The Topless Topic: It’s Just a Nipple

Gwen Jacobs, a citizen of Guelph, unknowingly spearheaded a movement that would change Ontario legislation addressing everyday sexism and double standards that prevail for women. In the summer of 1991, Jacobs removed her top to cool off on a sweltering day, proceeding to be arrested and charged for public indecency, even though men situated around her were topless as well. This brought outrage to the public, as it is acceptable for men to remain shirtless, but it is considered indecent for women to do so, despite section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that states every individual is equal before and under the law regardless of one’s sex. In 1996, Gwen Jacobs was granted an appeal, allowing all women residing in Ontario the legal right to expose their breasts in public. Despite this progressive legislation toward sex/gender equality in contemporary society, a double standard still exists for women, and most do not feel comfortable being topless in public.

Many question why women choose not to go topless despite this advancement in the law. Even though legally women are allowed to do so, culturally, they may feel it is inappropriate. The Jacobs case occurred 25 years ago, yet the cultural appropriation of being topless is still considered unacceptable and there are still taboos surrounding womens’ nudity. Men can go shirtless just about anywhere, and no one would give a second thought. On the contrary, as a woman, I would not feel comfortable topless in public. This reluctance may stem from fear of criticism by society at large, being sexualized by others, and harassed by some, particularly men. The controversy surrounding the difference between the chest of a man’s and of a woman’s is surprisingly not due to the different appearance in size; it is, in fact, predominantly associated with the nipple. This, in turn, has influenced many social media platforms, which dictates what women are, and are not, allowed to post.

Aesthetically, there is very little difference between men and women’s nipples; however, women’s nipples are sexualized, and consequently depicted as indecent, obscene, and lewd (Bonaguro, 2015). If a woman’s nipple is shown it is considered nudity, and if it is in a photograph, it is considered pornographic; however, this same judgment does not hold true for men. This gender inequality is upheld through one of the most popular social media platforms- Instagram. Instagram’s Community Guidelines state “For a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram…this includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed” (Instagram Help Center, 2016). Therefore, a policy is set in place that is against exposing an anatomical part that both sexes have— however, it is only in place for one sex. If a photo of a group of females laying topless on a beach was posted to the site, the picture would be taken down immediately; however, if it were just a group of males, the post would be left alone!

The reason for the censorship of womens’ nipples seems to be due to the fact that womens’ breasts are considered sexual objects. Male nipples throughout history have never been socially sexualized in the same manner as those of females. Men have been conditioned to think of the female breast and nipple as a sexual accessory. The current guidelines deemed by Instagram and other social media outlets seem to be entrenched in the conservative nature that prohibits women from arousing men, rather than prohibiting men from misbehaving when aroused (Bonaguro, 2015). If the female nipple were desexualized as it is in other cultures, it would not be eroticized and therefore would not be censored. Therefore, the Western world must find a strategy in order to change the normative views on womens’ body parts, and de-sexualize womens’ bodies.

It is undoubtedly unjust that women are not granted the same rights on Instagram as men are. In order for equality to be achieved, campaigns such as #FreeTheNipple are an amazing start. In June of 2014, artist Micol Hebron created a photo-shopped male nipple, and suggested that women cut and paste the image over their actual nipples, thus making their topless shots more ‘social media–friendly’. The ad read, “If you are going to post pictures of topless women, please use this acceptable male nipple template to cover the unacceptable female nipples…thank you for helping to make the world a safer place” (Bonaguro, 2015). Women across the Internet and the world posted photos of themselves with male nipples, along with the hash-tag #FreeTheNipple. This movement shows how similar the anatomical parts of men and women’s chests are, which demonstrates to society how ridiculous, biased, and sexist Instagram’s policies are.

Women throughout history have faced marginalization, whether it is for the right to vote, or the right to show a nipple in a photograph. The Free the Nipple movement is not about seeing breasts, but about women having the choice. This movement is an amazing start in proving that yes, women deserve equality, and no, a woman is not defined by what is beneath her shirt. The majority of women probably do not want to walk down the street topless or post a picture of themselves without a shirt on. However, if they want to, they should have the same right as men do. I would love to see a world with equality, empowerment, and freedom for all human beings. The normalization of the nipple will take time, but one day I hope that we can reach a place where women feel just as safe and comfortable with their bodies, exposed or not, as men do.

Christina Lupo, Psychology, Queen’s University, Class of 2018.


Works Cited

Bonaguro, Alison. “Why Are Women’s Nipples Banned in Public and on Instagram, but Men’s Nipples Aren’t?” Men’s Health, 10 July 2015, Accessed 12 November 2016.

“Instagram Help Center.” Instagram, Accessed 12 November 2016.