Amanda Ferguson graduated from USC in May 2015 with a degree in Biological Sciences. Her interests include attempting to play the ukulele, watching internet cats, and jogging casually. Currently working as a Physical Therapy Aide at the Engemann Student Health Center, she someday hopes to help lessen the healthcare gap for underserved populations as a Physician Assistant.
Over the recent decade, the censorship of the female nipple has erupted as a topic of controversy. Social media has ignited with the hashtag “#freethenipple” reflecting the campaign against the censorship. In reality, protesters have taken to the streets, publicly exposing their breasts in an attempt to normalize the culturally sexualized nipple. Western culture has so deeply ingrained the indecency of the female nipple as to forbid it from public view. Anatomically, the female nipple and male nipple are practically identical, at least visually, but we consider the female nipple sexually explicit and publicly indecent by our standards. Bras have become increasingly padded in order to erase the outline of the nipple from underneath clothing. Instagram posts featuring female nipples are quickly reported and removed. Even breast-feeding in public, a natural phenomena many human beings have experienced as an infant, is looked down upon by some. Excessive amounts of cleavage are shown, but once the darkened areola is visible, an outfit is suddenly sexually explicit. The censorship of the nipple superficially appears to be based on sex: the female nipple is a sexual body part and therefore it is arousing and inappropriate for public display. However, when compared closely to its male counterpart, physiologically, the female nipple has little to no more sexual function than the male nipple. So why, then, are we so fascinated by the female nipple to the point of strict censorship?
The female nipple is an object of fascination in western culture, a fascination not obvious through its explicit proliferation, but rather its constant censorship and suppression. Our society consciously devotes energy to hiding the female nipple because of the intense sexualized obsession we have developed with it. The reasons behind its sexually explicit nature can lend insight to why it is so fascinating. Following the social anthropologist Geertz’s analysis of Balinese culture through their fascination with cock fighting in “Deep Play”, American culture can be examined through its sexualization of female nipples to reveal unstated social themes. In “Deep Play”, Geertz describes the object, in this case cock fighting, and extracts an underlying and hidden social occurrence, in this case “status rivalries” (74). Geertz asserts that although the Balinese are considered externally poised, calm, and collected, their fascination with the cock fight unveils a contradicting depiction of violence and animosity (62). Only through observation of the cock fight was Geertz able to visualize the unstable social structure that would later erupt into civil war (79). According to Geertz, societies form perceptions of themselves that they attempt to uphold, but also have contradicting hidden themes that they try to suppress. These hidden themes reveal themselves through objects that they become obsessed with, such as the female nipple in American culture. In the same way that the Balinese are fascinated by the cock fight, we are fascinated with the female nipple because, through its censorship and sexualization, we express an underlying feared female power that runs opposite to our normal conception of docile and fragile femininity. When more carefully examined, the female nipple serves as a reminder to our society of the dominance of females through symbolic, evolutionary, and biological means.
The established standard of patriarchy dominates the social structure of modern American culture. In the working environment, the glass ceiling is still a reality for many women. The average woman’s wage is consistently lower than a man’s (Hegewisch). In the public sphere, women are still subject to subconscious sexism of society. A woman walking alone has to be aware of how she presents herself to the public due to societal judgment, potential sexual harassment, and, most severely, rape (Warr 238). In general, femininity is considered a weak and undesirable trait. All these visible aspects of female oppression can be traced to the social construct of male dominance. Another phenomena that is interpreted as a demonstration of male dominance is the sexualization of the female nipple. However, this occurrence may actually unveil a contradicting hierarchy in which women hold the higher power. The hiding of the female nipple is often seen as controlling the female gender, an example of a freedom men have to bare their chests when women need to cover up, but in reality the hiding of the nipple is revealing of the internal fear of female power, a fascinating contradiction to the normal societal view of women.
As previously described, a female nipple physically resembles the same basic shape of the male nipple, save for the size differences. Generally, the female nipple is in fact larger in size than the male counterpart. In our culture, women are stereotyped as smaller and more delicate, but the differences in nipples between the sexes contradict this conception. In order to promote suckling, especially during breast-feeding and child rearing stages of life, the female nipple becomes even more elongated, glaringly obvious in other mammalian species, but still visible in human beings. The female nipple therefore is reminiscent of the phallus, a universal symbol of potency and strength in most prominent cultures and strongly associated with the male erection (Danielou 1). To associate a female body part with the epitome of male power causes a disruption in the social norm of a male dominated society. This explanation also accounts for why specifically the nipple is not allowed to be shown in public, but the rest of the female breast is more socially acceptable. The smooth and soft curve of a breast aligns with the standard of feminine delicacy and softness, but the harshness of an erect nipple breaks down those standards and therefore must be hidden from society. Of course, the elongated female nipple has a symbolic presence of female power over male power, but the function of the nipple further serves as a reminder of the fabrication of male dominance.
The most distinguishable feature of the female nipple is the ability to provide milk. The act of breastfeeding, although completely natural and necessary to life, is also a reminder of the potential power possessed by the female sex. Breastfeeding reminds society of the maternal role played by females. Often times, we view the maternal role as a position of burden, weakness, and vulnerability, but in fact it is a position that can control the future of the human race. As child rearing mothers, females have influence over the offspring in their developmental stages, and are capable of molding the progeny into their choosing. The inherent trust a child has in his or her mother as a caretaker and source-of-life gives the mother the unique opportunity, intentionally or unintentionally, to strongly influence the child for life during their most malleable stage of development (Riess). The role of the mother is one of power in society because she is able to strongly influence the future of that society. The female nipple, through the act of breastfeeding, constantly reaffirms the maternal power in a society that refuses to believe in it, which is why it continues to be an object of interest and controversy.
Continuing to analyze the position of a mother from an evolutionary perspective, we find she has the ability to control future generations through her biological role in reproduction, beyond mere ideological influence over her children. The association of the female nipple to breastfeeding perpetually associates it with the role of motherhood. The maternal role is characterized by the donating of an egg and the carrying of a child through pregnancy. Compared to abundant sperm, eggs are rare and precious, so females inherently have more options and control when reproducing (Eberhard 4). The arduous task of nine months of pregnancy and pain of birthing also increase the costs of motherhood. Therefore they are inclined by natural selection to be choosier with their mating partners, as to obtain the best genetics for their offspring to succeed in order to reap the benefits for the cost of carrying a child (Shlain). In this sense, females again have power over the males, and the female nipple is a reminder of this maternal privilege.
We obsess over the female nipple because it reminds us of the undertones of feminine power in our culture to biologically influence the future of our species. On the surface, the obsession appears to be sexual, but even the sexualization of the female nipple relies on the aforementioned concept of the nurturing maternal figure. For instance, breastfeeding, when not applied to an infant, becomes a sexual act with no further constructive purpose. Society has built up the construct of the female nipple as a sexual organ to differentiate it from its male counterpart, to seemingly invent a reason for censorship. The mind, being the most powerful sexual organ, can thus psychologically fulfill the socially constructed sexual response to stimulation of the nipple in the right circumstance (Gaul). Still, the fetish of breastfeeding is reflective of the oedipal act of sexually interacting with one’s mother (McLeod). As an incestuous taboo, the idea of female nipples is both uncomfortable and arousing. In parallel, as a social taboo, the idea of female power in a male dominated society is both uncomfortable and arousing. The interaction with a phallic symbol and a symbol of maternal strength, on the delicate female form becomes the source of the fetish. The implicit maternal nature of the female nipple lends itself to obsession because it reminds us of an internal female power necessary to life. We are dependent on females, we inherently give power to females through our helplessness as infants, and yet we deny this power because it contradicts socially constructed masculine dominance. The oedipal tones link female nipples back to the power of a mother over her children, the power of women to influence society. Even in attempts to suppress and belittle the female nipple through sexualization, it remains reminiscent of inevitable female power and thus continues to fascinate us.
The phallic power and maternal privilege revealed in the structure and function of the female nipple contrasts with the construction of male dominance in our society. Despite the obvious evidence of male power in our culture, a repressed female power has always been bubbling beneath the surface, visible through a history of obsession with female nipples. We can see the fear of feminine power through the censorship of the female nipple in the same way that Geertz discovers the underlying status battle of the Balinese through cockfighting (79). The physiological aspects of the female nipple connect symbolically to our culture, capturing our interests. The effort to conceal the female nipple is consistent with the effort to suppress female power. We as a society, male and female, are terrified of the implications of female power associated with the nipple and consciously choose to deny and hide its existence. Both sexes aid in the censorship, perpetuating the indecency and vulgarity associated with the female nipple and, transitively, with the power of women. We fear this feminine power, but also depend on for existence; it is a contradiction we refuse to admit but cannot eliminate ideologically, a protrusion we refuse to display but cannot eliminate physically. We continue to be fascinated by female nipples: sexually aroused by night and fearful by day of its symbolic female power. The female nipple is a publicly unseen but yet prolific object that is reminiscent of the potential to unravel the carefully crafted male hierarchy that has historically dominated Western society. The movement towards “freeing the nipple” as previously mentioned therefore marks a bursting forth of the hidden female power, calling for a restructuring of the social hierarchy.
Now that we have begun to question the censorship of the female nipple, it perhaps alludes to an attempt at social upheaval of male hierarchy, as cockfighting predicted the Balinese status war (Geertz ). The censorship of the female nipple has indicated the fear of feminine power, of female equality. Even with inherent maternal power, females could use their influence to perpetuate the fabricated male hierarchy instead of trying to deconstruct it. Contrastingly, the bare chests of female protesters on the streets and the liberated nipples of Instagram (although quickly eliminated) signal the roots of the changing social climate, the progression towards feminism, and the realization of a strongly suppressed yet inherent female power.
Daniélou, Alain. The Phallus: Sacred Symbol of the Male Creative Power. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1995. Print.
Eberhard, William G. Female Control: Sexual Selection by Cryptic Female Choice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. Print.
Gaul, Shaina. “Your Most Important Sex Organ: Your Brain.” EmpowHER. N.p., 12 May 2010. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 134.4 (2005): 56-86. Web.
Hegewisch, Ariane, and Heidi Hartman. “The Gender Wage Gap:2013.” Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Annie. E. Casey Foundation and the Ford Foundation, Sept. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
McLeod, Saul. “Psychosexual Stages.” Simply Psychology. N.p., 2008. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
Reiss, Natalie S. “Mother’s Influence on Psychological and Physical Health Extends to Old Age.” Mental Help. N.p., 16 May 2007. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.
Shlain, Leonard. Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.
Warr, Mark. “Fear of Rape among Urban Women.” Social Problems 32.3 (1985): 238-50. JSTOR. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.