I remember being eight and pressing them as hard as I could into my chest to try to get them soft again after getting out of the swimming pool.
I remember being fourteen and buying extra padded bras to help hide them in case they got hard in the excessively air-conditioned classrooms I was in at school.
I remember being sixteen and putting duct tape over them so that they wouldn't show over my favorite backless top.
I remember being twenty-three and crossing my arms tightly over my chest in the summertime like I was cold to make sure that if they got hard, no one would see.
I remember being twenty-six and deleting all pictures that even hinted that they existed.
And recently, I decided against wearing a white bodysuit I bought last past spring because no matter what I do, no matter how hot it is outside, they show through the fabric.
I ended up wearing a black tank top with a bra instead.
I have had a love/hate relationship with my nipples ever since I could remember. It started when I was a child when I'd watch the boys I played with go shirtless in the summer, wishing I could do the same, but it was against the rules for me, who barely started developing, to go outside without at least a training bra underneath my t-shirt.
I'll admit that finally getting to wear a training bra was exciting, a rite of passage that I remember pining for from the time I knew what it was. But I didn't want one necessarily because it covered my nipples. I wanted one because of what it represented—burgeoning womanhood, or at least a symbol of that important transition.
Indirectly, I learned growing up that to be a girl and to have nipples was not only inappropriate but a misfortune.
It meant needing to cover-up at all times. It meant hiding in the corner of a room as I changed into my bathing suit in front of my girl friends. It meant constantly tugging up my strapless bra when I wore tops with straps too thin to hide a regular bra. It meant keeping my arms folded to my chest whenever I walked through the refrigerated sections of grocery stores.
Of course it wasn't always this way. There is a fleeting period of time where a little girl can waddle around shirtless in public without so much as a second glance from the world around her. I too had those moments. There's this one iconic picture of me at about three years old where I'm wearing nothing but a diaper and a goofy grin as I hug my older cousin from behind in an impromptu embrace.
Recreated today, that picture would be unacceptable, bordering on explicit.
Because the female body, whether clothed or nude, is (and has always been) a body that is sexualized just by being.
As I've grown older, I've gotten a little more confident (or perhaps I've given less fucks) about walking out of the house without wearing a bra. But I still find myself feeling self-conscious. It's always in the back of my mind that, to a lot of people, my body is a titillation. It's always in the back of my mind that just my existence as a woman can be an invitation for unwanted attention. And knowing that my body is automatically seen as erotic has caused me to not feel safe to exist in it.
But as much as I want to shrink myself sometimes, I keep reminding myself every day that my body is not offensive, that my body is not a titillation (unless with my own volition I deem it so), and the conditioning I was given about it is false, oppressive, and sexist.
Religion taught me to see my body as sinful. Culture taught me to see my body as a temptation. I am teaching myself how to bring self-love and radical acceptance to that which is not flawed or inherently sexual, but natural and healthy.
I am teaching myself to put the blame on the people who sexualize my body without my consent, and not on myself or my body's natural responses to a drop in temperature. I am teaching myself to fully relax in non-sexual spaces where my nipples and breasts can be exposed. I am teaching myself to see with my own eyes the beauty (not the burden) of this part of me that I've been socialized to believe is inappropriate and explicit.
I want to live in harmony with my body. I want to feel safe in it. And while I know that I cannot single-handedly change or eradicate the sexism and rape culture that has created this double-standard, I know that by taking up space with this body I can help normalize and bring healing to my own femininity.
Yes, even my nipples.