The Trouble With Nipples

Elizabeth's picture

 "Nipple Tape" by Diana BlackwellThe tank top is a lovely apple green. I tried it on with a long matching over shirt, did my usual pantomime of chalk board writing to see if it was comfortable, scrutinized it to see if the over shirt hung in such a way as to avoid showing the contours of my nipples, visible through the tank top, was satisfied, and left the store.

I put it on one morning, paired with some new light grey jeans, and wore it to work. I got several compliments on the color and also a few glances that made me self-conscious. I ignored them as best I could. I did not try to wear the shirt again for a while. Some weeks later I put it on again. I stepped into the living room to ask my sweetheart Will what he thought. I turned this way and that, put my hands on my hips, brushing the overshirt aside as I do in class sometimes, took a few turns, and waited for his reaction: "It's a bit nipply." I took it off. I have not worn it to work since.

I don't want to wear my nipples to work. I don't want to deal with people looking, looking away, and looking back. I don't want to worry about whether they think I am a hippie or a slut. I wouldn't care if they thought the former but I would be afraid that if they thought the latter they would think it in the erotophobic, judgmental, shaming kind of way that I do so much to resist.

Several years ago I gave up on wearing bras. This was not a political move, at least not initially. It was about my own physical comfort. I have never found a bra that fits well, looks good under clothes, and feels comfortable for more than a couple hours. Since I have never been physically uncomfortable without a bra, I decided to forego them. At first I only went without on the weekends. It seemed too risky to go without at work. Then eventually I decided to go without there, as well. It was then that I encountered my nipple dilemma. I had always worn bras that had a bit of padding, and even my apparently steely nipples never showed underneath them. Without a bra, every top presents a challenge. Dark colors and patterns are the easiest. I often wear vests, jackets, or over shirts for extra coverage. Sometimes, as with my apple green combination, even an over shirt doesn't seem like enough. (I have a similar conflict with a light tan t-shirt and matching vest combination.)

I know I am not the only female-bodied person who feels this way because I've discovered lines of "solutions" products specifically marketed to help hide nipples. Her Look sells two: Low Beams, which are disposable nipple covers made of a light material akin to bandage tape, and Top Hats, which are reusable silicone discs. Sense Lingerie sells Bra Disks for shielding your nipples even while wearing a bra, along with a whole line of reusable or disposable nipple concealers. You can even purchase a sampler pack of their five most popular products. Then there are the noncommercial forums like Going Braless, which offers excellent resources, social networking, and discussion for women who are considering, experimenting, or committed to bra freedom., run by Dr. Elizabeth Vaughan devotes an entire FAQ section to nipples in the workplace.

It would seem like no women have nipples unless they are modeling wet t-shirts or being pilloried for failing Wardrobe 101. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" demonstrated that even the briefest glimpse of a nipple during a "family entertainment hour" is cause for uproar, never mind the sexually predatory nature of the dance routine she was doing, or the violent competition of the football game during which half-time show her performance occured. (Of course there is a Wikipedia entry for that!)

Even Barbie, the ultimate visual model of femininity, has no nipples. No wonder she was comfortable in so many different occupations! It would seem that Barbie was a compromise in plastic, since she wasn't intended to be left naked anyway. (You knew that, right? You didn't do naughty things with your Barbies, did you?)

In all seriousness, I would like to resolve my own internal conflict about being nipply at work. The issues are as much in my own mind as they are in workplace culture. It took me a while to overcome my anxiety about walking in the park braless but now I'm perfectly comfortable meeting the eyes of the occasional leering men or scornful women who stare when I pass. If they attribute my bralessness or my visible nipple contours to some strategic - or uncontrollable - sexual action, then so be it. But that thought troubles me at work. I don't want to contend with leering students who are likely to look, judge, and never to ask the question that would allow for a thoughtful discussion of the sexualizing of women's breasts - nipples particularly - and the constraints on women in the workplace. Likewise I do not want to contend with colleagues who, though equal or superior in power, would likely whisper to one another rather than creating space for such discussion.

This is not a trivial concern. Via the treasure chest that is Gloria Brame's blog I learned that just early this month a Public Defender in Florida was kept from seeing her client because her bralessness was considered by a prison guard to be in violation of a policy that prohibits dress that is "provocative or enticing." Of course the irony in the story is that, according to the AOL News story I read about her situation, her bralessness was a function of the prison's metal detector having picked up her underwire bra on her first atttempt to enter the facility. I suppose the message is that bras are both dangerous and essential.

Some mornings I wake up feeling defiant, thinking "Fuck it. Why am I capitulating to some arbitrary notion that nipples are somehow indecent? Why am I reinforcing that absurdity with my own actions?" After all, I remind myself, if nipples are about anything at all, they are about sustaining life - feeding infants - not about entertaining men or displaying sexual desire. And then I get dressed. And so far I have always been careful to conceal my nipple contours as well as I can. I will, I am sure, come to a point where I feel as comfortable at work as I do in the park. In the mean time I will enjoy such settings as are available where nipples are seen as ordinary parts of the body, to be decorated, displayed, or ignored as their owner sees fit.

Mermaid Parade 2010

 Artwork includes

"Nipple Tape" by Diana Blackwell on Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic Attribution License

Mermaid Parade 2010 photo by WIll Van Dorp (Parrotlect on Flickr). Used with permission.