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Will the Free the Nipple Campaign Lead to Gender Equality? An Expert Weighs In

Psychologist Sarah Murnen talks objectification, gender equality, and Miley Cyrus.
(Photo: alinenilsson/Instagram)

(Photo: alinenilsson/Instagram)

One of the latest fronts in the battle for gender equality centers on the female nipple. In the United States—the land of freedom, to-go cups, and double standards—men can go topless without turning heads, but women are made to cover up. In many states, women can be charged with crimes for baring their breasts in public. Photos of women’s breasts, even in the context of breastfeeding, are routinely removed from social media sites that don’t allow lewd content, but photos of men without shirts go untouched. This, of course, prompts many users to ask why the female nipple qualifies as nudity, while the male nipple does not. To help visualize the comical nature of this arbitrary distinction, artist Micol Hebron created a cut-and-paste male nipple that female users can use to cover up their own salacious areolas. On a related note, the Free the Nipple campaign, a movement spearheaded by filmmaker and activist Lina Esco which aims to desexualize female breasts, has been gaining steam and celebrity endorsements since a feature film (also directed by Esco) came out in early 2014.

To learn more about the movement’s potential contributions to gender equality, Pacific Standard spoke with social psychologist Sarah Murnen, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Ohio, whose research focuses on the increasing sexualization of young girls.

You only recently became aware of the Free the Nipple campaign. What is your initial impression of the movement?

It’s a complicated issue. I understand the basic point, that women should be able to show their bodies to the extent that men do, and that the goal seems to be to make women's breasts less a focus of sexual objectification. I’m not really sure that's the best way to do it, given that our culture already sexualizes breasts to a great degree. I think there might be other ways to make that point—allow women to breastfeed in public places, emphasize less the objectification of women. I think one of the general issues is the extent to which women are objectified, and when people are shown as objects they often get treated like objects.

It is true in cultures where there’s a lot of nudity, they do have much better feelings about their bodies in those cultures. But our culture isn’t like that, so I don't know that it would have the desired effect.

So these images might actually contribute to the objectification of women's bodies?

Possibly, because there is a certain way that our culture already looks at the portrayal of women's breasts. Maybe somebody who wants to show their body, I could see that they might be more personally affected by this issue, and want that freedom of expression, which I would support.

But again, I think it is a complicated issue in our culture, especially with spokespersons like Miley Cyrus. She has done a lot of self-objectifying things, and she is a teen idol, and that concerns me. While she might feel empowered by those activities, she is a role model to young girls and I do worry that girls adopt some of those behaviors without understanding the possible consequences. One of our studies shows that when a girl is shown in a sexually objectified way—in sexualized clothing compared to when she’s shown in childlike clothing—she is seen as less intelligent, less moral even. So it does concern me when you have people like Miley; I don’t think she is someone we want representing women’s empowerment.

What is the history here? Why are female bodies hyper-sexualized?

Sarah Murnen. (Photo: Kenyon College)

Sarah Murnen. (Photo: Kenyon College)

There is actually an increased objectification of male bodies, too, but women are more likely to be treated as sex objects and that's been true for a long time. That's in part due to their cultural position in society. But some people think the increased sexual objectification is due to a pornification of culture: that pornography is so widely available in the culture that it has made its way into the main stream. So styles that you used to see only in pornography show up in popular culture—thong underwear, shaving pubic hair, extreme high heels, things like that. Some people think that as women’s roles have changed in society—women have access to work roles to a greater degree—there’s sort of a backlash against women’s accomplishments and it's a way to remind women that they are sexual objects.

What about women like Miley Cyrus, who find their sexuality empowering?

I also think our culture has done a good job of telling women that their sexiness is empowering. And I don’t doubt—we have research on this actually—that many individual women do feel empowered by their sexuality, and I think that's great. However, it's a very limited form of power, and the fact that women as a group are treated as sex objects, it likely does lower their status in terms of being seen as less competent and intelligent. While an individual woman might feel empowered presenting herself as a sexual object, I don't think it's the best route to women's empowerment. Also, we do know that people who engage in this sort of sexual objectification are generally more aware of their bodies in a way that isn't good for their mental health. To the extent that somebody is monitoring their body, in terms of how it meets societal ideals of attractiveness, they are more likely to have body image dissatisfaction, which is a risk factor for eating disorders. So I think that, to the extent that people are using their bodies as a form of self-expression, they might be vulnerable to the unrealistic body ideals that are out there, for both women and men.

I just feel like any way that we could take the focus away from the body is probably helpful to people. If we increased the actual diversity of the bodies that were shown, that would be helpful, but I think the baring of the breasts is only going to be from women who fit the societal ideal perhaps. If you really showed diversity and showed different representations, that could be helpful.

How can the cultural milieu undermine the goals of the movement?

I don't think it's necessarily going to result in women feeling empowered because of the way the culture is going to take in these images. This is a kind of related study: There's this increased phenomenon of young, college-age women being encouraged to kiss other women at a party, or something like that. You might look at that as an empowering thing, encouraging people to explore their sexuality. Heterosexuality is so pushed on people in the culture that maybe that's a way for women to explore other options. But there was a study done of [mostly heterosexual] women who were encouraged to do that at a party—and usually it was by men by the way—who didn't feel good about it afterwards. They felt like it wasn't a celebration of varied forms of sexuality. Instead, it was sort of used by the men; they appropriated that sexuality for their enjoyment, rather than having that be a unique expression of the women's sexuality that the women could enjoy. It didn't turn out that way. I see that as sort of a similar issue. I understand the issue, and I understand why people might want to be involved in it, but I just don’t think that it's going to have the empowering outcomes that people would hope. The cultural backdrop needs to be considered in how these images will be seen.

Can the movement spur the necessary cultural change for gender equality to become a reality?

There's still a lot of gender inequality, and I feel like this focus on women's sexuality as a form of empowerment is distracting us from the real issues that exist in terms of wage inequality, parental leave issues, etc. I think it's a distraction, and it's not really going to result in women's empowerment to be able to bare their breasts in public. We need to focus less on defining women by their bodies in my view.

It'll be interesting what the culture makes of it. Men's gender roles have not changed to the extent that women's have, and there is some societal encouragement for them to maintain hyper-masculine values that are not helpful to society. So while there's been an increase in the sexualization of girls, there's also been an increase in the encouragement of boys to be hyper-masculine, to use aggression to solve problems, to have sexually callous attitudes toward women. We focus a lot of individual change of women, but I do think we need to focus on changing men's roles, and also on some of the more systemic issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.