Not a nip slip
Not a nip slip. Kevin Winter/Getty

There was, so I hear, a large sporting event on Sunday. I’m far too moral to watch football myself, but the commentary, both on Twitter during the game and in the couple of days since, has been impossible to ignore. (Really, I’ve tried.) The highlights from what otherwise sounds like a very dull Super Bowl were apparently Tom Hanks shilling for the not-so-free press, some drama over corn, and Adam Levine’s nips, which, as approximately everyone on my Twitter feed pointed out, were evidence of a clear double standard in American culture. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” of 2004 was a national scandal, but Adam Levine can show as much titty as he wants and the reaction is a collective yawn.

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The cultural norms surrounding nipples, obviously, depend on where (and when) you live. For most of humanoid history, we were a little hairier and a lot less clothed: Clothing, according to researchers, has existed for only about the past 170,000 years, around 30,000 years after modern humans first appeared. Early clothes were probably made from animal parts and vegetation. It was this technology, in part, that researchers say allowed humans to migrate away from warm climates and out into the rest of the world. In the beginning, covering up was probably just functional, but as clothing spread, it became a cultural phenomenon as well. Garments were used in ceremonies and traditions, they signaled class or identity, and became, of course, an industry all their own.

In some parts of the world—particularly in isolated, uncolonized communities, as well as the Oregon Country Fair—women today freely bare their breasts in public, and these fleshy appendages are no more taboo than our elbows. But even in places where it’s technically legal for women to be tits out, it’s still not appropriate across the board. In Seattle, where public nudity is legal, you’re fine showing off your tits at Denny Blaine but would probably get kicked out of Safeway if you tried grocery shopping without a shirt.

Like all social norms, our relationship with nipples, breasts, and chests has changed over time. During the European Renaissance, female ankles, legs, and knees were taboo but bared breasts were no big thing. In America in the early 20th century, nearly every part of a woman had to be covered. Bathing suits, back then, didn’t just involve dresses, tights, and hats, but even sandals, and in 1907, long-distance swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston after swimming the English Channel in a one-piece suit that covered her from elbows to toes. Knees weren’t considered decent to show in public until well into the 1910s.

Our tolerance of male nipples has changed over time, too. (And why not? Males, like females, can lacate. It just takes a little more work.) Until 1936, it was illegal for men to show their chests in public (thus, the one-piece bathing suits men wore at the time). This standard didn’t change without effort: Men who wanted to swim topless started an early-20th-century Free the Nipple movement of their own: In 1935, the year before male nips were legalized, 42 men were arrested while protesting in Atlantic City without shirts.

So why, in 2019, are women’s nipples still taboo in most of America when men’s nipples are not? It would be easy to say this is simply sex-based discrimination, and while that is certainly a part of it, our evolving conception of sex and gender show how silly and inconsistent these norms really can be.

Today, for instance, self-identified men and nonbinary people can show their chests on major social media platforms, when women cannot. Take Instagram. If I, a cis woman, posted a photograph of my nipples on Instagram, that image would almost surely be removed. If, however, I identified as either trans or nonbinary, my tits may be left up, whether or not I’d had any kind of medical intervention. The very same breasts, in other words, are banned only if the person they are attached to considers herself a woman. However, that doesn’t mean that trans women's breasts are verboten as soon as they come out as women. For Instagram to step in, those breasts have to actually look female, and so a trans woman sans medical intervention can post her breasts on instagram, and that’s absolutely fine.

This, of course, isn’t the fault of trans or nonbinary people; it’s the fault of the platforms for making these rules and the fault of society for developing or evolving double standards for men, women, and other. But, like Adam Levine’s topless torso, it shows us just how arbitrary, how meaningless, the rules governing who can show what really are.