“Harry Styles Freed the Nipple on the Red Carpet,” a Vogue headline declared earlier this month after the singer stepped onto the night’s pink carpet in a transparent Gucci blouse, his pecs fully exposed.
Not to be outdone, beauty vlogger James Charles showed up in a chainmail Alexander Wang vest and black satin cargo pants. Seventeen wrote the makeup mogul also “proudly freed the nipple” in his see-through get-up.
Two weeks later, another male nip slip: American Horror Story’s Cody Fern slid into a limpid Maison Margiela mock neck. Vogue dubbed the get-up “subversive” and a fashion “risk” that paid off. The New York Post praised Fern’s “first chesty foray in support of the free the nipple movement,” and wondered “Who will be the next fashionable gent to bare all?”
But not everyone is waiting for the next naked man boob with such bated breath.
“It’s frustrating to see,” Heidi Lilley, a 58-year-old Free the Nipple activist from New Hampshire, told The Daily Beast. “It’s angering, actually. Sure, men should be allowed to show their nipples, but so should women. Unless a woman is allowed to, then neither should a man.”
Lilley and like-minded stalwarts believe that female topless bans are unconstitutional, since male nipples are rarely policed, outside of the occasional “No shirt, no shoes” beach restaurant.
Free the Nipple exploded into pop culture in 2014, courtesy of filmmaker Lina Esco's eponymous film. At its height, the movement found support in stars like Miley Cyrus and Cara Delevingne, but five years later, appellate courts across the country are still ruling in favor of female topless bans.
Lilley has helped organize Free the Nipple meet-ups in New Hampshire's Lakes Region since 2015. After her comrade Ginger Pierro was arrested for practicing topless yoga on the beach, Lilley staged a protest a few days later.
“The beach was basically empty, and and we went topless,” Lilley remembered. “We got arrested [while] a guy was bicycling topless and another guy was jogging topless. What about them?”
Lilley, Pierro, and a woman named Kia Sinclair took their grievances to New Hampshire’s Supreme Court, arguing that Laconia’s town ban discriminates against women. The court upheld the ban.
“Breasts have typically been regarded by society as an erogenous zone,” the dissent read. “Unlike the male breast, public exposure of the female breast is rare under the conventions of our society, and almost invariably conveys sexual overtones.”
It is true that nipple stimulation activates the brain’s sensory cortex. This means that there is a link between the nipple and the clitoris, which does indeed make them an “erogenous zone.”
However, in a 2006 study by Cindy Meston and Roy Levin, 51.7 percent of men reported that nipple play “caused or enhanced their sexual arousal,” and 39 percent “agreed that when sexually aroused such manipulation increased their arousal.” Only 7.5 percent of men surveyed reported it “decreased” their arousal.” This makes the nipple a genderless turn-on.
“You could make the case that because cisgender men are not going to be breastfeeding at any point, the only function of a male nipple would be erogenous,” Dr. Debby Hebernick, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast. “When you look at the female nipple, there are multiple functions—breastfeeding, preparing to breastfeed, and of course, an erogenous zone.”
Still, the New Hampshire Supreme Court judges did not believe that Laconia’s toplesss ban “affects a fundamental right.” Lilley and her co-defendants plan to appeal the state’s decision.
“There are a number of reasons this is important to me, but the first is general equality,” Lilley said. “On most social media platforms, it’s against the rules to show a woman’s nipples. They will take it down and ban you. I’ve been banned from Facebook so many times. It’s stupid because my son can post his pictures there.”
In 2014, the artist Micol Hebron created a 'nipple template' of a male pec. Shot in close-up, it looked near-identical to a female nipple. Hebron encouraged women to photoshop the male nipple over their own to protest Facebook and Instagram's antiquated nudity code.
“There are so many bigger issues in the world,” Lilley conceded. “Look what else is going on in [with abortion bans in] Georgia and Ohio. Yet we still have people fighting for this. This is equality. This is huge, too.”
As is often repeated by art history majors, art is an extension of power. Throughout Western history, white men have largely been the ones commissioning, buying, and funding work. As such, visual culture has been conditioned to appease the male gaze.
“The control of women’s bodies has been kneaded out through art,” Carmen Hermo, associate curator at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, told The Daily Beast. “In classical academic painting, women’s bodies were often presented in a way where the subjects did not notice they were nude, giving the viewer the opportunity to gaze upon their bodies.”
In Ancient Greece, where women could not vote or own land and stayed at home to raise children, sculptures tended to remain just as hidden. Sometimes a breast would peek out from the top of a flowing robe, but these instances were staged to either look like accidents, or the act of a woman demurely undressing, not knowing she was being stared at.
“Greek art was all about the male nude,” Hermo said. “These sculptures were of blindingly white men who were perfect in every way, the apex of physical potential.” Standing tall with open chests, modesty was not part of the equation when it came to sculpting the male form.
Medieval art almost exclusively depicted religious themes, with ample images of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding. As Hermo said, “You can enjoy a laugh in the anatomically unrealistic images of Jesus breastfeeding, with these high, round breasts peeking out from Mary’s dresses.”
Even more bizarre were illustrations of the abbot Bernard of Clairvaux getting shot in the mouth—or in some cases, the eye—by a lactating statue of the Madonna.
Renaissance painters, imitating classical scenes, perpetuated gawk-y images of female subjects. Take, for instance, Giovanni Bazzi’s busty depiction of Roxana, wife of Alexander the Great, disrobing kittenishly in her wedding chamber.
On some occasions, men were subjected to the same objectification. Bazzi himself (also known as “Il Sodoma,” or “the sodom”) frequently found inspiration in the Christian martyr St. Sebastian, whose chesty build and tragic tale helped catapult the figure to gay icon status. But even these hints of homoeroticism could not relegate male bodies to the same scandalous connotations of the female nipple.
Styles changed, but a woman's chest remained typecast as either something to stare at, or a life-giving symbol of motherhood.
Goya, Cézanne, and Suzanne Valadon all championed boob-googling, portraying sex workers or the average woman unashamed in their nakedness. In Victorian England, painters John Collier and Edmund Leighton found inspiration in Lady Godiva, nipples chastely peeking through her long hair.
As Americans found more time on their hands after the Industrial Revolution, they took to the beach—tops fully covered for both men and women. As late as the 1930s, it was illegal for anyone to show their nipples. Men wore unitards—sometimes made of wool—to the beach.
A full-scale moral panic ensued when dissenting beach bums shed their wetsuits for trunks. Eight men on Coney Island were fined $1 for indecent exposure in 1934.
According to the Reading Eagle, one hero female magistrate punctuated their slap on the wrist by saying, “All you fellows may be Adonises, but there are many people who object to seeing so much of the human body exposed.”
“All we demand is decency,” William E. Whittaker, secretary to the Boston city commissioner told the AP that same year. “But we won’t allow slipping straps.”
Some oft-repeated Hollywood lore suggests sales for undershirts tanked after Clark Gable did not wear one during an undressing scene in the Frank Capra romcom It Happened One Night. (According to Time, Gabe’s pecs may have led to a 75% less purchases in 1935, but the story remains unproven).
After a hard-fought battle by wannabe Gables, New York overturned its topless ban—for men only—in 1937. Women would not be granted the same courtesy until 1990.
Earlier this month, the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeal upheld Springfield, Missouri’s indecent exposure ordinance. Jessica Lawson, 30, was one of the co-defendants. She has been fighting the town ban since she was a 24-year-old young mother who felt “uncomfortable” breastfeeding her baby daughter in public.
“I wouldn’t say that we lost, because those changes were progress,” Lawson said. “It may not be exactly what we want, but we are slowly progressing and pushing the courts to allow us our rights to go topless.”
Due to Lawson and co-defendant Amber Hutchison’s efforts, the city ban has been amended to make exceptions for breastfeeding mothers and topless protesters.
Lawson takes a diplomatic view of male toplessness. During Springfield’s protests, she invites men to take their shirts off along with women, but requests they cover their nipples with pasties as a sign of solidarity.
“My opinion on men showing their nipples? It’s complicated,” Lawson said. “Men have that right to go topless, so I wouldn’t consider it ‘edgy’ that they’re displaying their rights. If they’re actually speaking out, that’s a different story.”
Britt Hoagland of Westminster, Colorado, challenged the city of Fort Collins on its ban on shirtless females in public. Unlike the New Hampshire and Missouri cases, Fort Collins overturned its town ordinance.
As reported by Law and Crime, the court’s opinion concluded that there are no “morphological differences between men’s and women’s breasts, but negative stereotypes depicting women’s breasts, but not men’s breasts, as sex objects.”
“I was shocked and relieved,” Hoagland, who works as a swim instructor, wrote in an email. “To have a judge acknowledge that cisgender men have breasts too was a huge step in the right direction. It’s important for these laws to be overturned so that all people targeted have the bodily autonomy that cisgender men already have.”
Hoagland believes that male celebrities can “normalize nipples” in a good way. “Shaking up the gender binary on a formal platform helps Free the Nipple’s cause,” they said.
No matter how flamboyant a male celebrity gets with his translucent tux (Harry Styles and Cody Fern were just wearing all-black, after all), their fashion “risks” will never be received like a topless woman would.
As Hoagland said, “No matter the setting, cisgender men aren’t risking being fined, jailed, or labeled a sex offender because of visible nipples.”
For those uninvolved in Free the Nipple organizations, it may seem like the campaign has quieted since it burst into Instagram feeds and think pieces five years ago.
But for Andy McNulty, the lawyer who represented Hoagland and co-plaintiff Samantha Six, the cause hasn’t died yet.
“Shifting the public opinion through advocacy campaigns has a real impact on the law,” McNulty said. “Gay marriage isn’t legalized because judges has an epiphany that gay folks should have rights, too. It was legalized because of a 30- to 40-year advocacy campaign to show why [marriage inequality] was problematic.”
For Lawson, the Missouri mother who has spent the majority of her twenties fighting anti-topless laws, the pursuit remains purposeful.
“When I originally started protesting, it was because I have three daughters,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel shamed for being a woman born in the body that they were born in. I don’t want them to feel like they have less autonomy over their own body because of their gender.”
A nipple ban proponent might shoot back that Lawson's children are being corrupted at the sight of big, bad, breasts. Hermo, the Brooklyn Museum curator, would disagree.
The feminist wing recently put one of Betty Tompkins “Fuck Paintings” on display. The series of eight works, which Tompkins created from 1969 to 1974, all look like giant, close-up photos of penetration.
“We had it on view for six months, and nobody batted an eye,” Hemo said. “Somehow, the children who visited all survived.”