What I learned marching topless through New York City

I have always been a proponent of freeing the nipple, especially in the wake of Instagram’s stringent policing of the expression of women’s bodies. Nevertheless, when I read about New York’s topless march, I was exceedingly nervous about participating. I initially texted a bunch of my friends to take part in this parade of self expression with me, yet most of them echoed similar excuses: “my boobs are too pale; they’re too small; they’re lopsided; there’s this weird bunch of stray hairs I haven’t gotten rid of.” I didn’t think my boobs were that great either. 

Women and girls grow with the bitter irony of having to cover up at all times, while still seeing our bodies grossly sexualized in the media. For some women, the only breasts we’ve seen are our own and the perfect, perky doll boobs that have to be Photoshopped and airbrushed enough to make it to our screens. And because of that, we can’t help but think ours – in comparison – are too pale, too dark, too lopsided, too small or too big or too this or too that.

Yes, I was self-conscious, but I still went to the march, in part, to prove to myself that our bodies don’t have to adhere to a monolithic beauty standard.

When I reached the crowds of topless women and supportive topless men all gathered in Columbus Circle preparing for their 17-block walk to Bryant Park, I realized the only distance I’ve marched topless is about three feet—between my shower and my towel rack. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous.

Some women were proudly scribbling “go topless!” on each other’s bare chests and backs while others seemed a bit more uncomfortable with their toplessness. I knew I’d fit into the latter group once I mustered up the inordinate amount of courage it was taking to slide my dress straps to my waist and snap off my bra. Before I could do that, a man came up beside me and started rattling off pickup lines. I became even more hesitant to remove any article of clothing because, damn, I wasn’t here to give him what he came for, even though what he came for and the message I wanted to champion used the same medium: bare breasts.

Eventually, an older woman announced last-call for body paint, glitter, and stickers, and I thought, if I’m about to release my boobs out of their cloth cages I better make a large spectacle out of it. So I pulled down my dress straps, took off my bra and stashed it in my backpack. A girl cheered for me and unscrewed her bottle of glitter, dumping it on her hand, and blowing it on to my chest. Finally, I was ready to flaunt my bedazzled boobs for a cause I believed in. (Plus, you never forget the first time a gust of wind blows on a body part you’ve never felt wind on before.)

But as the parade went on, I was not completely rid of my timidity. I huddled close to a group of women who had traveled from Philadelphia to be part of the spectacle. We were only a few steps into the parade when photographers began swarming in and snapping away at our chests. I felt so uncomfortable that I made a grand move that in hindsight seems laughably counterintuitive: I held the end of a large “go topless!” banner and began furtively inching behind it.

I tried to discern between press-sanctioned photographers and garden-variety gawkers when a girl appeared from behind me and began shoving her phone into their camera lenses. She chided, “If you’re going to take our picture you should take off your shirt!” She was my ephemeral hero but also brought up an interesting byproduct of empowering toplessness.

A lot of people, especially those who don’t own boobs, are a little shocked and stirred by the novelty of this very blatant effort against societal standards, treating the many free nipples as their personal dosage of eye-candy. Yet the march was breaking down barriers and that persistence, I want to believe, would eventually evolve into acceptance.

I met a male protester, proudly sporting a pink bra, who told me: “I don’t want to live in a society where women are in any way lesser and subject to covering up while men don’t need to at all. So if people look at me and wonder why I’m wearing a pink bra, I’ll say, ‘why are you expecting women to cover up?’”

As the parade ended in a ripple of cheers, I realized how much this walk was about both equality and acceptance. It was about the right to self-love, the right to say, “my body, as well as everyone else’s, deserves to be celebrated in its natural form, no matter if our breasts are pale or dark, lopsided, saggy, perky, hairy, post-maternity, with pointy or flat nipples.”   

All in all, the march was a steadfast display of camaraderie and the championing of our bodies. Nobody judged or sneered, and I even made a few friends along the way—with my boobs hanging out. “This parade stands for a lot of beautiful things,” one participant told me as we reached the end of the march. I agreed.

Nikita Redkar is a freelance writer in New York City and a former intern for Fusion Network, where she wrote about diversity in pop culture and how it’s shifting the current landscape of racial and gender politics. When she’s not writing, she is taking classes in sketch comedy and cracking 140-character quips on her Twitter. She likes cute animal gifs and dislikes long walks on the beach, plagues, and other cliches.

[Image courtesy of author]