Miley Cyrus wants you to free your nipples

The singer lifts her shirt -- and takes a stand against our breast obsession

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 16, 2013 4:02PM (EST)

  (AP/Andy Kropa)
(AP/Andy Kropa)

It's not exactly big news when Miley Cyrus, who spent the better part of 2013 in a state of undress, flashes a little skin. But when she did so this weekend with a holiday-themed message to fans, it was to get attention for something other than herself for a change. In an image from a weekend tweet, the singer's tongue is in usual full thrust position, while her top is defiantly lifted. Her breasts, however, are modestly covered blocked by hearts that read "Merry Christmas." And the message is one perhaps puzzling to fans: "THANK YOU NY for being one of the few states to @freethenipple."

As director Lina Esco explained in an essay earlier this month, her film "Free the Nipple" is about her quest to change "backward censorship laws that force police to arrest women for the most basic human right, to breastfeed your child in public or to be topless on a beach." And, she points out, women are routinely harassed and arrested even in the 23 states in which it's perfectly legal for them to be shirtless. She says her film is currently facing a distribution stonewall because "lawyers tell us FREE THE NIPPLE is facing an NC-17 rating, which is considered 'pornography.'"

I must admit that I remain in favor of a nation in which more people, not fewer, wear shirts. Haven't 25 years of watching "Cops" taught us that there's got to be a correlation between poor decision making and not having a sweater? And women -- who hear accusations that they're "asking for it" when they're walking around in the world fully clothed -- face particular issues of safety when they dare to go bare. In 2010, when a group of topless women took to the streets of Portland, Maine -- where such action doesn't violate public nudity laws -- they were greeted by "several hundred boisterous and mostly male onlookers, many of them carrying cameras." Last spring, I witnessed a group of shirtless women in New York City's Union Square Park, and from the creepy frenzy of picture takers and gawkers around them, you'd have thought a unicorn was wandering down the street.

But concerns aside, the message of Esco and her team is a vital one – that we are a culture that has a toxic obsession with breasts, and crazily enough, nipples in particular. (See also: the insane hypocrisy over pubic hair: A glimpse of it is somehow deemed indecent, while shaved and waxed bikini areas are just fine.) Earlier this fall, a breast-feeding Missouri woman was hit with a court order for bringing her baby to jury duty. Last month, the New York Times showed a partial image of a breast on its cover – for a story about breast cancer – and the mainstream media had a headline meltdown that the Times had exposed a nipple. The Huffington Post has an entire vertical devoted to Anne Hathaway's nipples alone. Anne. Hathaway's. alone.

In contrast, as of Monday morning, Free the Nipple was saying its Facebook account had been suspended, on the grounds they "repeatedly posted things that violate our terms." Ah yes, the same Facebook that lets parents brag post photos of their children's turds with impunity,  and has a considerably less-than-stellar track record when it comes to images of violence.

When Miley Cyrus lifts up her shirt, or a group of protesters charge through the streets of New York, yeah, it's a stunt. But it's also a statement that we need to work a lot harder to build a culture in which a woman feeding her baby, or sitting on a beach, or caught in a breeze with an errant shirt button, is safe from shaming and harassment. One in which shirtless men get billboards in Times Square but shirtless women are labeled indecent and pornographic. And changing a culture in which on-screen violence is cheered but on-screen breasts are censored is a fight worth having. Free the nipples, and your mind will follow.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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