Chelsea Handler pushed Americans forward in our struggle to get over hang-ups about exposed female nipples on Thursday night. On Instagram, Handler posted a photo of herself parodying Russian president Vladimir Putin’s famous topless horse-riding photo. Instagram, not appreciating the hard work that had to have gone into getting Handler on a horse with her boobs out, took the picture down. Handler protested, putting up a screenshot of the “community guidelines” warning she got, writing, “If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it’s ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?”
To be fair, I think that both men and women generally felt, in 1825, like they couldn’t walk around with their nipples out. (A couple decades before is a different story, as see-through dresses were the rage in the very early 1800s. The more you know!) But her larger point stands: Men are so free to share their nipples with the world that world leaders have no problem letting everyone know what they’ve got going on under their suits and ties, but women’s nipples are still treated like looking at them in public might blind you.
This discrepancy cannot be explained solely by the fact that women grow breasts as a secondary sex characteristic. After all, men aren’t required to hide their secondary sex characteristics (beards) from the world in shame, though many parts of Brooklyn would be more aesthetically pleasing if they would. Not to mention that the parts of the chest area that are woman-only—the non-nipple parts—are not only acceptable but welcome in public spaces. Cleavage is one of the longest-standing popular accessories a woman can employ. The only part of a woman’s chest that is considered too daring to display is the part that we share with men, the nipple.
The taboo around the nipple encapsulates how ridiculous and contradictory our expectations about women, fashion, and sexuality really are. On the one hand, women are expected to be sexually appealing, even to the point of mutilating our feet to achieve that forever-sexy mystique. But we’re also expected to avoid being too sexual, or else we’re considered scandalous. The conflicting demands reduce us to counting inches of cloth and arbitrarily deciding that the nipple is a step too far. We’d all be better off in a more sensible society where women could walk around topless to look sexy but wearing 3-inch heels was considered over the top.
I’m not sure if Handler knew it, but she has come out in support of the Free the Nipple campaign, which supports public breast-feeding and fights against laws banning nipples in public. I don’t have the ovaries myself to buck the system and walk around nipples out. But that’s all the more reason I salute nipple warriors like Handler and Rihanna, who show it off and don’t care what you think about it. Perhaps they will be trailblazers, creating a new world where women can wear whatever the hell they want without worrying about a “wardrobe malfunction.”