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The Right to Bare Breasts

Must we police women's bodies?

It’s Hot.

So take off all your clothes, or at least the ones you can legally lose in public. A shirt perhaps? As long as you’re not dining at the Four Seasons, go for it! Guys in New York City do it all the time! And gals? Well…

Last summer – which rivaled this one in its Al-Gore-foreshadowed, end-of-times heat – I was walking on a Manhattan street when I noticed a naked back ahead of me. It appeared to be that of a petite, professional woman. Her shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair was neatly cut and styled. She wore Capri pants, flats, and a small purse over her left shoulder. But unless there were seashells or pasties on the other side, she was completely topless—a fact that the hateful looks of passers-by from the other direction seemed to confirm. Now, the day was a scorcher. “Doffing the top is logical,” I thought. “But is it legal?” I didn’t know. I also didn’t know why I cared.

Come to think of it, why did anyone care? The man with the disdainful eyebrows, or the giggling gaggle of teens, or the woman of the hand-on-hip-superiority, dangling cigarette, and grave eyes? No one could fathom the woman’s shirtlessness as a right and/or choice, so instead we all indulged in aggravated confusion. Did she have a costume malfunction on the way to work? (Corporate casual from the waist down, after all.) Were we witnessing a meltdown? Was she insane?

Then I changed the channel from confusion to curiosity. Was she a performance artist? An activist, perhaps? “Maybe it’s legal,” I pondered, “and we’re all the fools!” Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Yup, with this last thought I was right.

Since 1992, it has been legal for women in New York state to bare their chest in public for non-commercial activity, just as it is for men. Nor is New York alone in this regard: several states have similar laws, and there is a demand for more to follow suit. (Go Topless Day--an annual protest seeking gender equality across the globe--took place earlier this week). Unfortunately, there are far too many people who are ignorant of this law – like me, last summer – and even more people who actively judge and even police women for exercising this right.

Not only did I learn about the law that day, but in under a minute on Google I also discovered the identity of my agitator-by-default—an activist named Moira Johnston. (Given the legality of bare breasts in New York, it's worth considering how quickly I found this one particular woman). After reading about Ms. Johnston online, I contacted her via email to pick her brain. She explained that she first chose to go “topfree” during a yoga class because:

“I simply wanted to exercise without a shirt. When other adults responded by complaining, I realized it is an issue that our culture may need to address. I made a choice to regularly demonstrate in public after that experience.”

When I asked Johnston why she thought people often react angrily to her as a topfree pedestrian, she said, “[i]t threatens their sense of the status quo, and is therefore intimidating.” Johnston also added there are many people who “view exposing the female body as an overtly sexual or flirtatious act” and are therefore threatened by it. Her observation poses an important question: would bare breasts be threatening to us if we hadn’t been conditioned to blame male sexual impulses on the female body, and thus brainwashed to fear female sexuality, since the dawn of time? On every continent, in every culture, and within every major religion? An online video interview with Johnston (which has since been taken down) exemplified this internalized demonization of the body female. While Johnston discusses her choice to be topfree in New York’s Union Square, several pedestrians abruptly approach her, including a woman who cries out, “Jesus don’t like that!”

Really? As a friend of mine quipped, “did Jesus not breast feed?” How did this woman know what Jesus likes? Why wouldn’t Jesus like the sight of a woman’s breasts? Was this irritated bystander implying that Jesus liked boys? Or does her statement imply something more complex than even she was aware, something we see in almost every religion that encourages women to cover their skin: namely, that women’s bodies are a malevolent, seductive disruption of male power? But if this was her point, how interesting – disturbing? – that a woman appointed herself the “breast police” while simultaneously, arguably, a victim of the same regime.

The impact of social power on all of our systems – religious, political, psychological – is easily overlooked. If people never challenged the status quo, women and African-Americans would still be disenfranchised, we would have no female rabbis or ministers, and homosexuality and transgender identifications would still be considered mental “disorders.” Yet despite these formerly controversial milestones that are very much today’s “normal,” we still cling tightly, and lazily, to other social norms in ways that unjustly police our neighbors, even within our own communities.

By doing so we also contribute to hate crimes, if only inadvertently. As President Obama recently pointed out in his famous impromptu speech on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, we remain in the dark if we fail to link common prejudice (nervously clutching a purse when a black man walks onto an elevator) to needless violence (Trayvon’s death). Parallel links can be made with a host of minority communities, including LGBT people and most certainly women. Too many times have we heard violent crimes against women explained by the words, "she asked for it." When we operate from a place of bias, rather than curiosity, we may unnecessarily, even egregiously, take “police work” into our own hands.

But change is on the horizon. After being arrested and detained for “indecent exposure” in May 2012, and repeatedly informing NYPD officers, in her own words, that “it is LEGAL for females to go topfree, just as males may do,” Moira Johnston filed action against the city for false arrest. Nine months later, in February 2013, Johnston reports that:

“The NYPD did send out a notice at ten consecutive roll calls to inform police that it is legal, and that topless females are not to be subject to punitive action if a crowd forms around them. It is a police officer’s duty to protect the topfree person and disperse the crowd accordingly.”

Can we all agree to send a copy of that memo to the police within us? Imagine a group of women enjoying the summer sun topfree in a public park. Undisturbed. No controversy. No activists, and no breast police. Just people enjoying the freedom they’re entitled to, and the rest of us focusing not on them, but on the option we have to do the same.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, L.C.S.W.

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