Bare breasts as a form of protest

When it comes to feminism there is no more powerful tool than the female body

06 August 2017 - 00:00
Wits students took a powerful stand by going topless during #FeesMustFall protests.
Wits students took a powerful stand by going topless during #FeesMustFall protests.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

Women, when it comes to baring your breasts outside of the bedroom, remember this: don't do it. Unless it's for cultural purposes (such as the Reed Dance) or for male consumption, don't even think about it.

Because breasts, you see, are a sexual organ and showing them makes you a sexual being when women are supposed to be anything but. (Forget that breasts' primary function is to nourish children - although even that is not something women can do in certain spaces without fear of judgment.)

But when it comes to feminism, there is no tool more powerful than the female body. As Egyptian-French artist Ghada Amer previously told Lifestyle: "The woman's body is a political battlefield."

The woman's body is a political battlefield
Egyptian-French artist Ghada Amer

Indeed it is. How can it not be when there are laws that dictate what we can and cannot do with our uteruses, or bylaws that mean we cannot show our breasts in public (while few bat an eyelid when moobs are on display)? Why are women's breasts considered publicly indecent when in various cultural contexts women could often walk around topless and it wasn't a big deal?

The body's role within various feminist movements is a starring one: when women are pushing to have complete control over their bodies, it's a fight for power. What we choose to do with our bodies and how we choose to exercise control over them is about power. If the woman's body within a sociopolitical context was the SRC, the breast would be its president.


The desexualisation of the breast and therefore the female body is an important part of feminism, which is why topless protests are becoming commonplace: from the Ukrainian-French activists FEMEN protesting topless during a Woody Allen concert in Germany, to women in the US baring their breasts in support of the GoTopless movement.

Closer to home, Rhodes students went topless to protest against rape and rape culture at the university last year. A few months later, students put their bodies on the frontline of #FeesMustFall protests by facing police officers bra-less, with one of the students telling a newspaper that her act was to show the power of a woman's body.

And what could be more powerful than stripping down and being vulnerable in front of armed men, defending other people's bodies by putting your own out there?

Some praised the bravery of the women, but others were quick to jump in with patriarchal bullshit. The acting National Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane said to journalists at the time: "When those students took off their clothes, was that not public indecency? ... Where are their parents? We must call them to order."

Because Phahlane - and many others - doesn't believe in something called agency. Women must always be treated like children who need approval or admonition from those who know better when it comes to what's good for them, what they can and cannot do with their bodies.

A FEMEN activist protests with the wax figure of US President Donald Trump in Madrid in January 2017.
A FEMEN activist protests with the wax figure of US President Donald Trump in Madrid in January 2017.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

Comedian Skhumba posted a video in which he said that if women showed their breasts, they should look like tennis balls instead of "hanging all the way to the belly". Because Skhumba - like many men - cannot fathom that women could ever bare their breasts for anything other than male pleasure and the male gaze.

A petition on Amandla calling for the comedian to apologise pointed out that his comments were "part of institutionalising the policing of women's bodies and reinforcing the idea that they exist for public consumption".

And that's exactly what protesting topless is about: moving beyond the objectification of the female body, its sexualisation, its policing. But if you think the sight of an areola delegitimises a cause, maybe the problem lies with you and not the woman going topless. It means you are incapable of seeing breasts as anything other than a sexual organ. And that a woman embracing anything remotely sexual is problematic.


Social media has become one of the main battlegrounds when it comes to the female body's role as the representation of oppression and the fight for equality.

In 2014, Instagram became the mascot of the patriarchy after it banned Rihanna for daring to post her nipples. The singer had shared her cover for French men's magazine Lui, where she reclined in a bucket hat and bright pink panties, a drink in her hand - and a pierced nipple on full display.

Because the pic violated Instagram's terms when it comes to nudity, the app suspended the singer's account. While on the surface this seems like a straightforward situation - don't show your nipples on Instagram - the truth is the photo-sharing app has issues with only women's nipples.

The much-publicised fight between the app and the singer (Rihanna chose to stay away from Instagram for six months) was fuel to the fire that is the #FreeTheNipple movement.

I have always freed the nipple. It was never to get attention. Never sexual. Never in desperation
Rihanna in Vogue

Rihanna has bared her breasts in public for years - even on the red carpet. She told Vogue: "I have always freed the nipple. It was never to get attention. Never sexual. Never in desperation."

Other celebs who have since challenged Instagram's policy by posting topless pics of themselves include Cara Delevingne, Miley Cyrus, Chrissy Teigen and Chelsea Handler (who said in one caption: "If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it's OK, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?").

An account called Genderless Nipples (which has 79,000 followers) uploads close-up shots of nipples as a protest. The bio states that "men are allowed to show their nipples, women's get banned".


All this nipple-freeing doesn't mean the baring of breasts - or any other body part - has been met with approval from within feminist spaces. There are many feminists who only applaud a woman's agency when it's exercised within their boundaries of what constitutes agency.

When actress and feminist Emma Watson posed topless for Vanity Fair in February, she was accused of betraying feminism. Even people who bash feminists for fun got in on the action. UK columnist Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted: "Emma Watson: 'feminism, feminism ... gender wage gap ... why oh why am I not taken seriously ... feminism ... oh, and here are my tits!'"

What makes that tweet infuriating is the suggestion that a woman needs to act or look a certain way in order to be taken seriously. It misses one of the most vital parts of feminism: agency. If a woman wants to twerk on a pole in front of men, it's her choice. You don't have to like it, but it's her choice.

It comes back to the argument that an act cannot be feminist if a man can also derive pleasure from it (such as Rihanna displaying her nipples in a men's magazine) - which is simple-minded and silly.

The president of GoTopless, Nadine Gray, told the Guardian that "this push for women to go topless in the 21st century is as strong as women wanting to vote in the 20th century".

This might sound like a stretch, but it's not quite. Going topless and desexualising the female form is political and it's about women laying claim to power over their own bodies.

In the South African context, we have many things we are fighting for as women: control over our economic freedom, our safety, our lives and our beings, and the right not to be blamed for our own rapes and murders.

The breast as a form of protest is not the pornification of feminism: it's about wrestling back the breast from male objectification.

NOTE: The mention of more pop culture-geared movements such as #FreeTheNipple isn't intended to trivialize the actions of the women who bared their breasts during #FeesMustFall.