I was expecting the cat-calls. The double-takes. The stares. I was expecting the aggression. The conversations. I was dressed in a bikini top on Halloween. A bikini top made to look like a pair of boobs. And let me tell you, on first glance, it really looked convincing. I wore a sign around my neck saying in bold letters, “Free the Nipple.” I didn’t include the hashtag symbol, the main way this 2014 film-turned-equality-movement is usually publicized these days, but it was all the same.

I was both excited and terrified to go out into the world. I would not be blending in that weekend. When I told my housemate Mackenzie about my costume, she was just as excited as I was. She took it an ingenious step further, creating a costume of a boob (composed of nude clothing and a paper-mâchéd nipple), bound by various shackles, with her own “Free the Nip” sign.  We were glad to have each other for what we viewed as a fun way to spread awareness, as well as our own little social experiment.

To complete our costumes, we both had second signs, mine on my back, reading “Still Not Asking For It,” in hopes of also spreading the message that no matter what a woman is wearing, she is still not “asking for it” (“it” being any form of sexual contact or aggression), unless she is literally asking for it. Leaving all shame at the door, we walked with some friends to Necto. It was Pride Friday, which made us feel at least a little safer; there wouldn’t be as many creepy guys, right? Maybe I was naïve. There were some things I knew to expect but others I was entirely unprepared for.

When I arrived at Necto, I was amazed at how quickly the compliments rained down. People from all ranges of the sexuality and/or drunkenness spectrum told me they loved the costume. However, some of the compliments quickly turned to touching or groping, one man even partially pulling my top off. Apparently they didn’t understand the whole “Still Not Asking For It” thing. Yet, had I known at that point what the next night would bring, I wouldn’t have thought that Necto was so bad.

Saturday night, Mackenzie and I went to Rick’s American “Café” (hey, we wanted a large subject population for our social experiment). With vastly more heterosexual men in the room, compliments changed from “I love your costume!” to “I agree for a totally different reason!” followed by their awkward laughter. I lost count of the times that guys said some version of “Well if you want to free the nipple, then show me your real ones!” in tones ranging from light-hearted to indignant and demanding. (To which I responded, “No dude, that’s not the point,” or in one instance, Mackenzie and I responded by simply singing the then-playing song “I Don’t Fuck With You” over his protests.)

I was not expecting the level of direct physical and verbal aggression. Maybe I’m naïve. Or maybe some people really need to figure out basic human respect. But the thing that threw me off the most that night wasn’t this overt aggression. It was a question I never expected to hear: “What does that even mean?”

Sometimes, especially around the people I surround myself with, it’s easy to forget that some people still don’t understand that being a feminist isn’t something to be ashamed of. I figured that everyone kept up on this stuff — I mean, Miley Cyrus and Matt McGorry talk about it, right? But here I was at Rick’s, explaining to people what “Free the Nipple” even meant.

Here’s what it means: Women’s bodies, especially their breasts and nipples, are constantly sexualized in our society. When we see a man’s nipples, it’s seen as normal or OK. But as soon as we see women’s nipples, it’s immediately perceived as sexual. Even mothers trying to breastfeed in public must go to great lengths to ensure they are properly covered. The sexualization of women’s bodies is so deeply rooted in our society that most of us don’t even think about it.

“Of course women shouldn’t show their nipples,” people (like my parents) say. But why should men’s nipples be OK and not women’s? The fact that they are so taboo just goes to show that they are not viewed as just another body part, but something sexual. That women’s bodies aren’t just bodies, they are something sexual. I mean, I agree that women are freakin’ beautiful creations. But we’re also so, so much more. Free the Nipple isn’t about walking around naked. It’s about nudity not meaning “asking for it.” It’s about wanting to be seen as people, instead of sexual objects. And that’s it.

Rachael Lacey can be reached at rachaelk@umich.edu.

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