By Shambhavi Saxena:
Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler “told women in Mali that Americans think breasts are sexually arousing, they were horrified.” And amused, “‘You mean men act like babies,’ they shrieked, collapsing in laughter.” says Carolyn Latteier, in Breasts: the Women’s Perspective on an American Obsession.
The women of Iceland have had enough of the sexualisation of breasts and the censoring of women’s bodies when not serving the male gaze. “Breasts are not genitals,” says University of Iceland student, Steinunn Friðriksdóttir, “and are no different from ankles, necks, hands or whatever else one might find sexy on a person. The fact that women are supposed to cover themselves up represents an aspect of rape culture.”
Free the Nipple, a campaign to end the policing of women’s bodies, was reignited in Iceland following troll attacks on 17 year old Adda Þóreyjardóttir Smáradóttir on 26th March, 2015. At the core of the campaign is the demand for bodily autonomy. What is happening in Iceland today has a history that stretches all the way back to New York, 1936. It was that very year that the state decided to lift the ban on male toplessness, as men’s nipples were deemed “commonplace and natural”. Exactly half a century later, topless women protestors of Rochester demanded the same right, and in 1992, the toplessness for all genders was decriminalized. #FreeTheNipple seeks to destroy the idea that women’s bodies should “[feed] the ego and pride of misogynist society” (Rupi Kaur), and be censored for existing naturally, without artifice or as objects.
When Sólveig Helga Hjarðar posted a photo to the #FreeTheNipple campaign, she wanted “to shock people that think this is a big deal. I don’t think it should be.” Her younger sister, who works for women’s rights, and both her parents were supportive. “My father simply said ‘I think people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies.’” Sólveig sees the campaign as a success. She says: “We got a lot of attention from abroad. Many girls saw my post and decided to post photos of their nipples as well.” Even Björt Ólafsdottir of Iceland’s Bright Future Party tweeted in support “This is to feed children. Shove it up your patriarchy. #FreeTheNipple”
There have been, as is to be expected, negative reactions to such a bold statement. Steinunn mentions a police officer called Biggi lögga (Biggi the cop) who posted on Facebook that these women were in effect giving men what they wanted, “and that he thought young girls were participating because of peer pressure.” She also heard of how “some teenage boys on a bus rating their classmates boobs had made a girl cry saying she didn’t participate because she had no boobs.”
Sólveig too encountered some negativity, as folks asked her “why aren’t you fighting for something better, like women being managers of large companies?” As most feminists will argue, she maintains that something as basic as how we display our bodies, or don’t, is inescapably linked to the (in)equality of the sexes. It is no wonder then that artist and poet Rupi Kaur had her instagram photo removed twice, that Shropshire mom Emma Bond’s breast feeding photos were deleted by Facebook, and that Willow Smith was hauled up for a shirt supporting #FreeTheNipple. And it’s no wonder that Facebook told me I didn’t have permission to post links to Leonard Nimoy’s incredible Full Body Project in memory of the actor and artist.
Yet nothing deters these womens’ spirits. Considering Iceland’s high rank in the gender equality report and its history of strong women’s movements, it seems only natural for the country’s young women to be fighting against negative body image and body-censorship in one sweep.
“In 1975,” said Steinunn, “almost all women in the country refused to work for a day and everything just collapsed. We also do the Drusluganga (SlutWalk) every year. But this was the first topless protest I’ve heard of.” The biggest positive aspect, she finds, “is taking away power from those who post pornographic pictures of their exes without their consent. The invasion of privacy and sexual abuse is one of the biggest problems we face today.”
The fact that so many women participated in #FreeTheNipple indicates that though “girls here have so many strong role models surrounding them, and Iceland has come a long way, it can always do better,” says Sólveig.
Talking about ‘nursing tents’ (which hide a mother breastfeeding in public) that are being marketed with a vengeance, Steinunn says it would be “beyond ridiculous to have everybody that eats burgers eat inside a tent because burgers are offensive,” pointing to the arbitrariness of censoring women’s bodies.
There are double standards all over the globe when it comes to how we look at male and female bodies. “Even some men don’t want to show off their bodies because they don’t fit in the ‘norm’ of having muscular bodies as shown in the media,” says Sólveig. “The feminist movement is for both genders, about being equal not only on paper but in how we dress and how we talk about men and women.”
I’m reminded of Kat Denning’s interview with Lynn Hirschberg, where she said, “You can show, like, a man having an orgasm, and it can still be PG-13, [the camera] can be on his face, but if you show a woman, it’s [rated] R [for restricted].”
By the powers of social media, the campaign is garnering steady support from all over the globe, including here in India. We are seeing images of women walking bare chested through the streets of Iceland and feeling that sense of power, freedom and confidence through our digital screens. We are seeing these women owning their own bodies in the way we are fighting to own ours.
However, comparing and contrasting the campaign with the Indian context problematizes it a bit. Exposure of the body, chastity, objectification, arguments of ‘asking for it’ and the like are all complexly intertwined. When we think of women with uncovered breasts, we think invariably of lower caste women to whom a dress code is prescribed as a sign of their low status and sexual availability to upper caste men. These are, as Steinunn said earlier, plain manifestations of rape culture, and need to be eliminated, along with caste- and gender-based violence, that are so inexorably connected in our nation.
As Iceland has no laws against bared breasts in public, many young women plan to go topless to pools this summer, like the group at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavík. Images pouring in from the campaign are aimed at normalizing the exposure of the female breast as a non-sexual act and securing for women the world over ownership over their own bodies. This debate is closely related to how women express themselves physically, sexually, exercise their reproductive freedoms, their right to move through public places unmolested and other feminist concerns. The fight for the right to choice, to freedom, to bodily autonomy must go on, in the East, the West, everywhere, until it is won for all people of this planet.