Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Last week, Berlin freed the nipple — sort of.
Following a complaint from a female swimmer who hadn’t been allowed into one of the city’s pools without covering her chest, Berlin’s state government declared Thursday that all visitors, regardless of gender, are allowed to enjoy public pools topless: “As a result of a successful discrimination complaint, the Berlin bathing establishments will in future apply their house and bathing regulations in a gender-equitable manner.”
Such a straightforward, logical response implies a straightforward issue. Female breasts, like body hair and Adam’s apples, are a secondary sex characteristic. Why not treat them equally? Yet concerns and fears around what constitutes an “appropriate” context in which people of all genders should be allowed to show their bare chests — and whether everyone should be afforded the same latitude to do so — continue to plague us. The problem, it seems, is how we approach nudity in the first place.
Take a famous recent example. Last July, actress Florence Pugh wore a hot pink, completely sheer tulle dress to Valentino’s Haute Couture fashion show in Rome. The photos, which showed her breasts fully visible through the gown, went viral. Trolls flooded the comment section under Pugh’s own post on Instagram, making cruel remarks about their size and shape, and accusing her of immodesty.
The next day, she posted another picture, with a long caption addressing the backlash. “Why are you so scared of breasts?” she asked. “Small? Large? Left? Right? Only one? Maybe none? What. Is. So. Terrifying.”
These questions have been asked so many times, by so many people, in so many situations. Yet across the board, institutions keep failing to come up with satisfactory answers. Meta — Facebook and Instagram’s parent company — has been a particular focal point of the #FreetheNipple campaign, which advocates for removing the stigma around bare chests for everyone, ever since Facebook removed images from a documentary of that name by director Lina Esco.
Esco filmed “Free The Nipple” in 2012 in New York City, where it’s legal for women to go topless. She later said that there “were three cars of cops ready to chase me” and some of the semi-naked women who staged protests during its production.
There certainly seems to have been some confusion among the city’s finest around that time — in February 2013, an official memo reminded the force that bare-breasted women shouldn’t be cited for public lewdness or indecent exposure. Perhaps the message registered, in New York City at least. In 2014, after Instagram suspended her account for posting a photo featuring two women with bare chests, Scout Willis — Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter — documented herself shopping topless (and unbothered by the authorities) in the city. She posted the images to Twitter with the caption “Legal in New York but not on Instagram.”
As of now, Pugh’s photos remain on Instagram, but the platform’s relationship with female nudity is hardly on solid ground. Until 2020, it was against community guidelines for women to post photos of themselves breastfeeding, even though breastfeeding in public is legal in all 50 states.
The same year, Celeste Barber, an Australian comedian who replicates photos of models and actresses, posted a picture of herself semi-covered by a taupe blazer, with one hand covering one of her breasts. It was a near-identical copy of a similar photo by Victoria’s Secret model Candice Swanepoel, except while Swanepoel appeared to be naked on her lower half, Barber wore a thong. Instagram restricted access to Barber’s photo, but left Swanepoel’s free to share. The platform later apologized and said there’d been an error, but the incident reflects a pattern that’s seen thin, conventionally beautiful women allowed far more freedom to bare their skin than those in larger bodies.
Following a January review by Meta’s oversight board, it looks as though the nipple may soon win its freedom on its social media platforms. Nevertheless, the collective mindset around naked breasts in America still seems so fraught. There’s no federal law for or against nudity in the US, but states have varying laws against related offenses, called things like “indecent exposure,” “public lewdness” and “public indecency,” and these are classified differently depending on where you live. In Indiana and Tennessee, just showing women’s breasts in public is illegal. The rationale informing what constitutes indecency appears far from clear-cut.
Perhaps Germany is closer to an answer. Though Berlin’s movement toward gender equity in swimming pools hardly constitutes a revolution, it does reflect a more relaxed mindset around nudity in general. Freikoerperkultur, (or FKK), which translates to “free body culture,” is a national movement that dates back to the late 19th century. The idea is simple: treat all naked bodies just like clothed ones. Nudism flourished in Germany in the early 20th century, and post-World War II it became especially popular in East Germany.
According to Gregor Gysi, an East Berlin-born politician, the “pornographic gaze” of the West has spoiled what was once a treasured pastime. That’s a sweeping statement, but a common thread across all this breast-related strife in America is an assumed lack of neutrality in the eye of the beholder, which translates to inequality in the way that female-presenting bodies are treated.
Breasts are not inherently about sex. Their primary function is to feed babies. Not all women have babies, or breasts, and some men do. Yet what everyone with breasts still has in common is that their bodies are afforded fewer freedoms than everyone else’s. The top half of their body has the potential to offend, because an observer might infer something that has nothing to do with the breasts themselves, and everything to do with their own ideas about the right type of body, or the “correct” use of breasts.
But what if breasts aren’t the problem, and are not, therefore, the issue in need of a remedy? The solution, as the city of Berlin so neatly demonstrated, would be simple. In order for all bodies to be equal, we have to treat them so.