March 24, 2023

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.”

Holly Thomas

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.”


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