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This article contains partial nudity. Some may consider it NSFW. Please be advised.
Here’s a question: Is Rihanna an advocate of the #FreeTheNipple campaign? On the surface, in the tabloids and across social media, it would appear the answer is yes. But what if the answer is no? And what does it mean for the movement — if anything — that she’s become a statement for something she may not even support?
In 2014, Rihanna wore a sheer dress to the CFDA awards that exposed her nipples, igniting an online firestorm. In March 2016, she told Vogue, “I have always freed the nipple. It was never to get attention. Never sexual. Never in desperation. The bra just fucked up my sheer shirt. I just wanted to be perfect and that’s what I went with and I felt okay with that. And after a while, it became such a scandal and a ‘horrible role model’ thing. It was a topic of discussion, and eventually other girls started defending me. And now there’s this whole ‘Free the Nipple’ movement.”
It’s interesting to talk about Rihanna in this context because at its core, #FreeTheNipple is about liberating women’s nipples from sex — and RiRi is an artist for whom the term “sex” is often synonymous. The movement is about gender equality for women’s bodies, which advocates argue shouldn’t be sexualized because men’s aren’t. By society’s very nature, however, women’s bodies are inherently sexualized, making this campaign a significant upward battle.
The Free The Nipple movement started in December 2013 by Lina Esco, the director of a 2014 documentary also called Free The Nipple. According to Wikipedia, Esco found it difficult to get the film widely released, motivating her to announce the campaign’s mission “to raise awareness, and affect change, in the areas of the inequality of men and women that are still being experienced in the world today.”
Celebrities Embrace #FreeTheNipple Movement
That same year, celebrities gathered at an event hosted by Russell Simmons in support of the campaign. Attendees included Rumer Willis, whose sister Scout staged a nipple-fueled protest on Instagram by photographing herself topless around New York City. (Instagram quickly removed the photos, stating they were a violation of their community standards.) Another attendee at Simmons’ event breastfed her baby on the red carpet while photographers snapped away.
Around this same time, artist Micol Hebron urged women to use a “sticker” of a male nipple in place of their real nipples on posted photos to make them more “internet acceptable.” When another outlet reposted the image a year later, the male nipple went viral, with celebs including Courtney Love promoting its use.
Online, support has continued to spread in the years since the campaign launch. Rosario Dawson, Willow Smith, Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham and Chrissy Teigan have also taken stands and tweeted photos to support the movement. In one tweet from 2015, Teigan says, “the nipple has been temporarily silenced but she will be back, oh yes, she will be back” in response to a behind-the-scenes W Magazine photo shoot that was removed from her feed. Dawson tweeted “Sunshine on my nips got me like… #yesplease! #FreeTheNipple” in 2017, though unsurprisingly many of the comments are from men asking for pictures or sexualizing her message.
Which brings this discussion back to Rihanna. She’s obviously viewed as a sex icon, which muddies the message of the #FreeTheNipple movement, as many have unofficially named her as their nipple-freeing figurehead. Of course, because Rihanna hasn’t commented about the reasons she feels comfortable baring it all, no one can safely assume they know why it’s a non-issue for her — or whether her level of support for the campaign has changed since 2014.
Rihanna and other artists aside, it may come as a surprise to hear that women in places where nipple freedom used to reign supreme are now feeling differently since #FreeTheNipple. In some European countries where sunbathing topless was expected and commonplace, women are instead opting to cover up rather than join in on a political debate.
Certainly, #FreeTheNipple was formed partially with the attitudes of these European countries in mind. But what does it mean for the movement when the very people they strive to emulate decide not to bare all? Is this still a fight worth fighting? And does #FreeTheNipple actually disempower women, forcing them to choose a side or risk their nipples being used to make a point? It certainly did in Rihanna’s case, where #FreeTheNipple threw her into a politicized war that she wasn’t even aware was raging.
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