Molly Borman Is Designing A Nipple For Everywoman
“I think I’m going to do this.” Molly Borman recounts her origin story over a slightly grainy conference line. There’s a level of urgency and energy in her voice that surely, must have also been audible that day in 2016 when she announced to the world she was going to own her start her own enterprise.
“I’m going to launch this thing - it’s a fake nipple company.”
Molly’s vivacious, matter-of-fact delivery is laden with a keen awareness of your dumb-struck reaction. It’s a reaction she’s faced many times before, for many reasons. Two years out from the launch of her company, she can deliver her line with a cheeky and confident poise. But for a long time, Molly struggled to manage how to interpret those dumbfounded looks. In fact, in those early years, those looks caused Molly to constantly question the validity of her idea, and herself.
What’s In A Nipple?
It’s not just a question - it’s a controversy.
To be fair, the public display of nipples on women isn’t a new controversy. From a fashion standpoint, we have seen them surge front and center of the cultural zeitgeist at different points in history, going as far back as [art reference], to when Marilyn Monroe sewed marbles into her bustier, or even more recently, when Kendal Jenner chose to put hers on display last summer in Soho. However, the rise of the current nipple controversies in recent years has become engulfed around the controversy of women’s nipples existing outside of art or carefully crafted celebrity publicity stunts: should women’s nipples simply be allowed to exist publicly?
Fittingly, Molly’s desire to build a nipple company did n’t come from anything as iconic as Marilyn Monroe’s fashion statements or even the more contemporary, politically charged conversation behind the #FreeTheNipple campaign.
“I loved the look!” Molly exclaims as if it’s the most obvious thing. “This is kind of like mascara for your boobs – they enhance!”
Cue a dozen thought pieces.
From the get-go, everything about Molly’s company – Just Nips, a stick on, fake nipple company that makes you look cold but feel hot™ - created a kind of enticing, but simultaneously unintentional controversial spin. For starters, Just Nips prides itself on embracing women’s boobs – front and center. Unlike the subversive advertising of Victoria Secret’s very sexy campaigns, in which the aura is built around the secret of what lingerie is covering what parts of a woman’s body underneath her clothing - Just Nips wasn’t trying to hide anything. As boldly declared on their website, Just Nips is a boner, for her. This choose-your-own-adventure of styling nipples embraced a woman’s entitlement to having fun with her breasts, while simultaneously allowing users to choose if they want to use the product to feel fashion chic, sexy, empowered, all or none of the above.
There was no outright attempt from the brand to appear more seductive for the male gaze. There was no element of using body parts to draw attention to boost a career (as arguably in the case of Monroe or Jenner). There was no noble, social cause. And because of this, when Molly presented the idea of nipples as a product – a sort of self-imposed, fun fashion accessory the everyday woman could use to enhance her look (literally) – the pushback was real.
It quickly became apparent to Molly that similar to the #FreeTheNipple campaign, or the conversations surrounding breastfeeding in public, women’s nipple couldn’t simply just exist. Even more controversial, if a woman’s nipple didn’t serve a function – either for the peering eyes of male objectification, a career boosting fashion statement, or to feed a baby – society was still in a tight gridlock over whether they should be seen or not.
Further, it didn’t help that of all the potential founders who could have come up with a fake nipple company (frat bros, tech bros, pretty much any kind of bro really), the messenger from which this product bequeathed was a nice, eager, wholesome, All-American girl like Molly.
Overcoming The Doubt
You knew Molly in high school.
Of course, you didn’t know Molly specifically. And neither did I. But we all knew a girl, just like Molly. She’s energetic, outgoing, and completely charismatic. She knows everyone from every club and every team and pretty much every person at the school. You could tell she was just down the hallway between classes because of her contagious laughter, and the fact that she was always making someone smile. She was so beloved by teachers, students, nerds, jocks, band geeks, drama dramatics, and hallway monitors that not even the evil Plastics of your school could find too much fault in her (though I’m sure they tried). Neighbors trusted her with everything from their secrets to their cats to their children. And she was definitely DEFINITELY the type of young woman ever-aging fathers and mothers met on parent’s weekend in college and immediately told their son’s to put a ring on and lock down.
All of which, perhaps, is why a good girl like Molly – who was predestined by the conventional narratives of ‘modern’ day society, to go to a great university and spend time building wells in Africa, marry a nice, wealthy pharmacist or engineer or coder, and settle down in suburbia to start a family – was given such shit for wanting to start a fashion-based nipple company.
“Everyone was just like, don’t. Or you’re an idiot. Or please, please stop. Someone even told me to light my savings account on fire for quicker results.”
Sure - entrepreneurship is a field where the odds are inevitably stacked against you. And the odds of failure are triple fold for women. With women taking in less than 2% of venture capital funding, lacking access to proper mentorship from seasoned professionals, and sorely needing the business resources to grow and scale, only X% of women’s companies make it past the X year. But the bombardment of negative feedback that awaited Molly’s fake nipple company idea was more than just altruistic concern over Molly’s financial stability and career growth. People were genuinely offended, both by the idea, but especially by the body from which it came. And though no one outright said, ‘how dare she?’ (kindly saving our ears from the shock and awe reminiscent a 1950’s black and white film), there was an element of ‘is she serious?’ - a more modern take on the old-fashioned sentiment directed towards all contemporary women daring to do defy conventional norms.
“It was a strange thing that kept happening.” She explains as to the pushback, “I kept making excuses – it’s because it’s something sexy and it’s a product within the sexy industry and people are scared of nipples. People don’t want to talk about it – it’s too much.”
Molly isn’t the first nice girl whom has been told to know her place (which was definitely more or less what was going on here). And despite it being 2018 and all, Molly found herself joining a long string of celebrated and unknown names of females – all of whom have been told both nicely, directly, and with force, to sit down and know their place: Mary Wollstonecraft. Princess Diana. Hillary Clinton. Serena Williams to name a few.
Learning how to deal with the pushback and contextualizing what this meant for her as both an entrepreneur, and a woman, was a big growing experience for Molly. Launching Just Nips was a far cry from her now seemingly conservative identity as a copywriter at Ralph Lauren (it doesn’t get much more wholesome than cable neck sweaters). If she chose to launch her company, that image of her could be gone. Instead, in its absence, people might judge her – poorly. Just Nips meant people who didn’t know her would have preconceived ideas about who she was prior to meeting her – not all of them reputable. It might mean that some people wouldn’t want to meet her. Even more dishearteningly, it could mean losing some people along the way – including some close friends.
“People are inherently nervous for you when you take a risk. Especially people who love you…. so they’d rather see you doing what they are comfortable doing, and you’re like go away! That’s tough. That’s hard. Really pushing past that and understanding that was a big step I had to take.” Molly summarizes.
Eventually, Molly stopped questioning herself and went for it. Ultimately, she realized the conflated feedback she received around Just Nips was the very reason why the product was needed – because despite Just Nips innocently seeking to be a fun way for women to accessorize their bodies, the amount of controversy surrounding the product revealed that there was a much larger conversation around women’s bodies that needed to be unpacked. And Just Nips was a great reason to have that conversation.
Molly recalls the moment after all the doubt, that she decided to go for it,
“I thought, you know what? Fuck you.” Molly says playfully, but with an abrupt seriousness adds, “But also if they hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have been as driven to get it going.”
(Re)Branding Breast For ALL
With the first set of hurdles out of the way, Molly put herself on the course of rapid research and product ideation. Almost immediately, she realized that she would be diving head first into figuring out how to brand her product – which meant, how she intended on branding breasts.
“All of these hot button items that came with it at the time…like, ‘free the nipple’ and ‘you can’t have nipples on Instagram’…all of these things about empowerment and sexiness – is it feminist, is it not feminist?”
Fully realizing there already existed a cultural narrative around breasts – and from her prior experience with pushbacks due to her company mission – she knew there wasn’t going to be an easy answer, or even an answer to appease everyone. But, she knew intuitively that she wanted her product to feel inclusive to all women.
“I had to formulate what this means to me and what I want this to mean for all women, truly.” This set Molly on a mission of thinking through all her audience identities.
“Once I really got into the woods and asked, what does this mean for a 12-year-old girl who is seeing [our product] for the first time? How can we be sensitive in helping her understand empowerment and feeling good? Maybe it’s not the right time for her to be learning about those things – and that’s okay. Or to the grandmother who hasn’t had nipples because she didn’t get the full breast and nipple reconstruction after having breast cancer who thinks, ‘hey, this is awesome.’”
In the (very important) spirit of inclusion, Molly also wanted to understand how more marginalized groups would be able to access a product like, or equivocal to fake nipples. Molly describes a late night of researching the use of nipple prosthetics for trans women. Each time she created a Google search to find spaces where the product was sold, she was forced by her browser to go into the dark web - which included the uncomfortable experience of clicking boxes that ensured she were over 18, and aware she was about to see explicit content. Of the experience, Molly reveals thinking,
“I hate this process. It’s scary. It’s shameful. I couldn’t imagine being a person who is going through this experience of knowing this is who I am, and having to face all those barriers.”
It was then that Molly realized how important the prioritization of accessibility of her product was for all communities, but specifically for those women who are already marginalized.
“It was a wake up call for me to see what these communities experience just through a Google search. It was sad and eye opening, and also something we needed to change.”
The experience had a huge influence over how Molly chose to distribute the product – in a way that was accessible online, and on sales floors, to all women.
Designing A Nipple For The Everywoman
Molly wanted to continue that idea of accessibility in Just Nip’s product design. She knew that she was working with various types of women, coming from diverse backgrounds, all of whom had varied relationships with their own breasts.
“A rubber, skin toned, flesh-like nipple, had this feeling, of, ‘here’s your new body part.’” Molly recalls of that initial exploration of the design product. “It had these connotations of sickness. It was medical. It was doctored. And I wanted to go as far away from that as humanly possible. If that means we bordered on the novelty side of things, thank god. Because I would never want to make someone feel worse in any community, at all.”
Instead, Molly partnered up with an engineer to come up with a design for the product that embodied the propriety shape of the nipple. The goal was to ensure the look of Just Nips remained congruent with the real thing, underneath everything from dresses to cable neck sweaters, while staying far away from a design that would be border on pink washing or prosthetics. The end physical design strayed from the appearance of a real nipple – seeking to tear down stigmatic, preconceived barriers about what nipples should look like on a woman, and instead, using a fun, playful and cheeky yet feminine design, while maintaining an outward appearance that rang true to the appearance of nipples.
“We have two sizes.” Molly explains cheekily, “There’s cold, and then there’s freezing which is our large size, so that you can still get that look through a sweater.”
Additionally, Molly spent months in R&D ensuring the adhesive on the product was medical grade.
“I could have easily gone on Amazon and gotten breast petals from China for 90% less than the ones we currently use… [but] some of the breast petals I’d found online, I’d wear them for the day, wear them around here and there. I’d find, what I thought was a rash in the shape of a lovely flower on my boob.”
After consulting with a doctor, Molly learned the breast petals were leaving a chemical burn on her skin.
“Whatever they used in this glue, I mean, listen, they really stuck on. But I don’t care. That’s unacceptable. Especially as a product sold to women with breast cancer, that should never happen.”
Luckily, Molly’s engineer-in-arms had a background in biomedical products and had patented an adhesive design for custom ear covers for infants who scratched their ears at birth.
“If this is safe for a sick baby, I wanted that adhesive. Get me that adhesive,” Molly says.
Entering a volatile marketspace and finding unexpected product champions
Yet even with the most diligent care and thought, there was still pushback. Molly explains that the sterile, pinkvertising of breast cancer products impedes the way Just Nips was received by the big companies in the market.
“A lot of our haters come from the breast cancer community. Not the survivors, but mostly the breast cancer stores…maybe because it’s a little more playful but also, a little more sexy and more politically charged. And a lot of the gatekeepers aren’t willing to take the risk on us because it’s not in line with the traditional messaging of think pink, and what people are used to.”
In one instance, Molly recalls a business experience with a breast cancer store who was deeply interested in the product, and even put contracts on the table to order over 10,000 units. Molly got to work getting all the units ready and packaged to go, only to receive a jarring call from the store. After reviewing her website, the store decided to pull their order - last minute - telling her the product was too sexy for their market.
“I definitely took a hit there. I was crushed and angry. After a day of mourning, I was like, ‘fine. I recognize this. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t sexy. I’m going to own it. I have to respond.’
And I did. I felt I did what was right for our company and the women who are purchasing from our site. So even though it sucked – I don’t want to pretend it didn’t – it really sucked. But in hindsight, I was proud of how I handled it and how I’ll handle things going forward. It’s all learning and being open to seeing things from a different perspective.”
Though some of the larger breast cancer distributors and stores haven’t been on board with Just Nips, Molly has found a huge reception from breast cancer survivors themselves.
“What I was hearing from survivors daily, through emails, was ‘thank you! This is exactly what I needed.’ Or, ‘this is so different from any other product I’ve seen.’”
A large part of the enthusiasm coming from the breast cancer community was because Just Nip’s product design was so original and fun, and didn’t necessarily lend itself to a set ideal of what nipples should look like.
“You can’t expect something that’s such a journey and also can be so emotionally draining to be tied up in a pink little bow,” Molly explains.
For her part, Molly is working overtime to ensure that Just Nips provides these breast cancer survivors a means to access her product free of charge through her donation programs.
“We are doing that every single day…We work with over 60 organizations, support groups, and centers. We started a one-to-one program. We donate more than that, because we can and we want to and that’s so important to us. Growing that part of our brand is super important.”
One of the organizations Just Nips works with is a group that targets young women, to teach them about the importance of monthly self-check breast exams.
“Keep A Breast, is amazing – they send out new packages to women who are diagnosed constantly. Also, the educational side of self-check and breast exams, and hitting the younger generation that likes the product because Kendal Jenner looks like this. But, also educating that group about doing monthly self-breast exams.”