Nipples at New York Fashion Week

Image credit: Anya Goncharenko

Nipples abounded in all their unbounded glory at New York Fashion Week 2017.

Kendall Jenner’s nipples peeked through a sparkly, sheer gown on the La Perla Runway on 9th February just weeks after Bella Hadid turned up to Dior’s Parisian Masquerade Ball sans mask or bra. Raf Simons seemed to be giving male and female nipples an equal standing in his debut collection for Calvin Klein. Men, women and their oh-so-perfect nipples made their way down the catwalk in equally perfect, squeaky-clean, transparent sweaters.

The general applause in fashion for neat, symmetrical areolae hasn’t translated into the realm of social media as any female nipple, well-proportioned or not, will find itself removed from Instagram and Facebook.

Apparently replicated images of the female nipple are worse than the real thing – photographic evidence of the female nipple is heavily edited before it is deemed fit for popular consumption. Female models self-censor images of their boobs with strategically placed pizza or heart emojis: as if the humorous twist makes it look more like a choice. There’s even an app which offers a range of art-inspired stickers to “add a new facet to your work or censor it to comply with your social media platform of choice.” This last-ditch attempt to beat-them-to-it-and-censor-yourself-before-they-censor-you is submission parading as victory.

To be social media acceptable, women’s nipples must be blurred, erased with a black strip or replaced with a – somehow more innocuous – male nipple. The Instagram account @genderless_nipples is using zoomed in images of nipples to prove that no one can tell the gender of a nipple on its own. The offence isn’t in the female nipple itself but in the female body those little extensions of skins are attached to. It all depends on what kind of gaze that nipple is soliciting and Instagram has specified that “photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.” So female nipples can be looked at in the context of motherhood, breast cancer and non-photographic art but not looked at just for being a nipple?

Social media censorship creates a hierarchy among gendered bodies through the production of difference. If female nipples were like male nipples and a part of the thousands of images we consume every day, then they wouldn’t be perceived as pornographic or sexual. No one makes a hullabaloo about a male nip slip do they?

Fashion is decontexualising the female nipple and one of Raul Solis’s latest pieces features a cut out breastplate so that the model’s outfit is the only frame containing her nipple. This optical reconfiguration is central to the desexualisation of the female nipple as it allows a particular circumstance to determine what a nipple means. I’m not saying the fashion industry has single-handedly freed the nipple as you won’t find a hint of nipple abnormality at New York Fashion Week. But it’s certainly taking a step in the right direction to seeing nipples for the gloriously uninteresting nodules of skin that they are.

It may seem like a far away utopian future, but the Victorian taboo about women showing their ankles has disappeared so why not the 21st-century taboo about baring female breasts?

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