On the surface, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be seen as new ways to express oneself, engage in debate, share one’s views and to, in a certain sense, engage in democracy. Nevertheless, even technology comes imbedded with its cultural bias and social norms. It follows that minorities such as women, people of colour, LGBTQI+ and people living with disabilities are those most excluded out of the topic of debates and of the act of debating.
Not ever quite gaining the momentum the #MeToo movement did, and one could nearly assume it never will (and wonder if any other # ever will receive the attention the #MeToo movement did – yet that’s for a whole other debate), is the #FreeTheNipple movement. The #FreeTheNipple movement emerged in 2014 coupled with a film /documentary which gave attention to the issue on mainstream television. The movement is part of the Topfreedom cultural and political movement, which campaigns to allow women to be topless in public space where men are allowed to. Similarly, the #FreeTheNipple movement campaigns for the same right but specifically targeting ‘the nipple’ and condemns women being topless as sexual or indecent.
This campaign has been very relevant to not only the offline and public space but it has been even more visible on social media and online spaces. This is because every major social media platform has their own guidelines and policy regarding nudity and revealing nipples which censors certain types of images automatically.
Instagram: “We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”
Facebook: Allows photos of nipples to be posted when it is “in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness, or gender confirmation surgery), or an act of protest”.
Due to the success of activists, only recently has breastfeeding (with strict requirements) been de-censored on social media. The # has been crucial in this campaign where, by using the tag, the image becomes an act of rebellion. I find it very interesting that by adding a specific # related to a campaign, an image can turn from ‘ordinary’ to a political statement, a challenge to patriarchy and a way of uniting women (and men) in the struggle for equality. Hence why I believe #s to be a form of ‘New Media’.
With the emergence of the #FreeTheNipple movement re-emerges debates relating to the female body, gender inequality and ‘the male gaze’, yet this time, within the context of the digital age and social media. The #FreeTheNipple movement relates closely to the ‘freedom of expression’ claim, both of women wanting to reveal their body, and the freedom of expression of artists wanting to portray bodies, and of in both cases post the images on social media. There is still a close link between the female body and the sexualized and objectified body. It is a body seen from a male hetero-normative gaze. If we weren’t assuming such a gaze, would the female body be sexualized and objectified?
Some have argued that the #FreeTheNipple movement is a white movement leaving out people of colour. I would claim that it too leaves out debates surrounding LGBTQ+ – sexualized bodies for whom? – and it does not include accessibility regulations so people living with disabilities are not included into the debate. I find it interesting how the whole campaign, challenging the visual and standardized idea of sexuality and the ‘male gaze’, is done through visual means (pictures) on very visual platforms (Facebook and Instagram). There is no questioning of the ocularcentrism of beauty, normative ideas of sexuality and the abled body, and in this case ‘the gaze’ is gendered and holds power to censor and objectify. To me it reveals how looking, seeing and a gaze holds the power to create the acceptable and the norm in society.