OPINION: Female bodies cannot be policed while male bodies are praised

Kristen Nichols

By Kristen Nichols

During the Super Bowl LIII halftime show, Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine took off his shirt, and the internet went wild.

In 2004, much of the public also went wild when Janet Jackson’s right breast was exposed for less than a second during her halftime performance with Justin Timberlake, resulting in the scandal known as “Nipplegate.” National Football League executive Jim Steeg felt her nudity was disrespectful; halftime producer Salli Frattini critiqued Jackson for not handling the situation better; and the Federal Communications Commission attempted to fine CBS, though the courts overturned it, according to a Jan. 31, 2018, USA Today article.

This double standard goes further than the fact that Jackson alone is blamed by some while Timberlake was invited back to perform in 2018. The core of this issue lies in the way that the sexualization of male bodies is often viewed positively and met with praise, while the sexualization of female bodies is viewed negatively, often involving condemnation.

Women’s sexual expressions are used against them to victim shame, slut shame and otherwise discredit them in ways that are rarely, if ever, applied to men. “Nipplegate” is just one amplified example that shows how uncomfortable people are with nipples when they are a part of a female body, though humans have nipples regardless of gender. There is nothing naturally dirty about the human body; sexualization occurs through the societal perceptions we have conceived. Deeming semi-nude women disrespectful while cheering for a semi-nude man is all part of a harmful construct that patriarchy has built. This construct needs to be reevaluated and changed.

The current culture affects all women, going beyond celebrities in the public eye to include sex workers and breastfeeding mothers.

When Tumblr banned adult content from its site in December 2018, “real-life human genitals” and “female-presenting” nipples were listed among prohibited content, according to Tumblr’s Help Center. These restrictions shut down sex workers who used the platform as steady sources of income to host videos, streams or photos in what they felt was a safe space to build their brands and create a following, as discussed in a Dec. 6, 2018, TeenVogue article. Tumblr’s ban took away work, changing the lives of women who embraced their own sexuality and sent clear messages of disapproval and dismissal.

This censorship comes from perpetuated ideas of women’s breasts only existing in a male-sexualized context. Female nipples should be recognized as anatomical parts that can exist in a non-sexualized context and should exist in a culture that doesn’t make value judgements of women’s expressions of sexuality.

Jackson’s “Nipplegate” was an outrage because her body was exposed at a time those with authority, such as NFL executives and the FCC, deemed it unacceptable. No one took into account Jackson’s consent, which is blurry around the subject; they simply punished her for having the audacity to go against their conventions. The very idea that she could have owned her sexuality instead of waiting for their permission to be sexualized has resulted in her being blacklisted and treated differently by the public and the music industry, according to an Oct. 23, 2017, Billboard article. But when Adam Levine removed his entire shirt this past Sunday, the response to his male privilege and expression of sexuality was positive.

This double standard is archaic and appalling. In the Me Too era of listening to women and holding abusers accountable, suppression of feminine sexuality must stop. Female forms must exist without being policed before we can experience equality