Binary. New York, Penguin Workshop, 2 June 2020.
Goldberg, Michelle. “What Is a Woman?” The New Yorker, 28 July 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2.
Lindsey Lee Johnson. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. 2017. New York, Random House.
McGraa, Taylor. “Bringing Gender Fluidity into the Politics of the Nipple.” Huck Magazine, 23 June 2016, http://www.huckmag.com/perspectives/activism-2/activists-bringing-nonbinary-trans-visibility-back-politics/. Accessed 23 May 2022.
Shanti, Linneah. The Lily Pod. Spotify, 1 Mar. 2021, disc feminism: what does it really mean??? pt. 1.
Tolland, Laura, and Joanne Evans. “What Is the Difference between Sex and Gender? – Office for National Statistics.” Ons.gov.uk, Office for National Statistics, 21 Feb. 2019, http://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/whatisthedifferencebetweensexandgender/2019-02-21.