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On March 2, 1993, five women were arrested for committing an indecent act by being topless at a non-erotic rally in a public park. The judge who heard their case made history by ruling that their behavior was within the “community standard of tolerance”, which resulted in men and women being treated the same under the law (“Topless Women”). It was not until the 1930s that men could be bare-breasted in public, yet it is still unlawful for a woman to do so (“Topless Women”). Although men and women share the same anatomy when it comes to breasts, some people have strong arguments about why or why not a woman should have the same rights as a man to be topless in public.
“Free the Nipple” is a campaign that began in 2012 by Lina Esco. The campaign has sparked controversy throughout the nation, causing women to become activists that run topless through the streets of New York City. Esco came up with the campaign title because it is engaging and humorous, which provides the interest of people to have a serious discussion about gender equality. Gender equality is defined as the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender (Esco). Because men and women both have the basic human structure of an areola and nipple, it is said to be confusing why men are allowed to be topless in public, but women are not. An areola is the ring of pigmented skin surrounding the nipple (Esco). So, why are men able to go topless in public without consequence and women cannot, although they have the same body part? This is an example of the opposite of gender equality.
If toplessness was normalized, it may remove some of the cultural power over women’s bodies and their sexuality. Esco states “Being topless is what we had to do to start a real dialogue about equality. This is not about being topless; this is about equality; it’s about having that choice” (Bussel). The campaign has its own Netflix documentary titled Free the Nipple. The film itself is not about nipples or running through the street bare-breasted, but equality and feminism. Men and women share the same anatomy when it comes to the nipple, yet women are sexualized and are to not show them because of our society today. Free the nipple is part of a larger mission to reclaim women’s bodies, sexuality, and safety at a time when that is all women know. To say that women should not have the same right as men to be topless is to put the burden of women’s rights and society’s well-being on women’s breasts. It is almost as if the public is simply too delicate to handle seeing nipples (Bussel).
The normalization of the nipple will take time, just like the normalization of men being topless and women showing their ankles. It was not until the 1930s that men publicly went around topless, and they fought in order to do so (Esco). If it became legal for women to show their nipples in public, some people believe that would result in all women running through the streets topless. Other people realize that is not the case, and that the law will simply provide the choice to do so. For decades, you have been able to pay to see women topless in porn videos and strip clubs. Yet it is still considered to be an act of indecency when the toplessness occurs in public. The act of indecency is defined as not conforming with generally accepted standards of behavior (Free the Nipple).
Believe it or not, there was a point in time when it was not socially acceptable for men to go about shirtless in public. In the late 1910s, it was a rule at public pools that men could not wear swimwear that clung too tightly to their body or exposed too much skin. Sometimes, skirts would even have to be put over the man’s swimtrunks in order for him to swim at the public pool. It was not long until actors in movies began to be shirtless, which led a movement for men off-screen to do the same. There were even petitions at local beaches of men going barechested in order for them to receive their right to go topless in public. New York was the first state to lift the ban, and many states followed after that. However, it was still deemed inappropriate for women’s nipples to be exposed because of how flesh is rendered, gendered, and moralized accordingly.
Those who object the freedom for women to bare their chests in public believe that it is simply not modest. They see women’s breasts as sexual objects, thus not to be shown to the public. Modesty is practiced by many women, religious and nonreligious, because they see it as having respect for themselves and their body. They do not believe that they should be visible to just anybody. Also, it is deemed as inappropriate to children who come across on a topless lady. Children learn from a young age that breasts are not to be shown on the streets, but in magazines and the internet… in private. If a family is out on vacation and their son screams “Look mommy!” while pointing to a topless women, it could be anything from awkward to embarrassing. Those who believe women should not publicly go about topless believe so because of modesty and for the sake of children.
Some are worried that the Free the Nipple campaign is defeating gender equality by encouraging women to be objectified as sexual objects. Issues such as wage inequality and the lack of paid maternity leave seem to be more important than the choice to bare your nipples in public (Milano). While this campaign takes a direct stand for feminism, it might not get the complete, or correct, message across to the people witnessing. Arguments about how breasts have a purpose in women’s sexuality range from yes to no, only regarding the context of how the women is intending them to be shown. It has been said by Alyssa Milano, an actor and breast-feeding advocate, that it would be difficult to teach her son not to objectify a woman’s body but to respect and appreciate it (Milano). That being said, the campaign could be defeating gender equality by being objectified as sexual objects in some peoples eyes.
The right to be topless does not have to be about a larger cause. The bare facts should be enough to have the choice. The entire campaign itself has inspired projects such as bikini tops with nipples on them (Bussel). This gives women the look and feel or being topless while still be technically clothed. These projects have been deemed as inappropriate, despite the fact that they are still actual items of clothing. There is a difference between the actresses in the film Free the Nipple striding confidently down the streets of New York City, and the way breasts are often used in advertising (Free the Nipple). The actresses are baring their chests for a legitimate cause, while advertisement is used to attract customers. By normalizing toplessness, the cultural power that dictates women’s breasts can only be sex symbols is being destroyed completely. The kind of thinking that correlates topless women as sex symbols is shown by the schools that ban visible bra straps (Bussel).
Breastfeeding is a separate but related issue where breasts have come under indecency. Breastfeeding in public or posting photos of breastfeeding exposes the problematic assumptions that women’s breasts should not be seen. Progress has been made in the world of social media dealing with this issue. There have been instances where a person posts a photo and it is taken down because of a nipple showing, but once brought to the media’s attention, they put it back up if it is within their guidelines (Bussel). Breasts are used to feed other human beings, yet it is not tolerable in some places and even by some people for it to occur in public (Bussel). At a nurse-in to protest a London department store, Claridge, which had told a mother to cover up while breastfeeding, one woman carried a sign that read, “That’s what breasts are for, stupid” (Bussel). Arguments have been made that breastfeeding is not what all breasts are for, but whatever a woman wants to do with them (Milano). Breasts should not be glorified in order to have respect gained for them.
While some believe breastfeeding in public is not a big deal, others feel quite the opposite. Breastfeeding is still exposing the breast, whether it is feeding a child or not. For some reason or another, breastfeeding in public tends to make some people uncomfortable. Whether it is the milk itself or the bare breast, it could potentially cause somebody to feel the need to leave because they just feel uneasy. Anti-breastfeeding advocates are not against public breastfeeding for themselves, but for protection. If a man sees breasts as sexual, it might make him feel uncomfortable to have a baby thrown into the mix and immediately want to protect that child and that mother from their own awkward thought (Milano).
Today, most women continue to do what is lawful for them to do regarding the exposure of their bare chests. Thirty-three states allow women to go topless in public, while the other seventeen have strict laws regarding the toplessness of women. All in all, the normalization of toplessness among women will take time, just as much as it took for men. Laws have changed overtime regarding the exposure of men topless and women showing their ankles, and we look back on that and laugh. Maybe someday, we will be able to do the same when it comes to women being able to be topless in public and have the same rights as men.
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