To promote acceptance of human bodies as inherently natural, innocuous, and not obscene, I’m proud to share this project celebrating Women’s Equality Day, Go Topless Day and the “Free The Nipple” movement.
By expressing this vision through art, we aim to encourage a change in societal and legal censorship norms to view bodies of women as truly equal to others.
If a woman wishes to feel the warm sun on her skin at the beach like her brother… to lay in the grass, babies grazing upon her chest while she picnics with her partner… to pop out of her home to retrieve something from her car without fussing to scramble for an appropriate ensemble… to garden in her yard without needing to keep the neighborly peace by donning a button-down… if she wishes to do these things, why can’t she?
On one level, because of the law. Did you know it’s illegal for women to be topless in public in 35 states, including while breastfeeding?
In a few states, women have a legal right to go topless in the same areas as men, but even those women cannot properly enjoy the freedom (rather an illusion of equality) when faced with risk of harassment and humiliation. Protection from this risk is a privilege men have enjoyed for a long time without even realizing it.
Men have legally been allowed to be topless in public since 1936, a freedom they too had to fight for in ways similar to today’s Go Topless movement. Gaining this legal freedom finally secured 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 or lawbreaking.
Why would someone wish to choose toplessness? Ask any man. He might say, “Look, sometimes the weather is unbearably hot.” Or he might describe a situation that warrants minimal clothing, like sunbathing, swimming, playing sports, wrapping up a tough gym session, or a morning of yardwork. (By the way, women do all of these things too).
In the same way Americans have the right to vote but not all use it, men have the option to go topless in most settings and the majority choose to wear shirts. We can assume they wore what they did (or didn’t) because they wanted to, for themselves, because they had a choice — not because they sought attention or were signaling invitation for sex.
Most men understand our society considers wearing a shirt (and shoes!) in various businesses, restaurants, and other establishments to be common courtesy, and some areas prohibit shirtlessness (“No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” — that sort of thing). We trust they will comply with this. When they don’t, they’re simply told to put on a shirt, refused service, and perhaps viewed as sloppy… instead of threatened with arrest for public nudity.
Jail time for indecent exposure is what a woman can expect for the same action. For women, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” applies virtually everywhere in America, not just areas denoted with this signage.
A man would have to fully expose his genitals in public to earn the same charge given to a woman who bares a nipple.
The Law Says Female Breasts Are Genitalia
It’s required by law (in all these US states/cities) to keep 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.”
The problem is, genitalia is comprised of reproductive organs. Breasts are not reproductive organs. They may surely nourish and sustain life, but do they create life? Are they involved in the reproductive process? No. Additionally, genitalia is a system for waste excretion. Do breasts excrete waste? No, they do not — for many bearers of breasts, they provide food, which is utterly the opposite.
It’s one thing for an individual to prefer not 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.
So that’s one thing… social norms are slow to crack, and feelings are valid. I’m all for owning the feelings and working through them. However, it’s quite another thing 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.”
It seems like by the turn of the century, our culture relinquished some important anatomical understanding to collective antiquity. Thankfully, the slow but steady re-normalization of breastfeeding helps to remind us of the facts.
Here’s a refresher: Nipples come in a vast array of types, shapes, sizes in both women and men. In fact, the makeup of both male and female breasts are basically the same, except that those of females are primed to produce milk, whereas male nipples typically aren’t.
Why is it that men at the gym, park, here and there, often walk around half dressed to mute response? In my gym, facility guidelines state a shirt is required for all members at all times. However this doesn’t stop men from stalking around shirtless, and they continue without reprimand.
Neither will a woman risk her safety and the blunt force of bruised male ego by telling him to cover the top half of his body; nor will another man because he’d prefer to safeguard the possibility of utilizing this right himself.
What about the same half of a woman’s body makes her ineligible for this male-exclusive right?
Don’t tell me it’s because women have “more chest,” because it’s simply not true. As we just recalled, many men have larger breasts than many women. It’s acceptable for a man with enlarged breasts to be topless, yet a topless woman with hardly any breast tissue is a scandal.
On that note, you might find the “Do I Have Boobs Now?” project pretty interesting. A trans activist documented her journey through hormone replacement therapy. At what point did her “chest” become “breast”? At what precise point in her transformation did her topless body’s public appearance tip the scales into chargeable crime territory?
When would you have taken notice?
How many men have you seen strolling into gas stations, riding bikes down the street, playing Frisbee in the park, and walking their dogs with their shirts off? It’s almost impossible to say, isn’t it, because we typically don’t even notice.
In fact, if we do notice and wish the sight out of view, what do we do? We take advantage of these things called eyes, of which most of us have a pair, and we avert them using the power of our brains (of which most of us have one and the rest of us…well…). When it comes to avoiding exposure to non-threatening displays of the human body, the eye-aversion mechanism is pretty amazing and it works every time!
That said, if you find yourself continuously and severely offended by the semi-exposed human form, I encourage you to practice absorbing its beauty in all stages, presentations, and contexts. How we see the world (and others) reflects how we see ourselves. This exercise in acceptance can heal personal wounds you never even knew existed. On that note…
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. Anyone may feel sexually turned on by a man’s uncovered body, so why does he get to go topless and a woman cannot?
Fear triggers a sweeping censor of the female body, 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. Women may also censor other women in an attempt to feel less threatened amid the landscape of body shaming, competition, and patriarchal promise of “the male protector.”
And then, it’s not really even female breast tissue that frightens our culture so — it’s female areolas. One may display a majority of cleavage in a low-cut top or bikini and receive not one bat of the eye, but the second a sliver of areola is exposed, someone is ready to pounce: “Cover up!,” “Inappropriate,” “Public indecency,” “Now we can see EVERYTHING.”
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 existence of the female body HURTS others?
Do we really fear that if women were “allowed” this equal right 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 on this front. Those Puritanical roots run deep and prudish, you know.
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 — how others will behave when she’s “allowed” a choice and then makes that choice herself, without defaulting to accommodation of others based on an 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 to 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’s bodies in their natural states as constitutionally obscene, but by expecting others to react as respectfully as they would to men in the same situation.
Censorship in Media
Why does a woman’s bare chest (or more specifically, areola) in film result in an automatic R rating, but a shirtless man is still PG?
Why are bare bottoms not considered graphic nudity on Instagram, but bare female breasts are?
Why does an image of a nude woman wearing nipple pasties NOT flag a social media ban, but the same woman without pasties does?
Why is the male nipple displayed without issue in social media advertisements (swimwear and fitness come to mind, but literally anything is game), yet the same platform considers a similar-looking nipple on a woman, in the same context, to be “graphic” and/or “sexually explicit”?
The sight of a female’s nipple is protected under law in real life in 15 states, but an image of a female’s nipple on social media or in distributed publication is censored virtually everywhere. Some platforms now offer a bit of “flexibility” for very specific contexts: such as paintings and other art mediums like drawings or cartoons, medical and educational images, those capturing a certain timeframe around childbirth, and breastfeeding as long as the child is actively latched.
How Censorship Affects Breastfeeding
At some point in a woman’s life, she may tasked with breastfeeding, which can at times feel too complicated and unnecessarily burdensome when baby and mom are separated by barriers of fabrics.
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 blossoming crime.
People need to see what female nipples are meant to be used for, not only seen oiled up and bouncing in music videos, selling beer, photoshopped in fashion magazines, and playing a role in “before & after” plastic surgery ads targeted toward adolescents.
Indeed, women are “allowed” (uh, thanks?…) to use breasts to feed and comfort their children in public. In some states it’s even specified that we can do so without a cover (again.. thanks?), and 11 states specify that breastfeeding in public is protected whether or not any part of the nipple is visible in the process of feeding.
Two states allow breastfeeding in public under the condition that the mother is “behaving” in a discreet and modest manner (a bit subjective, no?).
Several states make no mention in their codes about protection for breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Tennessee only protects mothers who nurse babies less than one year old in public. Basically, it’s possible for a woman nursing a 12.5 month old baby on a park bench, bothering no one, to be arrested for public indecency.
Riddle me this: how in the ever-loving hell is a male nipple shrugged off as perfectly family-friendly at a backyard barbecue when the nipples that actually grow, sustain, nourish children and multiply families get the scarlet letter treatment? Logic fails here.
“Free the Nipple” Is Not About Wanting To Walk Everywhere Nude
Oh, nudity and America. What a long and tortured history, a frenemy relationship if there ever was one. We’re already well aware of the hypersexed yet extremely sexually repressed state of most Americans, how nudity and sex are basically synonymous in the cultural mind. But this is no longer serving us (did it ever?). It’s time to unpack those bags and move forward, if not for personal growth then to manifest a more body-positive world for our children.
These laws don’t protect women, they oppress women and they coddle those who feel more comfortable in the company of disempowered women.
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. 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 to be treated like people instead of property or decoration.
It’s a call to end the stigma that makes women feel like their bodies are obscene, lawbreaking objects. Because we’re more than the sum of our body parts, including nipples that are seen or not seen.
Aren’t There “Other Things To Complain About?”
This movement generates important discussions about consent. Assault and rape. Equality. Body shaming. Body acceptance. Autonomy (“My body, my business”). Sexuality, sex, and sexism (not all the same thing). Respect. Biology. Gender identity.
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
The Future of the Female Body
This isn’t just a movement for women, it’s for children too.
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 shed long ago.
They’ll figure out what they think of women’s sexual appeal all on their own without a lick of input from anyone else. But it does a great disservice to future men to wash out the reality of natural womanhood and motherhood with pixelated breastfeeding nipples, the black bar treatment on nude women who aren’t professional pinups, and other forms of censorship.
The current laws teach boys and young men that women’s bodies are dangerous. Censurable. They encourage a negative association instead of the truth, the positive one: that women’s bodies are in fact powerful, nurturing, strong, life-bearing, deserving of respect.
Our sons will benefit from learning that there’s nothing to hide or invalidate out of repulsion, fear, and long-retained Puritanical brainwashing when it comes to normal functions of the female body.
Last but not least, how about our daughters? I don’t have a daughter, so I’ll speak for myself as one:
- 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.
Want to be supportive?
We cannot accept only part of a woman’s breast, only certain kinds of breasts, or only breasts in special circumstances, and then censor the rest as if they are so offensive we must make a point to exile them to a lifetime trapped under clothing. In an ideal world, all breasts would be deemed appropriate to see anywhere a man’s breasts would be.
To grow our culture away from shallow, objectifying, body shaming, ageist, sexist messages, there are a few things we must stop doing on a personal level. For example, please do not:
- Suggest that a woman should put on a bra
- Try to convince her that she should like a certain bra
- Require that a woman must wear a bra (including in workplaces)
- Tell a woman “your bra is showing” or “I can see your bra straps”
- Refer to a low-cut outfit as slutty, skanky, trashy, or “revealing”
- Remark that she’s too old for something she chose to wear
- Remark that she’s too young for something she chose to wear
- Say “That’s a little much”
- …”Your shirt is see-through”
- …”What are you trying to prove”
- …”Desperate for attention”
- …”There are children around for God’s sakes!”
- Teach girls some things are for “boys only”
- Think an attitude of accepting topless young women is progressive, when you exclude middle-aged+ topless women, who also have bodies worth protecting and celebrating
- Think an attitude of supporting topless, conventionally attractive women is empowering, when leaving no room to support those you don’t find sexually appealing
A Few Words From Our Models
“I firmly believe that a change in society, as regards to the issue of Women, of female empowerment, is beginning to give back the voice that had lost each of the Women. And that change that we are already noticing, that evolution is thanks to each one of the movements that advocate the freedom of the feminine body, of the feminine mind, of the feminine Being.
I am from Madrid, Europe, and I can feel the change in a global way, it is something international, something that is happening everywhere right now. We are in a moment in which the Woman has stopped giving shame to express that she is Feminist and now we can express it with pride. […]
For me to participate in this project is a way to give continuity to this path, to give it light and to return, as I said before, the voice to many Women who lost it. […] I want every woman to go without a bra without being considered obscene, dirty or an object of desire, a sexual object for the rest of society, to this day in 2019 that this happens is ridiculous and we must end it.” – Margarita, 31
“As a girl growing up, I was always told what to wear while boys were free to walk around however they want. I expected [it] to get better, when I [grew] up. But the more I [grew] up, the more the society cared what I am wearing more than what I am doing. As a female engineer working in different industries, I felt the judgement based on my appearance, or even just being a working woman all the time. Sexism and being objectified is a big issue for women. [A] few years ago I started [going braless] at all times, not only because they are uncomfortable but also as an [part of an] activist movement and realised at some point people got used to it.” – Meryem, 27
“I have also done an honors art class project called ‘Naked is Natural.’ It is about the oversexualization of bodies and how being nude actually benefits us, so this is something I am very passionate about. I am also pregnant (almost 6 months) and breasts are super important and should not be shamed. I want to help empower other women and keep myself motivated to praise my body and what it is creating inside of me to breastfeed for as long as I possibly can and to stand up to those who try to shame me.” – Sara, 21
“It’s important to me to show my support of other women. Our bodies aren’t something we should be ashamed of or have to defend. To stop sexualizing nipples and our bodies all the time. Maybe one day we can have photo shoots where we can free our nipples without having to paint them!” – Dawn, 44
“I’m doing a lot of personal work around bodily acceptance and embracing my body. I recent shared a scantily clad photo of myself on social media and it was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. And the responses I got from other women telling me how it impacted their own ability to love their bodies and help them on their paths just brought me to tears. As an activist, this sounds like such an incredible opportunity to stand for a cause I wholeheartedly believe it, move along my own path, and inspire others.” – India, 25
“I love the idea of ‘freeing the tits’ but more so of freeing-the-woman. I support the mission of the movement, because it emphasizes the things most women don’t want to say but we all agree.” – Jessica, 21
“I wanted to participate in this project because I wasn’t allowed to take off my shirt as a child when driving in an overheated car through Death Valley. Because I was harassed for public breastfeeding. Because I once considered surgery to feel more aesthetically acceptable, to feel more valued by others. Because I’ve had my bra straps ‘snapped’ by adolescent boys too many times to count. Because I was told as a child I couldn’t take off my shirt at the park, like the boys, and the explanation given was ‘some weirdos will look at you.’ Because I’ve been accused of stuffing my bra and ridiculed over the possibility. Because I went to an all-female inpatient rehab and they were strict about the rule that all patients MUST wear a bra AT ALL TIMES; this was sandwiched between safety and hygiene rules. Because underwire bras are marketed to prepubescent girls and displayed to young men as the expectation. Because as a child I watched other girls get shamed and called ‘disgusting’ by other girls, for not wearing a bra.. for wearing a training bra… for having large or small breasts… for inverted nipples… for nipples that pointed through shirts when it was cold. Because people of the opposite sex have cornered me in deserted school hallways to ram their hands under my shirt, without warning, consent or welcome, like they owned what’s underneath. Because my breasts have been AA and B and C and D cups and lopsided as often as symmetrical and affected in shape, color, and position by gravity, hormones and weight changes — yet somehow society finds a way to tell me, no matter what, these breasts of mine are wrong. Because I’ve been called a ‘brick wall’ by a relative, and countless other names by strangers. Because a male friend offered me a ‘safe space’ to crash, then groped my breasts while he thought I was sleeping. Because I am at risk of losing my social media accounts if I post an image showing a hairline pixel of areola, even in the context of breastfeeding, birth, everyday lifestyle, or art. Because I have chosen my clothing on the basis of avoiding arrest. Because I wore a low-cut shirt on the day I was assaulted and when I told someone, the first thing he questioned was my clothing. Because my breasts can bring me pleasure but I’m not allowed to say something so dirty and salacious. Because every woman I have ever known has at some point disliked her breasts. Because it’s more socially acceptable to describe my breasts with revulsion or hatred through complaints and comparisons than to openly LOVE them. Because I resent the learned feeling of simultaneous vulnerability and criminality when the sun hits the skin of my chest. Because my breasts keep changing, and will continue to do so, and it’s important that people understand women’s bodies are not static.” – Holly, 31