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When Lina Esco started the #FreeTheNipple movement in late 2013, she undoubtedly thought about European beaches. Snapshots of Brigitte Bardot, sunbathing nude in the 1960s, may have come to mind. Or, less famously perhaps, women on the French Riviera, unencumbered by pesky bra straps and bikini tops as they frolicked alongside topless men in the water.
In America, we often think of Europe as a hotbed for nudity and nipple liberation, so it may come as a surprise then to hear that women in places where nipple freedom used to reign supreme are now dressing differently since the arrival of #FreeTheNipple. While it’s true that not every European country has relaxed attitudes toward nudity and sexuality in general, France, Germany and Italy are three, among many others, that historically do.
A friend who moved to Germany for work, for example, was shocked when her company suggested a naked co-ed spa day to relax. For an American raised in the Pacific Northwest, this was unheard of and (she was sure) likely crossed numerous HR boundaries. In the end, she went along and was relieved to find out that after her initial discomfort, hanging around naked with her work buddies just wasn’t a big deal. In short: No one cared about her nipples anymore than they did about her fingernails.
Before #FreeTheNipple in America, “freeing the nipple” was just something that the French, Germans and Italians did naturally, without giving it much thought at all. As a by-product, men and children accepted this nipple-age as commonplace and everyone went along their merry way. So what’s changed?
To really understand why toplessness is so taboo in the current day American landscape, a quick stroll down history lane is necessary. Before the Victorian era, it wasn’t uncommon to see women walking around bare chested. In fact, according to a Vice article on the history of toplessness, “court ladies were sometimes painted with one breast exposed — showing both breasts in a painting probably meant you were a “mistress” — and many women (including Queen Mary II of William and Mary University) walked around with one or both breasts out of their bodices. Dressing tables, too, stayed stocked with nipple makeup, in an orange-red carnelian shade.”
With Queen Victoria’s arrival to the throne in the 19th century, however, her wildly prudish preferences took center stage and laid the groundwork for many of the issues #FreeTheNipple supporters are still working to overturn today. (You may also be surprised to learn that until 1937, it was illegal for men to walk around topless, too.) Equality for all bodies is a noble cause, but suddenly the intense attention on nipples has inadvertently brought shame and justified unease to European women and their nipple-baring ways.
Since #FreeTheNipple went viral, turning women’s bodies into political chess pieces in the process, some Europeans say they feel going topless means they’re taking a stance, not to mention an increase in leering American eyes spying on their mostly beach-centric practices, makes them feel exposed and uncomfortable.
Social media and technology don’t help. Whereas once women at the beach were free to go bare without repercussion or fear that they’d end up plastered all over the Internet, the ubiquity of the camera phone makes that comfort all but impossible to maintain. It’s not a far stretch to think that going topless might mean you’ll end up on some sketchy website, or less maliciously, in someone’s Instagram feed with “#FreeTheNipple #FranceRules #GetWithTheProgramAmerica” tagged underneath.
In today’s hyper-connected (porn-heavy) digital world, it’s increasingly looking like that’s not a risk many young European women are willing to take.
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