Photography by Peter Menzel
On the banks of the rushing Kunene River in northwestern Namibia lives the Himba, one of the last semi-nomadic tribes in existence. The tribe is famous for their use of otjize, a reddish brown paste made from fat and ochre pigment. This paste covers their skin and hair, and acts as both a sunscreen and an insect repellent.
The women use their first waking hours to care for their hair, weaving it, twisting it, molding otjize into it, and styling it to fit their age and maturity. I’d like to point out that I once had food stuck in my hair and I just cut it out with a pair of scissors. I also have 3-4 burn marks on the nape of my neck from attempts with a curling iron. I’ve had my fair share of hair troubles, but the Himba women would chuckle at my feeble dedication. After they take care of the hair, they dress themselves in calf leather loincloths, chunky jewelry, and sandals made from the rubber of car tires.
They go through their day, taking on more physically demanding tasks than the men in their society: they build and restructure homes, carry water to the village, collect and distribute firewood, cook, and tend to the farm animals. But the wonderful thing is, you see, they do not feel the need to cover their breasts. Why should they? In addition to the challenging Namibian climate and the responsibilities of their semi-nomadic lives, it’s simply not a type of modesty they need to practice.
On the other hand, we have the sexualization of the female body in our society. We have a society that values censorship over expression and prizes a certain cookie cutter image of women over the reality of diversity. Decade to decade, century from century, these cookie cutters morph. But the harsh truth still stands: in our society, beauty means exclusion. Beauty is defined by the negative space of imperfections and flaws.
Sure enough, the Himba, like any culture, has a set ideal of beauty – red smooth skin, arched facial features, and a strong build. But what makes a woman most attractive is her strength, her ability, and her contributions in her community. Beauty is shared among these polygamous peoples, and so the ultimate sign of female beauty is empowerment.
But no matter how empowered I am, I cannot go shirtless on a hot day, unlike the Himba women. I am fifteen. I am a daughter, a tutor and a student. I cannot show my breasts or my nipples in a public space without some undoubtedly creepy stares or rolled eyes. Or perhaps I will have an awkward conversation with a police officer.
Ah, the areola, a sensitive matter, a touchy subject. The word itself glides on the tongue, waiting for a childish giggle and a twitching cringe.
I’ve been taught, gently, the various ways I should cover myself. I should cross my legs, hide my stomach, wear scarves over low-cut shirts. And I’ve found ways to rebel against each one, to the dismay of my mother. Yet I can only sigh as I see the free-roaming nipples of men and boys on a sunny day.
Given the choice, would I take my shirt off in protest of the heat? Would you, my fellow breast-owners? Or has society hammered its modesty so hard into our bones that we feel uncomfortable and embarrassed in our own bodies? Why are my breasts sexualized? Why is it that nipples, in the context of a gender, can be interpreted as either mundane or scandalous?
This is where the Free The Nipple campaign comes in. According to their official website, http://www.freethenipple.com, “Free The Nipple is a film, an equality movement, and a mission to empower women across the world.” They bring to light the absurdity of censorship and the archaic practice of female modesty. For example, in Louisiana, an exposed female nipple in public can earn its owner up to three years in jail and $2500 in fines.
In the movie, two shirtless women roam the streets of NYC in protest, with first amendment lawyers at their sides and thoughts of gender equality burning in their minds. Following suit, countless women, with varying degrees of fame, have spoken out about the campaign, from celebs like Miley Cyrus to every day nipple-owners everywhere. They are taking over Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag, #freethenipple.
After all, breasts, through the lens of biology, are natural and necessary for the nourishment of a mammal’s developing offspring. Precious breast milk is almost impossible to replicate, and even with modern-day human breast milk “recipes” like baby formula, nothing can quite compare to the real thing. Yet, however important, breasts are not genitalia.
Besides that, there’s no big deal about breasts. On a strange vacation I took with my mother in seventh grade, she dragged me to all of the famous churches and museums in Italy, as we marveled at beautiful paintings, murals, and stained-glass windows. I’ve seen enough delicately painted penises to last a lifetime, and enough Adam and Eve depictions to question my own beliefs about evolution and Darwinism. But looking back at all of those fig leaf covered Adams and Eves, I can distinctly remember that my homegirl Eve’s nipples were, indeed, free.
Breasts have no real reason to be sexualized in the way that they have been in the media. Yet there’s no denying that there’s something mystical in the way they are revered. There’s something aesthetically pleasing and perhaps even slightly comical about them, one must understand. Just take a look at one of my favorite paintings of Gabrielle d’Estrées, the mistress of Henry IV.
Image credit: The Louvre
And so what if they are aesthetically pleasing and slightly comical? They have sustained the human race, and if the size, shape, or complexion of female breasts make you “uncomfortable,” I would highly suggest apologizing to your mother, who probably kept you alive in the first months of your development by offering you her breast.
I know my boobs deserve to be just as free as the next pair of useless male breasts. But be warned, ladies. Society as a whole will need to realize the necessity of gender equality before our nips are truly, humbly, and completely free.