words by Ellie Brown
In the age of social media, global connectedness allows individuals to communicate in ways completely unpre- cedented since the advent of the internet. It’s barely ten years since Facebook became open to anyone ‘over the age of 13 with a valid email address’ – and yet, things have moved on at an astonishing rate since then. As of 2016, Facebook boasts 1.79 billion active monthly users, and Instagram, launched in 2010, has 600 million users. Social media platforms have become a central tool for instigating real change via the virtual. Yet, there remain hurdles in the cyber environment that can hinder progression in that of the real world. The workings of the virtual are a strange, refracted reflection of what’s going on in reality, and whilst it seems as though the internet pertains to freedom, it is in fact full of all kinds of restrictions and restraints. So despite the fact that social media platforms have proved to be a fruitful resource for creating discussion about what’s going on in reality, it raises further questions about how we navigate cyberspace. So, when it comes to the contentiousness of the female body, for example, there’s as much a hotbed of debate around the representation of the body online as there is the question of how this can have an impact offline.
Free The Nipple is a perfect example of this complexity. Triggered by a film of the same name by Lina Esco released in 2014, #freethenipple took off as an international movement. With the aim of achieving the “equality, empowerment and freedom of all human beings”, Free The Nipple has found itself seeking to challenge the social norms of the representation of the female body, both offline and on. As a campaign focused on advancing women’s rights, Free The Nipple has used social media to force a reconsideration of the female body through the use of #freethenipple, and simultaneously sparked positive protests around the globe in favour of such empowerment. Its impact is undeniable – be that changes in regulations in public and on social media platforms, or just the discussion that Free The Nipple has brought to boil. There remain many challen- ges to overcome, however, as life is not all compassion and understanding. So, NR caught up with Lina to discuss the past, present and future of the Free The Nipple movement.
NR Magazine: Since the beginning of the Free The Nipple movement in 2014 what have been the most significant turning points?
Lina Esco: I think the major turning points were in the summer of 2014; we helped overturn the ridiculous laws of Facebook and Instagram which didn’t allow women to post photos of breast feeding – and we were pretty much the leading force behind that. An article by Soraya Chemaly came out in the Huffington Post, where she spoke about the issue of breastfeeding, and we did a PSA video called ‘Everybody’s Gotta Eat’ (directed with Sophie Tabet). And I think a week later, Facebook changed its stance on breastfeeding, and that was a big thing.
Also, the legalisation of toplessness in Venice Beach by the city council last year was a big turning point. I mean, if you think about it back when we came out in 2014, no-one was really talking about this stuff, so we were one of the first few people to do something constructive and have a movement that was ahead of its time. If you looked at media and advertising at the time, we weren’t talking about any of this.
NR: Since then, the media is definitely covering this stuff more. But, just an internet search of articles on FTN, one thing that struck me was that even though, the FTN movement and the social action associated with it is getting coverage, a lot of the time there’s warnings carried with them as being ‘NSFW’. Do you think that even though this somewhat contradicts the point, the fact that it’s getting the coverage means you’re on the right tracks?
LE: Absolutely, you get the attention and then it’s that old thing – you’ve got the attention, now what’re you going to do with it? There are all these young girls and women starting their own chapters of FTN and doing their own thing with it. There’s still this stigmatisation attached to the female nipple, so why not use that to bring attention to bigger issues like wage gaps?
NR: Can it be frustrating though, that the intentions of the FTN movement get lost in translation - that it’s simply about being able to walk around without your top on, when it goes beyond that?
LE: The name in itself was never about going topless - we did that in order to start the conversation about gender equality that was the whole point and it got us here; it’s forced the conversation that needed to happen and that’s where we’re at right now. What we do with it now is important. There is misconstrued information, like yeah [freeing the nipple is a] part of it but, even if it’s legalised, do you honestly think women are going to be running around topless? It’s not going to happen, it’s about having the choice; in America, and in the majority of places in the world, you can sexualise the female body and you can objectify it, but women can’t own it.
There are going to be people who don’t understand, who think that ‘oh they’re trying to get attention, they’re calling for it.’ You can’t expect everyone to understand it, it is what it is. FTN is everyone’s platform that’s why it has always been about anyone using it and saying what they want to say.
NR: What I really like about the movement, is that it’s clear that this is a platform for everyone and anyone so, for the average girl or women or has few resources or a small voice, what would you advise her to do to make small changes within her community or peer group?
LE: They can use FTN to start their own chapters, and the title itself isn’t about what you physically have to do. Use it to your advantage; that’s what a lot of people have been doing. So, by tagging FTN and getting media attention then use it. It’s there for that reason. It’s amazing, we get hundreds of emails a month from people around the globe starting their own chapters. It might seem stupid to other people, but when you really open it up and there are just millions of things that can be done. It just never ends, and that’s why there’s all these women standing up for the first time ever. But we’re part of the problem.
NR: In what sense?
LE: We’ve chosen to be silent many times because we’re afraid. We’ve been taught to be polite and we if we speak our minds we’re radical feminists. There’s a million reasons why we haven’t chosen to speak up like men have in the past. A perfect example, men got tired of getting fined a dollar a piece for not wearing a one-piece suit, and they campaigned and they passed a law in 1937. Women, on the other hand, [have in the past chosen] to be quiet and silent. Well guess what, now there are more women speaking up than ever and that’s just waking up other women to. It’s continuing to get bigger and bigger. As I said in 2012, ‘this is only gonna get bigger’ – and it is only getting bigger.
NR: Do you think social media has played a fundamental part in being a catalyst for women to voice their opinions, especially with ‘#freethenipple’ being so commonplace now on social media platforms?
LE: Absolutely. We were using Instagram in 2011-2012, and we started out with the hashtag and luckily enough, it was just at the beginning of social media. [As a result of social media,] we can see the infestation of change happening before our eyes so quickly. It’s so amazing to see all these things happening; there’s an actual awakening happening and you get excited because people are out there thinking just like you.
NR: I think the fact that it’s a platform that allows people to connect, where maybe they thought nobody shared their opinions, can be really inspiring.
LE: Absolutely because you realise ‘wow these people are here for me and there’s people out there for me.’ And it’s great that it represents what you’re feeling inside.
NR: But, that said, do you have any concerns about the more sinister aspects of social media; how do we teach young people to navigate these platforms and engage with these movements without putting themselves in danger - because it’s all there and it’s open to anybody?
LE: I mean it’s the same thing as going topless; if I choose to be topless on a beach, you’re going to get people come up to you and say bad things – that’s just all part of it. You can’t control what people’s reactions are going to be or what they’re going to say. You just have to put it out there because it makes you happy or because you’re making a stance about something. It’s like a quote my grandma told me when I was really young: one third of people are going to hate you, another third is going to love you and other third is not going to not care. And that’s just how it is with everything you do.
NR: With Trump as president as of next year [at the time of writing], do you think that’s going to have any serious implications for the future of FTN and for women’s rights more generally?
LE: I mean we can get into a really long conversation about Trump; it’s probably one of the worst things that could happen to us but, in a way one, of the best things that could happen in terms of the awakening of women. I’ve had so many women call me to say ‘hey how can I help? We’re enraged and want to make change’. Because, at the end of the day, he’s planning on defunding planned parenthood, he’s planning on taking us back 100 years in terms of women’s rights so it’s very scary but, if anything, women are off their couches right now.
NR: It’s woken people up to realise things need to change.
LE: Yeah, and there’s this quote that, the greatest trick that the devil played on all of us was to lead us to believe he didn’t exist, and the greatest trick that the GOP ever played on us was to lead us to believe that there’s no war against women and that women have rights. But that’s all come out, we’ve realised all of that is bullshit, including racism. People said ‘there’s no racism in America’ - and it’s everywhere. But nobody has seen it and a lot of people live in denial.
NR: For you, personally, where do you want to take things now?
LE: I’m about to launch the human campaign for humancampaign.org, which is about getting the Equal Rights amendment into the constitution. It started in 1923, and it never got passed. Basically, a lot of countries around the globe have in their constitution that all people are equal, but we don’t have that - so I’m on a mission to do that. We’re all human at the end of the day, and sometimes we move backwards and sometimes forwards and the problem sometimes with women’s movements is we tend to exclude men and point fingers, so this is about one nation coming together.
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