Critical Tits: A breath of fresh air

23 February 2015 - 01:58 By Rea Khoabane
Image: ANDREA NAGEL

A woman's nipple is meant to nurture a child.

That's what activist and documentary producer Lina Esco has been hearing since she started the Free The Nipple movement.

Esco, 29, has made a film of the same name that purports to fight for equality.

She says she's on a mission to empower women across the world by standing against female oppression and censorship.

''I want to publicise the nipple, using it as a tool to start a dialogue about issues relating to inequality facing women around the world. I want to use the nipple as a symbol of liberation," she says.

For example, she says, it is illegal in most US states for women to be topless in public, even when breast-feeding.

According to Esco's website, in less tolerant states like Louisiana, a woman faces a jail sentence of up to three years for exposing her nipple and can be slapped with fines of $2500.

Free The Nipple, the film, opened in theatres in the US in December after Esco raised $1-million (R11.75-million) to make it.

 

Esco says if negotiations go well, the movie will show in other countries, including South Africa.

In South Africa, it is also illegal to expose female breasts in public, according to the Criminal Law (sexual offence and related matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007.

According to section 9, consent is a requirement. In terms of section 22, if a minor is involved it is an offence irrespective of consent.

But cultural tradition is a defence to legitimise the nipple.

Every year in September, more than 25000 topless Zulu women gather at King Goodwill Zwelithini's royal palace for the Zulu reed dance (uMkhosi woMhlanga).

It is a cultural celebration that claims to promote respect for young women and preserve the custom of keeping the virginity of girls intact until they're married. Questions arise as to whether the tradition really does promote respect for young girls in the modern world.

Then there's the underground parade that takes place once a year at AfricaBurn in the Tankwa Karoo, called Critical Tits.

Hundreds of women gather to celebrate their bodies by parading topless around the AfricaBurn grounds and the event culminates in a dance party at sunset.

In these instances the baring of naked breasts is encouraged, but in most other situations it is frowned on in South African society.

Men also have nipples and these, too, have been subject to public restriction.

In 1936 it became acceptable for men to bare their nipples after four men from New York's Coney Island dared to go topless. They were arrested for exposing themselves.

The arrests triggered a flash mob of topless men in nearby Atlantic City, New Jersey. Forty-two were arrested, but their efforts helped make the naked male chest an acceptable social norm.

Esco wants to do the same for women.

America is dubbed land of the free, she says. "So I asked: what kind of a freedom is it when a woman is made to feel self-conscious about her body?"

Inspired by Esco's movement, celebrities including Miley Cyrus, Liv Tyler and Lena Dunham have lent their names to her cause.

Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, was kicked off Instagram for posting a picture of herself in a sheer top. This prompted her to take to the streets of New York topless to protest her banishment and affiliation with Free The Nipple.

In an open letter she wrote: "There are people who criticise my choice to relate nipples with equality. To me, nipples are at the very heart of the issue. Why can't a mother proudly breast-feed her child in public without feeling sexualised? Why is a 17-year-old girl being asked to leave her prom because a group of fathers find her too provocative? Why should I feel overly exposed because I choose not to wear a bra?"

Esco had the idea for Free The Nipple four years ago when a friend related a story about how her mother had been removed from church for breast-feeding.

''I want to create a conversation about women's rights: when will we take ownership of our bodies and be unencumbered by law to show as much or as little as we choose?" she says.

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