The 'Free the Nipple' campaign is everything I hate about feminism

Celia Walden
Demonstrators in New York protesting Facebook's policies on nipples - Getty Images North America

When I read about the “Free the Nipple” activists protesting topless outside Facebook’s New York headquarters last week, my head lolled forward onto my keyboard to spell this: tt1232!uweirh34 !1kjaeljrk. And actually that’s a pretty accurate summation of how I feel about most of the capricious campaigns embarked on in the name of fourth-wave feminism.

But a campaign fighting for women’s right to bare their breasts on social media – “why should male nipples be allowed and not ours?” – fills me with new levels of despair. As do reports, on Sunday, that Facebook has “agreed to talks” with the lactiferous duct activists and is now “reconsidering its nudity policy”. Because, at some point, we stopped fighting genuine injustices and we got silly.

I say “we”, although I identify less and less with the concerns of younger feminists. I mind about equal pay, the glass ceiling, the kind of serious sexual intimidation and harassment exposed by MeToo and the generation of men who can spend an entire dinner party seated beside me without once asking what I do – but couldn’t give a damn if a cabbie calls me "love", actively enjoy being wolf-whistled at and have never considered my nipples incarcerated.

I don’t believe a single woman has been kept awake by this particular gripe since Adam and Eve – who, admittedly, would have been an early proponent of Free the Nipple, had God created Facebook on Day seven and fixed the Garden of Eden’s notoriously patchy Wi-Fi into the bargain.

Because, like all the most cretinous ‘feminist’ campaigns – from women being renamed “menstruators” and encouraged to wear T-shirts proclaiming “I’m on my period”, to men being urged to say the word “menopause” three times a day – Free the Nipple is both an injustice and the answer to an injustice that only exists in the infantile universe of social media. Out here in the real world, people aren’t raging to one another at bus stops about Facebook’s no-nipple policy. Out here in the real world, female genital mutilation is still thriving.

But let’s at least try and understand Free the Nipple’s concerns. Because the movement is gathering steam in the UK, too, and on June 22, FTN activists are set to free their nipples on Brighton’s seafront. It’s about “reclaiming ownership of our bodies”, apparently, protesting “in the face of oppressive double-standards in our society” and “defiantly loving our bodies”. And while I happen to love my body in a non-defiant, relaxed, T-shirt-wearing way, this might be because I’ve never suffered the appalling injustice of trying to post a topless picture of myself on Instagram, only to have it taken it down, on account of the nipples.

Since I’m neither a porn nor a reality TV star (and the difference between the two isn’t always clear), this fails to incense me. I try harder. Hang on a second: do you mean to say that paintings and sculptures can’t be featured because of the nipples? Nope: “artistic photographic nudity” can be censored depending on how graphic it is, but most paintings and sculptures of topless women are allowed, as are photographs of women breastfeeding. Right. The single drop of outrage I’d painfully mustered is evaporating fast.

So really the injustice is that the likes of Kim Kardashian and Rihanna – who was forced to take down topless pictures of herself in 2014 – aren’t allowed to monetise their own assets while sexualising our pre-teen girls? Correct. In fact, just last week, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski laughed off the notion that “older men in suits” didn’t take her and her fellow sexy-selfie-takers seriously, when “we’re actually making more money than them”. But if we could pretend FTN is about equality, liberty, solidarity and female empowerment, rather than the commodification of female flesh and empty feminist drum-beating, that would be really helpful to The Cause.

Maybe I’d find it easier to pretend, if domestic violence, spousal rape, sexual abuse by state forces, enforced child marriage and honour killings didn’t still exist. Maybe if I didn’t know a lot of highly accomplished, successful women, none of whom have got there posting boomerang videos of themselves doing the can-can topless, I’d see the point of this gigantic waste of time and energy that will only demean women and feminism in the long run. But I doubt it.

Because even if all of that were true, it wouldn’t change the fact that nudity is everywhere. There is no stigma, no taboo, no censorship. And if Free the Nipple succeeds in ‘liberating’ the 5 per cent of the female breast that is not already ubiquitous to the point of banality, what then? Because what fourth-wave feminism seems to forget is that between full-frontal nudity and the niqab is a whole world most women are perfectly happy to inhabit.