Every year, a group of feminist students at my university plan out a secret #FreeTheNipple protest in which masked students go out to the middle of the school campus and stand topless for approximately three minutes in order to make a statement about women reclaiming their own bodies. Every year, I am invited to attend the protest by well-meaning feminists who know I have extremely progressive political stances on everything. Every year, I decline the invitation.
While I support feminist movements on my school campus and everywhere in general, I often feel alienated and forgotten when it comes to protests such as these because I feel like they don’t encompass my personal reality. Here are five ways that #FreeTheNipple movements are actually hindering:
1.By Not Ensuring The Safety of Marginalized Bodies
Existing in a body that is both fat and hairy and which is considered unattractive by societal standards means that I have to overcome various stigmas in order to even think about participating in something like this which would center my exposed body in an environment that would not guarantee my safety.
The reason why I don’t take a stance in these protests is because I often don’t feel safe. Not because I’m afraid of hecklers or strangers who might dehumanize me, but because I feel like those who participate in these movements haven’t always unlearned their own stigmas against bodies like mine to the point where they can guarantee my safety within their own circles.
This is a problem because it outlines a faulty form of feminism that doesn’t create a safe space for women who struggle to even reclaim their bodies in a private setting. It also doesn’t take into consideration the high amounts of energy that women who fall outside of the society’s beauty standards would have to exhibit to even muster the courage to think of their participation as a possibility.
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2. By Not Decentering Beauty Standards that Fall Within Dominant Society
Movements such as #FreeTheNipple often fail to decenter the beauty standards that are already set in place within the larger western society, something which largely hinders its movement. For anyone participating in these protests, the act of standing topless for three minutes in public is an act of bravery. For myself, an act of bravery is simply when I stand topless, in private, in front of a mirror for an extensive period of time.
As a woman who is fat and hairy, my reality highly differs from that of someone who is neither of these things, which is commonly the type of woman who gets involved in these protests because it is a lot easier to reclaim the body when the body still fits within the society’s standards of beauty. It is also easier to celebrate these types of women for reclaiming their own bodies.
3. By Not Ensuring Intersectionality Within Their Movements
When movements such as these make the claim that they are creating a safe space in which all types of women can reclaim their bodies but don’t actively take a stance towards intersectionality, it assumes that all women always share a common reality, when the truth is that we don’t.
If someone like myself were to go out and participate in #FreeTheNipple, the entire dynamic of the protest would be forced to change and it would rock the stability of the movements if those participating in them aren’t actively ensuring that their protests are intersectional in nature. This puts a lot of the responsibility and energy on me as an individual instead of having it fall on everyone within the movement as a shared responsibility. This furthers the feeling of alienation that prevents women such as myself to participate in these body positive movements.
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4. By Only Uplifting Voices of Women Whose Bodies are Stereotypically Attractive
In order to create movements that are inclusive of all body types and which undo a lifetime of stigma, these movements have to actively ensure that they encompass a safe space for those of us who may feel alienated from them. To ensure that these spaces are safe, one of the primary ways to go about it is to uplift the voices of activists who are already unapologetically flaunting their marginalized bodies.
Virgie Tovar is one of these women. As a fat-positive expert, activist, and writer, Tovar creates a platform for fat women who struggle with discrimination and internalized fatphobia. Gloria Lucas, is another body positive activist who uplifts radical self love. She is the founder and owner of Nalgona Positivity Pride, which centers eating disorder awareness as well as decolonized body positivity. Uplifting voices such as these is simply one of the ways that feminists participating in movements like #FreeTheNipple can begin to move beyond a feminism that is alienating to some women.
5. By Not Unlearning the Stigma Against “Unattractive” Bodies
Another way of going about making these spaces more inclusive is by ensuring that within the movements themselves, the people participating in them have unlearned unhealthy stigmas about how they view those around them.
By creating workshops, trainings, and panels in which experts on these subjects can have educated discussions on the realities of existing inside marginalized bodies and navigating feminist spaces like these, movements such as #FreeTheNipple can slowly become more inclusive spaces.
It is also important that the women participating in these protests have an active understanding that movements like these have always been alienating for women who exist in bodies such as mine. There is a history of stigma that won’t come undone overnight and which needs to be continuously addressed within these movements. Simply stating that a space is intersectional doesn’t actually make it intersectional. The only way to have a space encompass the reality of all women is to always keep in mind that these spaces need to be deliberately made intersectional by unlearning a feminism that is limiting and which still has its roots in some form of oppression.
The unlearning process is lengthy and something that needs to be continuously practiced. Communities such as these can begin unlearning the oppressive behavior they may unintentionally exhibit by first admitting that this is a problem within many of these circles. This can only be done through intentional analysis of privilege, oppression, and conversations that may put privileged bodies in uncomfortable positions that go beyond their comfort zone. Only through these conversations can these movements become intersectional and encompass the reality of all women by understand the differences of identities that women may and do connect with. This would then create a space where everyone can navigate radical self love in spaces where they feel safe.