Accepting inverted nipples in a world obsessed with body symmetry

It’s time to ditch the idea that “perfect” bodies are those of absolute symmetry, writes Jennifer Sizeland

Inverted nipples are found in 2-10% of the population1 yet as they’re rarely spoken about and seldom ever seen, it’s easy to have no idea of their existence.

Portrayals such as the actors’ bodies in Game of Thrones and the contestants on Love Island fuel the idea that a “perfect body” is one of absolute symmetry, and it’s time to lay this unobtainable standard to rest.

“Common” nipples — the term for what most people with breasts have, where the nipples protrude at rest and become erect when stimulated — are the ones we usually see in film and TV, but nipples can be inverted or flat too. Flat nipples generally don’t protrude, and there are three grades of inversion that increase depending on severity. A grade-1 inverted nipple can be pulled out and stay out for periods, a grade-2 will quickly return to its original position, and a grade-3 is difficult to pull out at all.

I’ve had one inverted nipple ever since I developed breasts, and when it developed during puberty I was fascinated. I told my friends about it; we would put a cigarette in its “mouth” and make it “smoke” for our entertainment.

People simply didn’t talk about so-called embarrassing body problems — you simply learnt to deal with it if it wasn’t deemed dangerous

Now I know that inverted nipples like mine are likely to have been formed from birth, only becoming noticeable when breasts develop. Dr Giuseppe Aragona, GP and Online Doctor for Prescription Doctor explains: “Nipples are formed in the womb so if they have been inverted since birth, it is likely to be because your nipple base and milk ducts didn’t fully form and develop.”

There was barely any information around when I discovered my nipple and people simply didn’t talk about so-called embarrassing body problems — you simply learnt to deal with it if it wasn’t deemed dangerous. The only place that acknowledged this condition at all was the breastfeeding aisle of Boots supermarket, where you could buy suction cups to help draw out the nipple by forming a vacuum around it.

I used these suction cups on and off for around eight years. The problem was that as soon as I put a bra on or moved around in bed, the suction would be broken and the plastic shield would fall off. Convinced that everyone’s nipples stuck out all the time regardless of temperature (this was the Friends era, let’s not forget), I persevered and even tried different types of suction cups, all with the same disappointing results.

I’m now 34 years old and I have yet to see another inverted nipple anywhere

My nipple would come out for varying periods, sparking hope in me before bidding its retreat again. This hope was abandoned for around a decade and was reignited when I got pregnant and naturally, my nipples started to change. While now, it’s much more “out” than it used to be due to the hormones stretching out my breast tissue, while I was pregnant it would still retreat even when my chest was at its largest.

As natural nipple inversion is generally a purely cosmetic condition, it usually does not affect breastfeeding. “As long as your baby can take a good amount of breast into their mouth then they should be able to breastfeed. The baby’s mouth latches onto the areola as opposed to the nipple”, says Dr Aragona.

I’m now 34 years old and I have yet to see another inverted nipple anywhere. The nearest I’ve seen is the box of lemons representing symptoms to look for in a breast cancer campaign. For many people, inverted nipples are not an indication that anything is wrong, and this needs to be represented too.

The fact that asymmetry is seen as something to be “fixed” is a problem in itself, as many people have one breast larger than the other, a nipple that differs from the other, or one labia bigger than the other

Dr Aragona explains when nipple appearance can be a sign that something is wrong. “If your nipples are newly inverted then you should see your GP as this could be a sign of mammary duct ectasia, mastitis, or you may have an abscess under the areola. Sudden nipple inversion can also be a sign of breast cancer, so it is important to see your doctor if this happens.”

While plastic surgeons can treat inverted nipples with surgery, this doesn’t always last and they can go back to their original appearance later on, much like teeth when a brace is taken off.

The fact that asymmetry is seen as something to be “fixed” is a problem in itself, as many people have one breast larger than the other, a nipple that differs from the other, or one labia bigger than the other. I’ve even seen a woman whose baby bump was to one side — that was simply how the baby grew in the womb during her third trimester.

Despite the ongoing media obsession with “perfect bodies”, we should dig deeper to represent and embrace those that are different so that nobody feels like their body is “other”. There is definitely space in our increasingly inclusive world for those whose bodies are not symmetrical. Our bodies are for living our lives — exploring, embracing, having sex, creating babies, and so much more. They certainly don’t need to be fixed, because one side is not the mirror image of the other.

Featured image is an illustration of a person with breasts, standing bare-chested facing the viewer. They have one common nipple and one inverted nipple

Page last updated August 2021

Jennifer Sizeland

Jennifer Sizeland is a freelance writer and assistant producer with 12 years of experience in the media industry. She has written for many publications including the BBC, the Independent, Metro, Manchester Mill, Get Me Giddy, the Media Diversity Institute, Funny Women and her own sustainability blog called Land of Size. She lives in Manchester and you can follow her on Instagram at @lifeofsize.

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References

  1. Mangialardi, M.L., et al., Surgical correction of inverted nipples, International Open Access Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, July 2020, vol 8, no 7, e2791