- 29 Jul 19
Take a walk along Dublin’s Grand Canal on a hot summer’s day and there they are: men showing off their nipples by the dozen! And yet there is still a bizarre taboo about women doing the same thing. So what the hell is behind this blatant inequality? By Ellen Cooney aka Calamity Sparks.
Nipples! Let’s talk about them. Female ones to be specific. Evil, scornful, shameful female nips and the mystery surrounding them.
The obsession with female nipples and the need to keep them under wraps is one that’s so deeply ingrained in so many of us, it doesn’t even occur to most people to think about why half of the world’s nipples are acceptable for public consumption, and the other half aren’t. I was 24 the first time I thought about it – in earnest, that is.
That was in the spring of 2014. I was backstage for a burlesque show, supergluing pasties to my boobs. Super. Gluing. Now in normal, sane, conditions, I use tape or latex or wishful thinking, but it was a hot day, I was sweating, and the Teflon titties had struck. Superglue it was, to be followed by a boob bath in ethanol later that night. Let me tell you, that shit hurt.
It got me thinking. Such is the potential for controversy around them – so unacceptable, and probably illegal, would it have been for me to expose a full breast to the public – that I had been reduced to a traumatic form of boob-crafting. That same hot day, as I walked to the gig, I observed that the canals of Dublin had been descended upon by nipples. Socially acceptable, canal nipples.
There’s currently 7.5 billion people on the planet, totalling, and I’m spit-balling here, 15 billion nipples, half of which many countries have deemed to be dangerous. On close inspection, it’s difficult to tell the difference; but on further inspection, well, it’s also difficult to tell the difference.
I would challenge any reader right now to distinguish between a close-up picture of a male (not scary) nipple, and a female (really scary) nipple. The likelihood is that you just wouldn’t be able to say for sure which was which – so one could hardly be blamed for assuming it’s the surrounding landscape of the breast that’s causing the turmoil. However, anyone with a knowledge of current bikini trends, or festival wear, will agree that boobs are very ‘in’ right now.
So where does that leave us?
On one level, the issue is a cultural one, with specific religious or political regimes demanding that women should be conservatively dressed – that is, covered-up to one extent or another. The Burqa is an extreme expression of this tendency. But historically, almost all cultures have some history of the female breast being exposed in a non-sexual manner. Prior to the 1700s female members of the court of the United Kingdom were often depicted with one or both breasts exposed. Incidentally, orange-red nipple makeup was a staple of any well-to-do lady’s dressing table back then. Yes, even nipples are not safe from the impact of current cosmetics trends.
So, clearly, something changed, with several different factors influencing the degree to which the idea of ‘modesty’ took hold.
Queen Victoria played her part, eliminating many customs, including female toplessness, in her demands for what was presumed to be sexual decorum. Different religions also contributed to the push against women having the freedom to show their bodies without exterior inhibition. And the trends of the Victorian era in England, spread worldwide through the influence of the British empire. It was all part of a wider campaign to control women and keep them chained to the wheel of domestic obligations.
Sensitisation is a very real thing. When you spend centuries covering up tits on the basis that they have been deemed offensive, what you end up with is ‘offensive’ tits. Imagine a world where all chests and nipples were acceptable to be displayed in public, but women always kept their left hand gloved, only revealing it to their intimate partners.
You would have a society where taking that glove off would likely be classed as indecent exposure. It seems ludicrous, but that’s where we still are, more or less, with female breasts.
FEET ARE SEXY
What we’ve ended up with is a world where the term “nip-slip” has been invented by tabloid newspapers, who of course are obsessed with this sort of thing. Only one gender can slip a nip, and when they do, if it’s a famous enough nipple, the dogs of the media will go wild.
Recently Heidi Klum, world famous supermodel, rescued her young son and his nanny from drowning in Hawaii. She hauled the child and woman out of the water, saving both of their lives. Unfortunately for Heidi, her heroism wasn’t sufficiently well planned, to avoid a boob falling out of her swimsuit. For shame Heidi! An online headline the next day read “Heidi Klum Suffers Nip Slip While Rescuing Son and Nanny From Drowning in Hawaii (PHOTOS)”.
There are times when you think that reintroducing the death penalty might just be a progressive move.
The negative effect of the puritanical approach runs much deeper. The stigma surrounding breastfeeding has been discussed at length in recent years, but it hasn’t gone away. Women feeding their children can often be asked to cover themselves up, to use a dedicated feeding room or in some instances, a fucking public toilet. The female nipple has been elevated – or rather reduced – to such a point of implied lewdness and immorality, that the most natural act in the world must now be hidden from sight to not cause offence. This, of course, is nonsensical and absurd.
Compare that to the socially acceptable canal nipples I mentioned earlier which, unless my school level biology is failing me, aren’t likely to be providing nourishment to a growing human any time soon.
One of the cliched, usually but not always male, responses to women breastfeeding in public is, “I just don’t want to see that.” Tough. I don’t particularly want to see topless men swarming along the canal every time it hits 15 degrees either – but that doesn’t mean I should be allowed to stop them.
But breasts are sexy, they wail, and therefore inappropriate for public display!
A few thoughts occur. First, it’s not exactly the primary function of breasts to look sexy. Secondly, breasts aren’t the issue: I can legally wander round with my party tit out and some tape over the nipple. Thirdly, feet are sexy for many, but nobody is banning flip flops.
The over-sexualisation of the female body is certainly an issue. Inevitably, it is a larger one than the question of nipples and breasts. But the two are intrinsically intertwined.
In the end the nipple issue comes down to a simple question: can anyone explain to me why a female nipple is any more ‘indecent’ than a male one. Answers on a postcard please. Just not one of those lurid old British seaside ones, thanks.
Ellen Cooney is a burlesque artist, who performs under the alias Calamity Sparks. She is a finalist in the Miss Burlesque Ireland 2019 competition.