What is it about the female nipple that makes the world go so crazy? It seems like every week a celebrity makes headlines for posting a topless photo that’s deleted by Instagram, or the celeb’s account is deactivated by Instagram for posting too many bare breasts. Stars like Rihanna, Miley, Chrissy Teigen and Scout Willis have all posted topless photos that show their nipples as a way to fight the photo-sharing app’s sexist policy of censorship. Which it clearly is. Men can post all the topless shots they want.
This clear-cut gendered distinction is the opening that artist Micol Hebron uses to let women have a laugh at hypocrisy while protesting online sexism.
Hebron’s the artist who made the digital cutouts of male nipples that women use to cover their nipples in topless shots they post on Instagram and other sites.
Toplessness is now a political action. The #FreeTheNipple movement galvanizes support among women around the world and functions as a powerful rallying cry to fight sexism. By baring their breasts, women are demanding equality, and an answer to the question: Why can men show their nipples but not women?
We asked Hebron, a Los Angeles artist, about the fraught politics of female nudity, the power of protest art and social practice, what she thinks about Miley Cyrus, and why we’re a nation that acts like boobs when it comes to nipples.
Your digital pasties are some kind of genius. How did you come up with the idea of using men’s nipples to frame the hypocrisy of sexism?
It began in the summer of 2014 when I did a performance art piece for an exhibition by Bettina Hubby. Her exhibition, titled “Thanks for the Mammaries” was on view at ForYourArt on Wilshire in Los Angeles. Hubby’s exhibition was a breast cancer awareness campaign in which she invited artists to contribute works about breasts as a way of working through her own battle with breast cancer. With Hubby’s consent, I made a post on Facebook that stated if 100 people ‘Liked’ my post I would attend the opening of her exhibition topless. I invited others to join me.
We had a great time. Many people took pictures and posted them online. We noticed that the next morning the images had all been taken down by Instagram. I thought this was absurd, particularly since this was an art exhibition intended to draw attention and support for breast cancer!
I thought a lot about the irrationality of Instagram’s policies regarding nipples and tried to figure out why they would censor female breasts and not male breasts. I understood the social reasons—the disproportionate objectification of women’s bodies—but not the logic. I decided to adopt Instagram’s ‘rationale’ and try to use it against them to make a point about how sexist these policies are.
That was when I created the ‘acceptable male nipple template’ or ‘digital pasty’ and put it over the images of me and my friends topless that had been censored. I then reposted the now 'appropriate’ image to Instagram. I posted a male nipple template on my Facebook page and invited everyone to use it to make images of nude women ‘Internet Acceptable.’
That’s a funny term: 'Internet Acceptable.’ Of all the garbage you find on the Internet, it’s women’s breasts–that’s what needs to be made acceptable? What has been the online reaction to your use of digital male nipples to safeguard female nudity?
My initial post with the digital pasty was in June of 2014. It got some attention then and was written about in Buzzfeed and Hyperallergic, but it didn’t go viral in the way that it has recently. Then, during the first week in July of this year, OurLadyJ and LaSera posted a version of the image and text that I had posted but added a pointing hand graphic and enlarged the font. Their posts were shared over 160,000 times in the first few days.
Despite not being credited initially, I was excited to see that OurLadyJ and LaSera shared it, and that it was almost immediately re-shared by Perez Hilton and Sarah Silverman. I love her! It has been a lot of fun seeing all of the creative and funny ways that people have applied it. It’s also been great to see the digital pasty make its way around the world. One person covered his whole body with male nipples; another turned herself into one giant nipple. And I loved seeing Matt McGorry pose with images of Miley Cyrus and Chrissy Teigen’s nipples!
Miley Cyrus. What do you think of her and her rebellious agitation?
I think Cyrus still has a lot to work out. What I most appreciate is her attention to the possibility of moving beyond the gender binary. I hope she is supported and respected in her journey.
How did you design the nipple pasties?
I looked for what the Internet considered to be the archetypal male nipple, which turned out to be the Wikimedia image associated with the Wikipedia entry for “human male nipple.” I was happy to see that this image was available under Creative Commons, and I appropriated it for the digital pasty. I don’t know who the model is. I should probably find out because he’s pretty popular now. Thank you, whoever you are!
I do want to note that I am well aware that it is a seemingly Caucasian nipple and only really offers a solution for some bodies. I would be more than happy to accept photo donations of diverse male nipples.
Do you consider this protest art? If so, what are you thoughts on modern protest art?
I consider the digital pasty, along with many of my projects, to be in the realm of “social practice.” It was an act of institutional critique, and I am critiquing social media, the Internet and patriarchy. You could call it protest art. Feminist protest art by way of a digital intervention but also performance, in a way. I actually think of it as an act of 'consciousness-raising,’ a gesture to encourage people to re-examine systems that have become so 'normalized’ that they forget to question them.
I have been inspired by the consciousness-raising groups of the feminist movement in the 1970s. These women would hold sessions during which they would sit in a circle and use mirrors to look at their own vulvas and talk about what they were seeing and thinking while they did it. Can you imagine a group of men doing that? We might have less war if they did! Women have spent centuries having other people tell them what to think about their own bodies—what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s normal, what’s aberrant, what’s attractive, what’s ugly.
Why do you think men/society fear women’s nipples?
Women’s nipples are sexualized, and that’s one reason they are 'charged’ in society. But I also have this theory – the 'Leaky Body Theory,’ This has to do with our inherent fear or discomfort with bodies that leak. The leaky body is the inside coming out. It’s a loss of control. It’s illness or old age. Think about how taboo it is for our bodies to 'leak’ in society. Sweating is a sign of nervousness. Menstruating is 'gross.’ Lactating is obscene. Peeing in places other than a bathroom can be seen as crude, defiant or terrified. Crying is a sign of emotionality or weakness. 'Cumming’ is forbidden in all media except porn. And drooling means you’re old, mentally ill or have otherwise lost control of your faculties.
I think that the 'leaky body fear’ was really exacerbated during the AIDS crisis in the U.S. With Reagan’s fear-mongering and lack of support of education and research support, the entire nation was encouraged to be suspicious of blood, semen and saliva. It’s a profoundly ignorant and conservative agenda.
It’s powerful, in an ironic way, how you’ve used a male nipple to empower women.
I definitely saw the digital pasty as a way to empower women but also as a way to open the discussion about gender and gender stereotypes online and IRL. I think that the “community standards” on Facebook and Instagram that limit the presentation of female nipple, but not of male nipples is not only sexist, but cissexist. It encourages and continues the gender binary, and that, in my mind, is not an inclusive community.
If a transwoman who was born 'male’ poses topless, would Instagram censor her? And what if a transman who was born 'female’ poses topless? The 'guidelines’ and 'community standards’ implicitly dictate one’s gender and do not allow for someone to self-identify. I think we have a lot of work to do to empower our trans brothers and sisters and to help dismantle the gender binary that we are still constrained by.
Do you think that we’re drawing near to reaching a critical mass of people in the West who believe that a woman’s body is hers to do with what she feels?
Are you kidding? Not even close. Women are still quite far from having full autonomy and respect, even in the West. Granted, I think women have more privileges and potential freedoms than in some other countries, but, unfortunately, there are still dire circumstances for many women in the U.S. and around the world. The anti-abortion debate is still waging strong in many states. Women are still slut-shamed. Victims of rape are still blamed and shamed. Why did it take an admission from Cosby himself before the 40-plus women whom he raped or molested would be believed?
Do you find the nipple is a savvy political battleground to fight for a woman’s right to her body since everyone has them, unlike, say a uterus?
The nipple is one small place to start one dialogue among a pantheon of issues and inequities that need to be addressed. It’s a 'fun’ one that may draw people in because they think it’s, uh, titillating, and then hopefully they’ll pause to think about the hypocrisies that lie within double standards such as 'decency laws’ or permissible images and social media posts. It’s a way to ask people to look and think a little more closely about the structures around them and to consider how these structures might be oppressive to some members of their community.
Not everyone has nipples. People who have had mastectomies don’t always have nipples.
Working as a feminist artist, is it heartening to see so many women emboldened by something you made?
Oh, absolutely, but I also am excited to see male, trans and genderqueer folks joining forces with us. The power of the Internet and of social media is truly amazing. When it works positively, it is exhilarating and empowering. I have felt incredibly supported by my own community and by the global community. The energy and positivity of collaboration and collectivity is like a high for me. I hope that everyone can experience how amazing it is to be a part of a movement of people who support you and who are all interested in helping change the world for the better. When women are supported, we simply pour that support back into our communities.
Zaron Burnett III is a roving correspondent for Playboy.com.
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