The global “Free the Nipple” campaign was brought home to South Africa recently when a photograph of a Durban club-goer’s sheer top exposing her nipples went viral.
While many cheered Andiswa Luthuli and her celebration of the nipple, there were many who decried her actions. Luthuli said her decision was driven by her independence as a woman. She was reported as saying: “it’s my body and I can do what ever I like”.
Media reports said Luthuli had previously gone braless for a breast cancer awareness campaign and found exposing her breasts a liberating experience.
Local actress Ntando Duma recently had images of her taken off Instagram after posting a photograph from her umemulo, a traditional Zulu ceremony celebrating a woman’s coming-of-age.
An excited Duma has posted the picture, posed together with her equally bare-breasted sister, for her thousands of Instagram followers, only to see it reported for nudity and have it taken off the platform.
An annoyed Duma lashed out afterwards, saying her actions were not nudity but part of her culture.
Whether it be for a cultural celebration or breastfeeding, or just because they can, a woman’s nipple exposed in public – or on social media – still causes controversy and therefore the ‘Free the Nipple’ campaign has much work to do in changing perceptions around the issue.
In South Africa, going bare- breasted is, for many women, very much part of their culture.
Social networks don’t recognise this though, and will take down pictures they deem offensive, even if some of these merely depict a woman dressed in a traditional outfit.
Spokesman for Inkolo Kantu Traditional Movement, Loyiso Nqevu, argues that in terms of Xhosa culture exposing the nipple was reserved for virgins.
“In the past, only virgins were allowed to show their breasts as a sign of purity. It was also a sign to show that a full amount of lobola can be paid because she is pure and has no children. Breasts are telling. You can see when someone has a child or if they are sexually active,” he said.
“Our culture dictates how people should dress when they reach a certain age, or when they go to certain events,” Nqevu said, adding that women should not expose their bodies in public because they were respected and highly regarded.
And as for exposing a breast/and or nipple when feeding a child, he said: “Breastfeeding is important and it is natural but it cannot be done in public areas.”
Nqevu said traditionally, new mothers would not be out with their babies outside their villages, when the children were of breastfeeding age, unless they were going to seek medical attention.
“Now that women are out and about, breastfeeding should be done discreetly and not for all to see, because women’s bodies should not be exposed to strangers,” Nqevu added.
After the birth of her second child, former Miss South Africa and businesswoman Jo-Ann Strauss took to social media to criticise those who had condemned her for breastfeeding in public.
Strauss said it was strange that the same people who were offended by her breastfeeding probably took no notice of boobs being used to sell everything from insurance to burgers to cars.
“Why does feeding my baby in the most natural, and best, way for him or her offend you?” Strauss asked.
Women’s rights activist and feminist, Michelle Solomon, said Nqevu’s comments were “absurd”.
“If men can walk around topless then so can women. It is absurd that men think they can dictate to women what they can wear and when. It is especially wrong to tell mothers when they can feed their children. If anyone should be allowed to show their breasts, it should be moms,” she said.
“Men cannot perpetuate patriarchal views saying you can see whether a person is a virgin or not, just by looking at their breasts. “Women’s breasts are as different as women are different,” Solomon added.
Commissioner for the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, Sheila Fihliwe Faku, said before colonisation the way African women dressed was not seen in a sexual way, nor were they seen as objects of sexual pleasure.
To the people who argue that Luthuli should have covered up because it was immoral of her to dress like that, Faku said morals had nothing to do someone’s body and how they clothed it.
“She is proud of who she is. We are being colonised too much … why do we have to be defined by other people?” Faku said.
The American-initiated Free the Nipple campaign seeks to affect change “in the areas of the inequality of men and women” – men can show their nipples almost anywhere without being subject to censure, however the same cannot be said for women.
The movement is raising awareness and leading to change in countries across the world, after many years of women paying the price for adopting this form of freedom of expression.
Some have been charged with public indecency, disturbing the peace, or lewd behaviour – even where it was legal. According to wikipedia, one such woman was Phoenix Feeley, arrested for being topless in the state of New York in 2005.
Because it was proven that the law was misapplied – considering female toplessness had been legal for nearly 15 years in the state of New York – Feeley was released and later received $29000 in damages.
Last year American campaign founder Lina Esco said “Free the Nipple” was more than about seeing breasts, it was about women having the choice.
“The shaming of the female nipple is a direct reflection of how unevolved [America] is. “You can pay to see women topless in porn videos and strip clubs, but the moment a woman owns her body, it’s shameful,” she said.
International celebrities like Miley Cyrus, have supported the “Free the Nipple” campaign. In 2011, Cyrus posted a picture of herself holding a large and fake nipple over her eye.
“America is just so weird in what they think is right and wrong. Like, I was watching Breaking Bad the other day, and they were cooking meth. I could literally cook meth because of that show. It’s a how-to,” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Rihanna and Kendall Jenner are also some of the celebrities who have been seen braless, sporting sheer tops on the red carpet. — firstname.lastname@example.org