A History of Topless Protests (And Why They Matter)

Actress turned activist Scout Willis is waging a campaign to #FreeTheNipple on Instagram. The daughter of Bruce and Demi posted a photo that contained two topless women imprinted on a jacket, and the photo-sharing site took it upon themselves to delete it and deactivate her account.Instagram clearly states in their Terms of Service that nude and partially nude photos are a no-no.Willis then created a new account and began purposefully uploading photos of topless women. She also took to the streets of New York sans top and posted the photos to Twitter, writing “Legal in NYC but not on Instagram”.

I am not a naked person. In a gym locker room, you will find me wearing two towels at all times – one around my chest and one around my waist. I am fully aware I am drawing more attention to myself by covering my every inch in terry cloth, but my body, my bid’ness.

So it may surprise you to hear that I am all for women having the right to be totally, completely topless in public.

Hear me out: there are some times when I think being topless — male or female — is completely inappropriate, like at a formal wedding or job interview. I also don’t want to sit next to a topless person when I’m eating a fancy meal. So while I am not a fan of people going topless willy-nilly, I’m an even smaller fan of a man having rights that I don’t.

In the early 1900’s it was considered indecent for both men and women to be topless in the United States. Even men wore bathing suits that covered their chest, some with sleeves. But men started fighting for their rights to toplessness in the 1930’s, gaining the legal right in 1936 in the state of New York when the Park Commission’s office (which supplied swimsuits) realized it was cheaper to provide trunks only.

Women were able to gain very little ground in the nudity front by the 1950’s with the rise of the bikini, and its slow evolution through pop culture thanks to icons like Bridget Bardot. Brian Hyland’s hit “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” in the 1960’s put bikini sales through the roof and helped solidify their acceptance. In the coming years, we would see more instances of mainstream bombshells like Marilyn Monroe wearing modest bikinis in film, but bikinis nonetheless. By then, men in some states had the right to be topless for over thirty years.

By 1986, women had had it up to their nips with the gender bias and began protesting the right to bare breasts. It took until 1992 for women to be afforded the right in the State of New York. That’s not to say that women have enjoyed airing out the girls without consequence. Despite the fact that it is completely legal, a topless woman named Pheonix Feely was arrested in 2005 for indecent exposure. (The state of New York later paid $29,000 in damages for wrongfully arresting her.)

Feely found herself in trouble again in 2011 after being fined for being topless on a New Jersey beach. She was later imprisoned for refusing to pay her fines, and spent 9 days in jail in 2013.

In 2008, we saw the Ukrainian group FEMEN begin international topless protests to spread awareness of sexual tourism, sexism, and other issues. Many of their protests end in arrest, but they’ve seen some success, like a 2012 Ontario victory which removed “indecent attire at the beach” from their city code.

It is currently legal in 33 states to be topless, but some cities in those states have passed unconstitutional ordinances which override the state laws, meaning you can still be arrested in those cities for being topless.

To think that legal toplessness was once also an issue for men that was overcome relatively quickly (well, relative to women) is important. It shows there was once a majority of people that opposed anyone’s right to be topless, but men were able to band together and secure the right for themselves. The GoTopless Movement is a group of women who are advocating for the same constitutional right as men. At the core of this issue are misogynistic ideas that are influencing the law. Ideas that favor men and set a precedent that women can’t have the same rights as men, because boobs.

We can all support toplessness even if we chose not to bare our tatas. You can sign a petition here, or write a blog (HI!) that states your support. You might think you don’t need the right to run your errands topless, like Scout Willis’ recent protest. But we cannot accept laws that grant rights, no matter how small, to one gender group and not the other. So bare those boobies ladies (and gents!), just don’t forget the sunblock.

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