Out of the entire, expansive list of women’s body insecurities, I am most insecure about my nipples. Even the word “nipples," and the shape your mouth forms when you say it, makes me slightly uncomfortable.
Sparing the details as to why, I just never liked mine. They're the absolute least favorite part of my body.
When the second-base craze of middle school happened, I always acted standoffish enough to avoid talking about mine, or ensured the lights were completely off when we played "Seven Minutes In Heaven." Even then, I couldn’t get my weird nipple anxiety out of my head.
As I grew upward and outward, my nipple education (Neducation? Nip Ed?) broadened, and later, my apprehensions were eventually cast aside with the help of enough alcohol and feigned confidence. At 14, I witnessed Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl nip-slip.
I heard the memorable, “I have nipples, Greg. Can you milk me?” quotes and giggled along. My young mind’s glossary now included pop culture screen-grabs of breasts and flashes of dressing room nip-slips.
It wasn’t perverse. On the contrary, my curiosity was normal. For the majority of my girlhood, I played with nippleless Barbie dolls and obeyed unexplained rules to avert my eyes. I saw the fierce backlash for airing a millisecond of just one of a female superstar’s nipples.
I watched Lil’ Kim cover hers in an odd purple pasty while men’s roamed free on the streets outside Abercrombie. It was like women weren't supposed to have nipples.
No wonder I felt weird about my own.
Even now -- a remarkable 10 years later -- we’re still censoring women’s nipples. Chelsea Handler can’t show hers on Instagram (but Putin can?!); Kim Kardashian's aren’t allowed to break the Internet, a feat so calmly reserved for her ass instead.
As NY Mag has repeatedly pointed out, nipples have been neatly wiped from mainstream media, with Rolling Stone debuting as a constant offender, as well as countless fashion advertisements.
But why do we even care about something that isn’t there? If my nippleless childhood taught me anything, it’s that we encourage scrutiny of the female body by erasing parts of it.
There was the cleavage phase. There was the side-boob. There was recently the under-boob. Now, the fashion world is ready to show the whole boob altogether just minus its nipple.
I don't know, maybe it's a fashion thing? Maybe they have to match? Or maybe, to every-girl-who-has-a-nipple's-horror, it's really become en vogue to be nippleless.
Sigh, perhaps it’s officially time to add “nip-less” to the ever-growing list of unattainable beauty standards, right alongside the “bikini bridge” and “thigh gap.”
Then, we can painfully watch as more and more women grow weary of their own bodies, intimidated and shy and unable to meet another new standard, like it's Rush at the sorority house.
It’s just one more attribute for women to feel insecure about. After beautiful models are displayed sans-nips, and countless publications feature basically everything-but-the-tip, women can’t help but be left wondering: Are my nipples too big? Are they too hard? Should they be hard? Should they be visible? Should they NOT be visible? Should I put coverup on them?
Again, society has decreed to women -- and men -- what should matter about our bodies, and what should matter when other's judge our bodies. What body part is next?
I have a hard time understanding the message we’re sending when we delete such a salient part of a woman’s body. These features -- our nipples -- have life-giving properties that are special to females.
Women, for the most part, can sustain life right from our nipples. By omitting them from our anatomy, we're essentially stripped of our right to womanhood. We're taking away a cherished capability. We're controlling a woman’s body, playing God and confusing everyone in the process.
Look no further than the uproar Gisele and Olivia Wilde’s breastfeeding photos incurred. They barely even showed their nipples, and still they were shamed for doing something that came so naturally to them.
As Wilde suggested, there wasn't, nor will there ever be, anything indecent about this image. Since when did our bodies -- and furthermore, an accepted practice -- become so sacrilegious, yet paradoxically untouchable at the same time?
Here is the problem: Society places so much weight on the sexualization of breasts. Playboy and Penthouse magazine and porn flicks have made millions off the proliferation of breasts and nipples. Their sustenance comes from nipples.
They give nipples life, much in the same way that nursing an infant gives them life (it's interesting to note that the latter is still censored though). But then we give lifestyle platforms (like Rolling Stone and GQ) the freedom to edit nipples out of sexualized cover shoots. That seems deeply puzzling.
Moreover, we proudly showcase men’s nipples, even discuss them at length, but simultaneously categorize women’s as “unmentionables." Why are women’s nipples, specifically, so taboo? Is their blatant omission from the media meant to offer us some protection against the nipple criticism, or does it heighten it?
It’s like when you intentionally hide something from a friend or partner. Regardless of whether it’s shady or not, the very act of keeping it secretive makes you look guilty. Nipples are harmless and beautiful, but deliberately removing them from existence makes us think otherwise.
To some extent, the absence of nipples has turned them into leverage for a woman, another way for her to use her sexuality to get what she wants from a man. We're taught to treat our nipples as sexual tools instead of respect them for what they are: normal, functioning parts of our bodies. Russian protesters, for example, bared their chests in front of Putin to draw attention and incite debate.
During Mardi Gras, girls flash their pairs in exchange for highly-coveted beads. Samantha from “Sex and the City” famously dons conspicuous faux nipples to attract men and Charlotte quickly flashes hers to manipulate them.
After a co-ed sleepover, packs of inquisitive girls recapping together will say things like, “You threatened to show a nip!?” Nipples, the new weapons of mass seduction.
There’s also a campaign dedicated to the nipple movement. It’s called, quite aptly, “Free the Nipple,” and challenges the antiquated notions that women must be censored and our bodies are somehow threatening. There’s even a film, too. Its premise is: “Violence or a Nipple?”
So, why are we so shocked by women’s nipples? Why do they have so much power? Why was my younger self so fascinated by them?
Because they are so noticeably absent from the conversation.
At 24, I've now seen my fair share of nipples and I have delightfully discovered that they come in all different shapes and sizes and colors and kinds. I can't say I'm not still intrigued by them (those women's bathroom rumors are kind of true!), but I can say that it has helped me appreciate my own.
Maybe all it takes is a good, hard look, and then we’ll all be over it.