The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer

The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer

The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer

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February 21, 2024

What’s the Stigma Around Women’s Nipples?

Nipple discrimination, enforced in school dress codes and social norms, is a sexist double standard

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means it’s the perfect time to consider the kind of attention we give to breasts — and why. For centuries, the industry centered around the framing, covering and enhancing of the female breast has expanded. From balconettes, bustiers and bandeaus to sport sets, demi-cups, push-ups and halters, today’s overflowing bra catalogs are as jam-packed as the McKeon Hall elevators at 8:21 a.m. on a Monday morning. According to Fashion Network, Victoria’s Secret’s revenue fell 6% from 2021 to 2022, only making $6.344 billion in the latter year. Despite the drop, that’s still a lot of bra.

When and why did bras become such an inherent component of clothing? According to lingerie company AnaOno, the first brassiere with a resemblance to current styles was made in 1869 from a corset split into two. The garment sparked the beginning of the bra evolution, which made it customary for women to conceal their breasts and nipples, whilst shirtless men were permitted to gallivant through society.  

A prime example of this “nipple discrimination” is found in the enforcement of school dress codes. In 2018, Lizzy Martinez, a high school student in Florida, decided to wear an oversized shirt and no bra to school one day to take the edge off of a bad sunburn. When she arrived at school, she was taken to the dean’s office and told to “X out her nipples” with bandages. Administration reportedly described Martinez’s choice of clothing as “disruptive to a conducive learning environment.” 

But are you really crossing out the scary part, or is the scary part just your gender? Society seems to think the latter. 

That same week, Martinez’s male friend, Markey Vazquez, wore a tight, semi-sheer shirt through which his nipple piercings were wholly visible. Vasquez was never dress coded. The double standard is astonishing — Vazquez’s clothing choice, despite drawing far more attention to his nipples than Martinez’s baggy gray shirt, was never deemed distracting by administration. The issue was not really whether Martinez’s nipples were a disturbance. They were deemed disruptive because of her gender. Martinez is not alone in facing female nipple stigma day after day; many women, myself included, have to revise our fashion choices as a result of it.  

The other night, I went out to toss my garbage. But before I left my dorm, I stripped off my shirt, strapped on a bra, and then hustled back into my shirt. It’s a quick trip down the hall to the garbage room, but I didn’t want anyone to see my chest pitching two little tents in the corridor’s blustering air conditioning.

I think it’s important to note that I wear an AA cup. My breasts have been jokingly compared to tapioca pearls, and I’d say that the majority of male students on my floor have more distinguished chests than me. The only difference between us is that I am a girl. Because of that distinction, I felt the need to take the extra 45 seconds to put on a bra before taking out the garbage. 

My mother used to tell me that “no one wants to see a girl’s nipples out in the wild.” In Korean, she would call them “창피하다,” which roughly translates to “embarrassing.” While I don’t agree with her that female nipples, as a concept, are undignified, there’s an implicit rule in our society that girls must make sure that no one sees our pointies poking through a blouse. Thus, I didn’t even stop to question why I automatically decided to bra-up before taking out the trash. 

In fact, bras are generally an unquestioned part of my fashion choices– especially the professional ones. A bra shopping guide by the Wall Street Journal highlights how concerned women are with showing their nipples at work. This is not shocking to me, considering my own experience with professional fashion choices. When I shop for a bra, I think about versatility: Is it compatible with both the outfits I wear to take out the garbage and to the ice rink where I coach on the weekends? 

While I might be comfortable going braless at a climate change march or a Laufey concert, where a good chunk of the people surrounding me will also have their breasts uncaged, I’m less likely to do so at work, where I’m paid to speak with concerned parents about their young childrens’ futures in competitive figure skating. I need to appear professional, and a woman’s nipples are not synonymous with professional. Thus, I must decide: black lace or nude polyester? The pink mesh or the navy cotton? 

Instead of fixating on whether the nipples are out, we should focus on the personalities of the women who are attached to them.

These choices only exist to be made because of the premise that I will need to wear a bra tomorrow, regardless of what activity I have planned. And it doesn’t even matter what the bra looks like, so long as it accounts for nipple coverage. Lingerie companies, like Victoria’s Secret, rake in billions selling garments that are scarcely seen out in the world. And if I, like Martinez, want to go to classes without wearing a bra, I have to be willing to brave the potential judgment passed down from a society that caters to the male gaze.

In 2015, Jimmy Kimmel inquired about a rainbow-sequin and heart-pasties outfit Miley Cyrus wore as a guest on his talk show.

“Sometimes it’s kind of like a nice convo icebreaker,” Cyrus responded spiritedly. “You can just be like, ‘stop staring at my tits!’ and then like the convo just kinda keeps going.”

Take a note from Cyrus: even if you make it in Hollywood and have nearly all of your breasts showing on live TV, your outrageous outfits should still cover the nipples. It’s alright to show the breast fat around your areolas, but not the insidious nip itself. This is why so many women opt for nipple pasties for coverage when a bra strap could ruin the effect of an exposed back. It’s alright if there’s a bit of bounce to your boobs, as long as you’ve crossed bandaids over the scary part. But are you really crossing out the scary part, or is the scary part just your gender? Society seems to think the latter. 

In 2012, with the birth of the “Free The Nipple” movement, we tried to attack the scary with even more scary. The viral social media trend urged women around the world to ditch bras entirely. I myself went on a rampage, refusing to wear either of the two bras I owned for a full three months. (I was in the 10th grade at the time.) But even among the throngs of shirtless women who attended nipple-freedom protests, sporting signs that read “MY BODY IS NOT INDECENT” and “STOP SEXUALIZING BABY FOOD,” bedazzled nipple pasties covered almost all of their areolas. 

To an ironic extent, seeing a horde of women with exposed nipples would be at least a little eye-catching, albeit at a pro-nipple demonstration. Even at a demonstration that aims to destigmatize female nipples, that very stigma is present amongst its female combatants. If any men were present at such a protest, it is unlikely that they would also feel the need to go nipple-pastie crazy. It’s completely acceptable for men to go shirtless — but for women to attempt to do the same would be an automatic indicator of something provocative.  

So, are nipples really that distracting? The overwhelming answer seems to be “just the female ones.” In the centuries-long quest to command a woman’s curves, bra companies have managed to construct the ultimate holding device from fabric and eye hooks. But these bras are also physically constricting to such a degree that they often leave angry red marks on wearers’ rib cages. If society succeeds in finally freeing the nipple, we can toss our bras out — barring, obviously, the bra that goes perfectly with your super-stylish outfit, should you want it. Cyrus highlights the issue that nipple-pandemonium is really obstructing when she says that  “My dad would rather me have my tits out and be a good person than have a shirt on and be a b*tch.” But a man with his “tits” out is rarely held to the same “good person” standard that women are. Nipple discrimination is the ultimate culmination of gendered double standards in the 21st century. Instead of fixating on whether the nipples are out, we should focus on the personalities of the women who are attached to them.

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About the Contributor
AVA MIN, Assistant Multimedia Editor
Ava Min (they/she/xe), FCLC ‘27, is an assistant multimedia editor at The Observer. They are majoring in political science and minoring in film. She loves earl gray tea.

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    Philip BurkeNov 3, 2023 at 5:24 pm

    Fascinating stuff, thanks! Any followup or coverage of Tania Tetlow’s presentation to Anthony Fauci at the Washington DC National Press Club for the Brian McMahon Memorial Award for Distinguished Public Service last night? The announcement is right on the Fordham News page, but for some reason the coverage has just been… crickets.