I don’t have the choice to keep my top on. Because I’m female, and I have female anatomy, including female breasts and nipples. I have no choice but to keep my top on, unless I am willing to risk breaking the law. Doesn’t sound like much of a choice, does it?
It’s required by law (in all these US states/cities) to keep my breasts and nipples covered, even in the same places where topless male breasts (yes, they have breast tissue) and male nipples are considered acceptable to expose.
In my city of Houston, female breasts are categorized the same as genitalia. In Sec. 28-18, Public Nudity (Code 1968, § 28-42.2; Ord. No. 70-411, § 1, 3-18-70; Ord. No. 72-904, § 1, 6-2-72):
“It shall be unlawful for any person to appear on any public street, sidewalk, alley, or other public thoroughfare, in or such close proximity thereto, as to be observed by the public traveling on such street, sidewalk, or other public thoroughfare, in a state of complete nudity, or in such a manner of dress or of undress in a manner which exposes to the public view such person’s genitalia and/or buttocks, and in the case of a female, the female breasts.”
It’s one thing to not prefer to see a woman’s breast, or for a social norm to exist that embeds an awkwardness or even hostility upon the public sight of female breasts in general (never mind that it’s acceptable for a man with enlarged breasts to be topless, yet a topless woman with hardly any breast tissue is a scandal).
So that’s one thing… and it’s yet quite another for the LAW to make a criminal offense out of baring a female breast.
Let’s review the 14th amendment, as explained by GoTopless.org:
“The 14th amendment guarantees equal protection under law and properly interpreted it guarantees women the right to be top-free where men are allowed to be topfree. Unfortunately, some jurisdictions do not recognize that right, and there is a less stringent test in the courts (called intermediate scrutiny) for gender based differential treatment than for e.g., racial classifications (which are analyzed under what’s called strict scrutiny).
Our rights under the 14th Amendment guarantee and include the one to be top free where men are allowed to – We seek to see legislation (or court decisions where arrests are made for being top free) in all jurisdictions to make explicit what should already be understood as implicit within the meaning of equal rights.”
Why are we so afraid of female breasts?
Our culture has taught us they are for sex. Yet in fact, they are no more “for sex” than male breasts. Really, think about it.
The double standard is primarily designed to serve straight men. Both females and men can feel just as sexually turned on by a man’s uncovered body, so why does he get to go topless and a woman cannot?
We censor the female body out of fear originating from straight men, and we expect women to exercise self-restriction (of visible skin, of enjoying their bodies for themselves, and of uncovered public breastfeeding) so straight men can avoid feeling angry, nervous, offended, or powerless. We also censor women due to other women’s fears, so they will feel less threatened given the norm of body shaming and competition.
And then, it’s not really even female breast tissue that frightens our culture so — it’s female areolas (typically confused with nipples, but alas, I’ll skip the anatomy lesson). One may display a majority of cleavage in a low-cut top or bikini and receive not the bat of an eye, but the second a bit of areola is exposed, one risks hearing “Cover up!,” “That’s inappropriate,” “That’s NUDITY,” “Now we can see EVERYTHING,” or a barrage of insults like “slut” or worse.
Oh, nudity and America. What a long and tortured history, a frenemy relationship if there ever was one. Need I even need dive into those murky waters? We’re already well aware of the hypersexed yet extremely sexually repressed state of Americans, how nudity and sex are basically synonymous in the cultural mind, yes? Good, remember that, we’ll move on from here…
I ask, what is so different about a man’s areola than, say, his belly button? As far as active purpose, not much. What’s so different about a woman’s areola than her belly button? Well, active purpose, actually. But I very much doubt functionality is why we’re so quick to censor the female areola/nipple.
Should anyone have the right to enforce how another person can present or exist in their body if it’s not hurting anyone? What about the female body HURTS others?
When we get down to it, we’re not afraid of the individual woman or the isolated body part itself.
What I believe we’re actually afraid of is the reaction she’ll receive. The true fear is how others will behave when she’s “allowed” a choice and then makes the choice herself, without defaulting to accommodation of others based on their expected reaction (rage, violence, shaming, legal ramifications).
This view continues to normalize women as objects, and prioritizes the comfort of those who will react unfavorably over her right to live without censors above and beyond those applied to men.
No, we’ll never be able to control other people’s thoughts — even lustful ones, which can be just as strongly present whether or not someone is clothed. So we must instead raise the standards of appropriate behavior, not by making laws that define women as constitutionally obscene but by expecting others to react as respectfully as they would to men in the same situation.
This is a privilege men have enjoyed for a long time without even realizing it.
Did you know until 1936 it was illegal for men to go topless in the US, too? They had to protest in similar ways to today’s Go Topless movement to finally secure their right to go bare-chested on public beaches, in parks, pools, and so on.
Men don’t always want their tops on, which is why they fought for their right to CHOOSE toplessness without fear of stigma, harassment, lawbreaking. Many women don’t always want their tops on — or at least, they wish for the acceptability to desire such a thing, or to demand the choice.
Most men understand (without having to be told) that it’s common decency in our society to wear a shirt (and shoes!) into various businesses, restaurants, and other establishments. We trust they will comply with this. When they don’t, they’re simply told to put on a shirt… instead of threatened with arrest for public nudity.
In the same way women have the right to vote but not all use it, men have the option to go topless but most choose to wear shirts. We usually assume they wore what they did (or didn’t) because they wanted to, for themselves, because they had a choice — not because they wanted attention or an invitation for sex.
Do we really fear if women were “allowed” this equal right that we might encounter topless peers at work, topless mothers in line at Target, topless grandmothers at the local cafe? No, that would not happen and we all know it. No one wants to feel ostracized. If all women had the legal right to expose a nipple on the beach (for example), it’s safe to say most would continue following whatever is the trend, which has in America always skewed exceptionally conservative. Those Puritanical roots run deep, you know.
Aren’t there “other things to complain about?”
This movement generates important discussions about consent. Rape. Equality. Body shaming. Body acceptance. Autonomy (“My body, my business”). Sexuality, sex, and sexism (not all the same thing). Respect. Biology (hormones make female breasts exist to feed children, and male breasts exist for… well, aesthetics is the best answer we’ve got thus far).
This is neither a movement of girls wanting to turn libraries into strip clubs, nor of narcissists seeking validation from pedestrians with legally bare bosoms, nor of roving hippies who decided doing laundry is too environmentally-unfriendly and henceforth all the shirts must go.
It’s not about wanting to walk around topless all the time. It’s about the fact that there is a law saying women’s bodies are inherently more profane than men’s. It says women must accommodate the wishes of the offended, instead of demanding the treatment of women like people instead of property.
At demonstrations across the country, women and men brandish signs or scrawl messages on their bodies in support. I found some regram quotes on @freethenipple’s Instagram that would be a challenge to argue:
“A women(sic) shouldn’t have to be modest to be respected.” @3rd_eye_tribe
“Nudity empowers some. Modesty empowers some. Different things empower different women, and it’s not your place to tell her which one it is.” @feministabulous
“When bodies are regularly seen in non-sexual situations, they become less sexualized than if only seen in porn/sex.” @freethenipple
“Men get raped. Kids get raped. Were THEIR tits showing too?” @kidd.bell
“In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team; they are the ball. – Anita Sarkeesian.” @lenadunham
“They’re boobs, not bombs.” @tiernan7
This isn’t just a movement for women, it’s for children too.
All the same arguments for laws protecting breastfeeding in public also apply to protecting a woman’s equal right to public toplessness. Many mothers with large breasts or areolas are regularly harassed because “too much is showing” when they nurse, even with the craftiest cover-up situation. Many mothers have easily distracted babies who pop on and off the breast as they nurse, causing enormous stress and anxiety as the mothers begin to feel like the scene of a crime.
I’m worried about the kind of culture my sons will grow up in — one that seems to push an idea about women’s bodies that is unfair, damaging, and reflecting a misogyny we should’ve by now long outgrown.
This law teaches boys and young men that women’s bodies are dangerous. Censurable. This encourages a negative association instead of a positive one — that women’s bodies are in fact powerful, nurturing, strong, life-bearing, deserving of respect.
But I can’t speak for everyone, so I’ll speak for myself.
I want the final say about whether my body is obscene (and I say it’s not).
I want to not feel fear if and when my top is off outside my own home. What would that be like? To whisk off clothing, without concern for my safety, without shame about immodesty, without worry of criticism, without needing to weigh the risk-to-benefit ratio of a misdemeanor on my record?
I want to not feel like I’ll get in trouble because part of my body is visible to those who stare long enough to decide they are distracted or uncomfortable enough to complain. (About part of my living body, the kind we all have, the one I spend all my minutes and days with, the kind that threatens no one).
I want to not feel as though a quietly nurturing, life-giving part of my body becomes immediately synonymous with a sexual tease the second it feels air in the presence of someone else.
And most relevant to my life right now, I want to not feel nervous when I must pull my shirt down in public to make a nipple available for my breastfed baby. When a social issue prevents babies from being fed on demand to thrive as nature intended, we have a problem. A big problem.
For more on this movement, read the other post I wrote about it last year: “What You Need To Understand About ‘Free The Nipple'”