#NiUnaMenos protest in Chile.

Javiera Fermandoy is an historian from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a researcher and teacher in the area of costume design in different institutions of higher education. Her research topics focus on the relationship between body, gender and clothing in recent history.

Chile has witnessed a massive upsurge in the feminist movement over the past few years. External factors, such as the #NiUnaMenos and #MeToo movements, as well as a keen awareness on gender-based violence occurring in the country, united various groups under common slogans. This increased the visibility of both feminist and gender demands.

Such visibility can clearly be appreciated in the demonstrations organized by women and feminist activists that took place in the main streets of Santiago and in other cities nationwide. The demonstrations included different performances that, over time, became essential elements of the movement. In these performances, the dressed body played a fundamental role, using items of clothing to convey important messages and demands. One of these body-apparel performances relates to naked torsos.

Breast exposure in mobilizations is a form of rebelling against traditional gender roles and stereotypes that perpetuate what is correct or admissible among human bodies. These rules of good behavior are embedded in our society’s patriarchal heritage since ancient tradition imposes its power on women's bodies, controlling them, determining how they behave, defining the spaces they occupy, and regulating—through socio-cultural precepts—how they should dress.

Topless performances occurred amid a rise in reported sexual violence incidents, in protest against objectification of the female body, and in multiple debates focused on gender issues such as abortion and breastfeeding. In these circumstances, the body is presented as a permanent place of struggle and resistance with a significant impact upon society. Exposing breasts meant reclaiming them as symbolic tools of feminist rebellion while at the same time questioning their sexualization.

Consumption and censorship

When young women marched bra-less in the middle of the Alameda, Santiago’s main avenue, society didn’t take long to react. Art students of the Universidad Católica carried out one of the most important performances that had been seen up to that date (May 16th, 2018). The performance consisted of girls marching topless with a hood on their heads. According to the CADEM [1] survey, 71% of respondents criticized this demonstration[2], generating debate as to the reasons for such discontent and discomfort.

Unlike other riotous and violent demonstrations in the country, this one was peaceful. What was ultimately considered disruptive and morally questionable was the public display of female breasts, without any kind of censorship, in public spaces. In general, the division between the public sphere and the private one is a field of contention between feminists and the traditional and conservative sectors of society.

Although this demonstration was but one specific event, the issues that arose from it became part of structural public debates on gender inequalities and on the historical construction of gender norms. Among these, we can find the socioculturally normative use of clothing, specifically the bra. This garment originates directly from the 16th-century corset, and, by some means, it perpetuates its function by modeling the body according to ideal beauty standards, at the same time discreetly covering the female chest. There are two aspects to consider when talking about the bra: on the one hand, it represents the ideal of the female body as an object of consumption for the male gaze, as it seeks to enhance the bosom. On the other hand, it also hides and censors the breast, thus perpetuating its erotic charge.

In Chile, the duality (and hypocrisy) regarding the conception of the female body can be perceived in multiple areas, but none is more emblematic than “ Bomba 4.” This was a famous section of a magazine named La Cuarta, a tabloid that considered itself a “pop newspaper.” In its “Bomba 4” section—first published in July 1987—the newspaper published photographs of half-naked, topless, scantily clothed, and hypersexualized women. The target was a broad group of men, mostly working class and heterosexual, who enjoyed these images and awaited them every Friday.

The rising number of copies sold, up to 50% more than the usual numbers [3], had a strong impact in Chilean society. The publication was extremely popular, revealing society’s strong desire to consume images of eroticized female bodies. These pictures were meant for the male gaze, as they featured idealized bodies with tight waists, prominent buttocks, and turgid nipples. This “topless tradition” was celebrated throughout the country, on a weekly basis, for 32 years.

In today’s world, consumption and censorship of the female body are two sides of the same coin, and this is precisely the problem faced by contemporary feminists. There is a new generation of Chilean women who yearn to rebel against the male gaze, against unwanted lust, and against the erotic charge imposed on their bodies—particularly on their breasts. They have made significant progress by openly challenging and subverting practices such as the publication of “Bomba 4.” Following the new international feminist wave (often referred to as the fourth) kicked off by the #NiUnaMenos and #MeToo movements, and coupled with the pressure exerted by feminists in the journalistic field, in 2017 La Cuarta finally ceased to print its “Bomba 4” section as a consequence of “no longer meeting the standards of current times.” [4] Another breakthrough relates to the Chilean congress passing a “breastfeeding law” (No. 21155 enacted in April 2019) that establishes breastfeeding as a right, promoting respect for breastfeeding mothers, providing safe spaces to do it, and barring discrimination, aiming to decrease the cases of mothers who suffered sexual harassment for breastfeeding in public spaces. [5]

Although these measures constitute significant progress in the Chilean feminist agenda, there is still a long way to go given that the consumption/censorship combo is still very much a reality. The entertainment industry has a lot of responsibility as it promotes both female hyper-sexualization and idealized beauty standards. Social media also plays an important role in discrimination - for instance, unlike male nipples, female nipples get repeatedly censored, no matter the nature of the image in which they appear. This gender gap has led activists to join initiatives such as the #FreeTheNipple movement, seeking to naturalize the existence of female nipples and breasts without falling into eroticization and sexualization.

Clothing and sexual harassment

The eroticization of women’s bodies cannot be related exclusively to nudity, as it is also fully clothed bodies that experience hyper-sexualization; therefore, clothes play an important role in the construction of female archetypes. As noted above, clothing contributes to disciplining the body - modeling it, displaying it, and concealing it in such a way that it is configured as a socio-cultural normative visual language.

In the body/clothing tradition, respectability and dignity are synonyms of a dressed body, while nudity stands for a lack of both[6]. However, not all clothing is respectable in the eyes of society, nor does every kind of nudity stand for depravity and lack of decorum. Sexy dresses are ranked very low on society’s dignity scale, which leads to debates regarding how much respect a woman actually deserves when she dresses in a certain way. [7] In cases of sexual violence—harassment or abuse—clothing is used as a justification. Phrases such as: “She asked for it,” “Dressed like that, she is asking for it,” or “If she doesn’t want to be looked at, why is she dressed like that,” are frequently heard as excuses for sexual violence.

In Chile, the Observatory Against Street Harassment points out that a girl is approximately 12-14 years old when she first experiences street harassment.[8, 9] Incidentally, at this age girls begin to develop secondary sexual characteristics such as hips and breasts. As a reaction, victims of street harassment tend to modify their outfits.[10] Short skirts and pants are replaced by clothes that cover more of the body. However, sexual harassment of women is in no way prevented by unprovocative clothing: it happens also when women wear long skirts, loose-fitting/oversized clothes, tunics, and even veils. Despite this, clothing is still considered a relevant factor when discussing cases of sexual abuse.

The multiplicity of sexual abuse was brought into the spotlight by the #MeToo movement and by the rise in complaints of sexual harassment within Chilean universities. Female students from across the country began to publicly denounce classmates and teachers, leading to the creation of special “Gender Secretariats” on almost every campus. [11] The climax was reached in April 2018, when female students at the Universidad Austral de Valdivia occupied the campus as a reaction to an unsatisfactory sanction given to one faculty member in a case of abuse. This started a real “Feminist Tide'' involving young activists from different universities and different feminist groups. It would later be known as The Feminist May.

Demonstrations during the Feminist May brought topless demonstrators back: young women showed up without bras, covering only their nipples with ribbons or paint. The goal was to politically use their bodies to expose the sexual violence embedded in the universities and, more broadly, in society. By using the body, breasts in particular, as an expressive resource, feminists turned their bodies into weapons of resistance. With this performance, they rebelled against gender norms and reclaimed both their own bodies and their sexuality, refusing to be defined as objects of consumption for men.

Female breasts exposed in public spaces were the spark that destroyed the public-private binomial, breaking down the censorship to which they were constantly subjected. Additionally, by appearing in the context of denunciation against sexual harassment, the political meaning of clothing was also questioned. For the demonstrators, clothes were irrelevant since their value as people did not depend on their garments.

“Breast exposure in mobilizations is a form of rebelling against traditional gender roles and stereotypes that perpetuate what is correct or admissible among human bodies.”

In the words of one of the feminist leaders:

“To walk out of the cold corridors of the U[niversidad] C[atólica][12] towards the Alameda with the naked torso constituted an act of rebellion, because it vindicates what our culture had taken away from us about the meaning of being topless. It is the liberation of the body against what we have been led to believe since we were children: that our breasts are an object of desire, of consumption, of enjoyment for the male.” [13]

Detractors pointed out that the demonstration was a way of inciting abuse, perpetuating the idea that, when dressed in a certain way, victims of sexual violence are held responsible. The breasts themselves, their shape, color, and size, were also judged, proving that the same public that enjoys the erotic consumption of female images only accepts female breasts when they are part of the hypersexualized and consumerist domain to which society is accustomed.

Generally speaking, addressing the display of female breasts in public spaces calls for contextualization. This type of performance allows for gender issues to not only be addressed in the public debate but also to achieve a greater impact. The 2018 feminist mobilizations caused a profound impact in the middle of the Chilean Social Unrest with a song called “Un Violador en tu Camino”—or “A Rapist on Your Way.” On November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, LASTESIS (a feminist group) invited all women to participate in a public intervention. The dress code required for the performance was evening or cocktail wear which, in this case, meant “sexy attire.”[14] This was meant to highlight what would soon become a well-known chorus chanted during the performance, which translates to: “And I’m not guilty, not because of where I was or because of how I dressed.” (y la culpa no era mia ni donde estaba ni como vestia)[15]

“A Rapist on Your Way” went globally viral; it was performed on five continents and translated into multiple languages. This is evidence of gender-based violence mainstreaming and that clothing (as the song says) is not justification for sexual abuse. As the theorist that inspired LASTESIS’ performance, Rita Segato, points out, the execution of rape is related to the power exercised over the other body, and not by a clothing style.[16]

The pandemic and feminist movements Post-2019

Major social mobilizations were suspended until further notice in March 2020 due to the spread of Covid-19 in Chile, which was followed by a long period of seclusion. During quarantine, there was an increase in domestic violence and rape as well as limited access to reproductive health and contraceptive methods, including abortions. However, even the seclusion did not manage to silence feminist activism.

Long periods at home changed the relationship between the body and its clothes. People transferred all aspects of their lives  - work, studies, entertainment, and social life - to the domestic sphere, adapting their usual routines and outfits to this new home-based existence. This encouraged people to choose more comfortable ways of dressing which involved sweatshirts and sneakers as opposed to, for example, jeans or high heels.

Not feeling observed or judged by the social gaze, many women also stopped wearing bras during the pandemic, and the long-awaited moment of taking off the bra when you got home after a long working day became a permanent new reality. This bra-less period allowed women to question its daily use. The garment is supposed to support the breasts and prevent it from being subject to gravity, but incidentally not using it made no difference to breast health, and even specialists are now questioning its relevance. It seems as though the bra may just have been a way to shield the nipple and its erotic charge from the gaze of others all along.

This is particularly meaningful as it embodies the social and cultural standards of clothing. When we face the public space, we do so as clothed bodies in conformity with the unspoken norms of each context, such as a more formal attire when working, or a casual one during the weekend. However, in the private space, these norms become less rigid, as bodies are no longer under scrutiny.

With the gradual return to normality, women found themselves entirely questioning the use of the bra outside the house. Some bra users stated that the undergarment "is the most uncomfortable garment that exists. I only wear it when I have to look respectable, such as in work meetings.”[17] Others joined trends such as the #NoBraChallenge, making its non-use a banner of feminist activism. Others opted for less rigid garments, such as bralettes, bras with no underwires, or nipple shields.

The future of the feminist movement in Chile

The progress of feminism, coupled with the changes brought on by the pandemic, has contributed to questioning the relationship between the body and its clothes, specifically the use of the bra. Some of this progress is reflected in state policies. For example, Law N°. 21,153 criminalizes and punishes sexual harassment in public places and Law N° 21,369 regulates gender-based violence within higher education institutions. Both are products of the feminist mobilizations of 2018 and 2019.

Progress in gender policies is the result of the constant struggle of women demanding their rights, demonstrating with their bodies, demanding new bills that respond to their needs, and generally taking part in activism. Their presence in the public space vindicates them as subjects of law and places the body as a political agent demanding recognition. These symbols of feminist mobilizations will flood the streets, schools, media, and workspaces, as a sign of permanent tension.

The activism of women and feminists will be reflected by the free choices they make regarding their bodies, the way they dress, and their sexuality. But it will also be evident in the new political processes of the country, such as the parity agreement within the government’s institutions or the recognition of gender rights within the new proposals for the creation of a new Chilean Constitution.

Notes: Topless Rebellion

[1] CADEM is a Chilean market analysis and public opinion company. It conducts telephone surveys, to random people within its database, on contingency issues.

[2] El Mostrador Braga, “Encuesta Cadem: el 71% de los entrevistados rechaza la marcha en topless por demandas feministas,” El Mostrador, May 28th, 2018, https://www.elmostrador.cl/braga/2018/05/28/encuesta-cadem-el-71-de-los-entrevistados-rechaza-la-marcha-en-topless-por-demandas-feministas/

[3] Sebastián Foncea, “#ÚltimaBomba4: conoce porqué la emblemática publicación se convirtió en leyenda,” La Cuarta, November, 16th. 2017, https://www.lacuarta.com/cronica/noticia/ultimabomba4-convirtio-leyenda/234229/

[4] El Desconcierto, “La Cuarta anuncia fin de la Bomba 4: ‘Fue una humorada sensual que duró por muchos años, pero que no corresponde a los nuevos tiempos’,” El Desconcierto, November 14th, 2017, https://www.eldesconcierto.cl/nacional/2017/11/14/la-cuarta-anuncia-fin-de-la-bomba-4-fue-una-humorada-sensual-que-duro-por-muchos-anos-pero-que-no-corresponde-a-los-nuevos-tiempos.html

[5] Ley Chile, Ley N°21115, Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional, accessed October 3rd, 2022, https://www.bcn.cl/leychile/navegar?idNorma=1131064

[6] Mario Perniola, “Entre vestido y desnudo,” in Fragmentos para una historia del cuerpo, ed. by Ramona Naddaff & Nadia Tazi, (Madrid: Taurus, 1990), 236-265.

[7] Sexy clothing is understood as that which people qualify as "provocative", that is, clothes that accentuate the body, are tight in the waist and hips, show off the bust, expose more of the legs, are of dark colors, with transparencies, etc. Duncan Kennedy, Abuso sexual y vestimenta sexy. Cómo disfrutar del erostismo sin reproducir la lógica de la dominación masculina (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno editores, 2016), 66. 

[8] Organization founded in 2013 that seeks to make street harassment visible as a form of gender violence, raising studies and proposals for legislation on the issue.

[9] Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero Chile, “Primera encuesta de Acoso Callejero en Chile,” 2014, accessed September 25th, 2022, https://ocac.cl/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Informe-Encuesta-de-Acoso-Callejero-2014-OCAC-Chile.pdf

[10] Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero Chile, “Primera encuesta.”

[11] Student organizations that receive cases of gender violence within universities. These are organizations that arise from women students and the LGBTIQ+ community, with the intention of making their demands visible and promoting institutional solutions to gender violence.

[12] Acronym of the Catholic University of Chile, one of the country's main universities, and characterized by its conservatism.

[13] Aracely Farías, “Feminismo a torso desnudo,” La Tercera, December 28th, 2018, https://www.latercera.com/tendencias/noticia/feminismo-torso-desnudo/463078/.

[14] @lastesis, “TENCIÓN SANTIAGO: LASTESIS convoca a mujeres & disidencias,” Novemnber 23rd, 2019, accessed on October 10th, 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/B5Nl542FjmR/.

[15] Lastesis, Quemar el miedo, Un manifiesto (Santiago: Planeta, 2021), 102-103.

[16] Mar Pichel, “Rita Segato, la feminista cuyas tesis inspiraron 'Un violador en tu camino': La violación no es un acto sexual, es un acto de poder, de dominación, es un acto político,” BBC News Mundo, December 11th, 2019, accessed on December 20th, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-50735010

[17] Emiliana Pariente, “Cuántas veces nos hemos despedido del sostén, ¿es esta la definitiva?,” La Tercera, July 18th, 2020,

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
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Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016