Moira Johnston hits the streets of New York topless. Photo by Atisha Paulson http://atisha.tumblr.com/
If you’ve ever been to New York in the summer, you’ll know the meaning of “hot and bothered”. As the temperatures climb towards 40, the pavement radiates great whorls of heat haze, and car and air-con exhausts clog the air, it’s unbearable. As your bra becomes a puddle and your outfit affects all the fashionable insouciance of a used Wettex, you may find yourself longing to tear your top off - as many men do in such weather - and feel the breeze.
Which is precisely what one woman has been doing during the current east coast heat wave, because it’s perfectly legal to do so. "I'm going topless today,” she told racked (NB: assume most of these links feature bare bosoms if you’re at work). “It's to raise awareness that's it's legal for woman to be topless anywhere a guy can be without a shirt since 1992 here in New York State."
Jamie Peck from TheGloss gave it a whirl and spent a day in Central Park, sans top. At the end of her day out, it seemed the “somebody think of the children!” brigade were the only objectors: “Personally, I think that viewing a bare breast as inherently sexual and hence corrupting of innocence is silly; I’d much rather my hypothetical kid see women of all shapes enjoying the outdoors and being comfortable with their bodies than, say, two fully clothed people dry humping on a bench.”
There are loads of other examples, ranging from the “Topfreedom” movement - which pursues, rightly, the gender equality inherent in women and girls being able to go topless where men and boys can be bare-chested - to other cities and towns where it’s legal for women to go topless in public (even if fellow citizens don’t realise it).
And, predictably, any time the idea of women being topless in a mundane context is raised, the message comes through loud and clear: cover up, love, that’s a bit offensive.
(The ‘breastfeeding in public’ debate intersects with the toplessness issue, since both are arguably natural activities that have somehow become scandalised and offensive, though that’s another whole article in itself.)
We live in an enlightened age (or so we’re told): why do we still treat bare breasts as such objects of scandal?
I must admit it’s always puzzled me. Growing up, as I did, in the ‘80s, my template for adult womanhood was that it was perfectly natural - nay, expected - to whip ‘em out in summer. We’d turn up to the beach, three or four families or so, stake out a spot, and then the mums and aunts and friends would roll their one-pieces down and pour on the Reef. Consequently my approach to beachgoing is similarly au naturel.
Now, I understand that the beach is an imperfect example - after all, there are plenty of topless beaches (if not totally “clothing optional”; Victoria has four, officially) around. But think about all the times your bikini top has turned into an intricate Japanese rope knot when you emerge from beneath a wave: the shame, the embarrassment, the dip below the water to shove everything back into place... Wouldn’t it be easier if, like dudes, we didn’t have to worry?
Think also of the time you realised - probably around seven or eight - that your days of frolicking “topless” on the beach with your friends were drawing to a close. (I expect that these days, with stores stocked with “baby bras” and bikinis for toddlers, that moment comes a lot faster.) The message, even if we didn’t comprehend it at that age, is that breasts are something that must be covered.
And for what reason? Because men will go crazy with lust? Because breasts are offensive? Because children will be traumatised? They’re the three excuses usually trotted out, and I’ve copped variations on all of them when I take my top off at the beach. I usually just respond with a raised eyebrow and a withering sneer, as I refuse to accept that my naked rack is any different to the chest of the bloke two towels across.
Decriers of ‘equal toplessness rights’ usually whine things like “Well, I guess I’ll walk around with no pants on, then” or, hysterically (and this is a quote, from the comments on Peck’s Gloss piece), “I’m going to go show my dick to a bunch of kids at the park (get your minds out of the gutter, there is nothing inherently sexual about a man’s naked penis!). When i get back, everybody tell me how brave and progressive I am.”
Depressingly, it all comes back to the fact that women’s bodies are inherently sexualised, whether we like it or not. Amanda Hess put it well in a piece she wrote about “acceptable” amounts of cleavage: “[B]ecause my breasts are smaller, less visible, less imposing than other women's breasts—because there's less boob there—I can feel free to wear the more revealing top without attracting claims of public obscenity. It seems that some women's bodies are just naturally sluttier than other women's bodies—and all women's bodies are naturally sluttier than men's bodies.”
Once again it falls to the younger generation to give me hope that this ridiculousness might one day fall by the wayside. On blog platform Tumblr, a bunch of slut-shaming posts circulated that instructed “girls” that “your boobs go inside your top” (as a response, presumably, to young women who choose to take topless or nude photos, or wear revealing clothing).
In response, one young woman made her own “hey girls” post, that reads, “Hey girls, did you know that your boobs are just masses of fatty tissue and muscle that happen to be able to sustain another human’s life, be stimulated for orgasm, are squishy, and not covering them has no effect on your level of self-respect or how you deserve to be treated?”
I’m going to think of that next time I get the urge to tear off my t-shirt in the sweltering New York summer.