The latest topless photo scandal is one that isn't even topless. Fourteen-year-old Willow Smith is now the target of offended anti-nipple activists after wearing a top that features a photo of a women's breasts.
With the #FreetheNipple movement quickly gaining traction, it's no surprise to see more celebrities taking a stand for top-frontal nudity: Miley Cyrus posted a since-removed topless photo on Instagram noting her support and Chelsea Handler is a frequent champion of nipple equality, posting another topless photo every time one gets deleted. As adults, they are free to show their body however they want, but it is crucial to note that #FreeTheNipple isn't explicitly about sex. But now that a younger star is making a statement, people are freaking the freak out. Even though Willow kept her actual clothes on, her fashion choice has ignited a rampage against her actions because they show her knowledge of her own sexuality. As viewers, we are forced to think about her body. The original photo was removed from her Instagram, but perhaps in spite, the singer made it her profile picture.
At 14-years-old, Willow is too young, according to both laws and social mores, to be considered a sexual entity—and therefore even too young to visibly acknowledge her awareness of the female anatomy in general, at least in a public forum. (Let's also remember that as a preteen, the singer frequently discusses different dimensions, emotions, and life with the wisdom of an ageless, enlightened being.) Yet last May, she also received backlash for then posing in bed with shirtless 20-year-old actor Moises Arias, to which her mother Jada Pinkett Smith responded with disgust that the photo would even be interpreted as sexual. While society as a whole rejects the notion that a 14-year-old can understand and embrace her own sexuality, it also refuses to accept that a young girl can be in control of her body in a way that also isn't inherently sexual at all. The issue is that there is no space between 14 and 18 (the legal age of consent) for a teenager to exist. Either they are a sexual creature, or they are not; the process for exploration is something with which society feels incredibly uncomfortable.
By being fully clothed, her Instagram was not pornographic or even something to shame, and as a 14-year-old girl with an awareness of her own sexuality, Willow is the one in control of her own body. Willow tweeted in November, "The day that women can casually be topless and not be raped or degraded will be the day that women will be equal in society," she remarked, clearly aware of the fact that her "young" body is already subjected to plenty of criticism. As people rush to judge or cry "innappropriate," they attempt to take away a young girl's own power and agency as a self-aware individual. By attempting to to curb a woman's expression of her own body image because of socially instilled preconceptions, the system that prevents women to become truly equal in society is strengthened — or at least we forget that, at 14, most women are aware of the power of the nipple. As Willow said, "Women are systematically exploited by the system." Let's be better than that.
image via @gweelos on instagram