Since as early as 1914, women have been stripping to their bare breasts as a form of protest against social ills. Such protests gain a certain infamy among some groups, though many see it as exercising their right to free speech. While FEMEN's recent displays of topless protesting have gained attention for the radical feminist movement in Ukraine and the Middle East, the practice is still frowned upon by society at large. This must change.
Nudity is often assigned a sexual connotation in the United States, and those who practice social nudity are seen as immoral or offensive to those around them. But what many do not know is that some cities and states' indecent exposure laws rightly allow women to be topless wherever men are allowed the same comfort. One of the most popular of these is New York City, where women often take the opportunity to exercise their right to bare their breasts.
In 1986, seven women were arrested in Rochester, NY for breaking a law that prohibited women from showing "that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola." They argued that a law of this kind would never be written for men, and ended up winning their case in 1992 and getting the law changed.
NYC's 2012 "GoTopless Day" featured two dozen topless women trying to draw attention to the inequality between male and female toplessness. They argued that it is unconstitutional for states to create anti-female toplessness laws while men are not restricted similarly.
"We say there is nothing wrong with the female nipple," said Karen Heaven, an organizer of the event. "My dog has six, I have two, but I can be put in jail for showing my nipples. It's 2012 — what are we thinking?"
GoTopless Day began in 2007 and always falls around August 26, Women's Equality Day in the United States. It was on this day in 1920 that women gained the right to vote, and in 1971 Congress made it a national holiday.
Obviously these events attract a lot of attention. People often flock to them to see several semi-nude women in public, if not to support their message. As it stands, women seem to be using this to their advantage, especially FEMEN.
"I don't think if we did it with clothes on, people would pay attention to the message — it gets more attention if were are semi-nude," said Meriam, a Tunisian member of FEMEN living in Paris.
The women participating in NYC's GoTopless Day certainly had many fans. Many people, mostly men, took photos of them on their cameras and cell phones.
"I'll show these [photos] to a few friends and then delete them after a few days," said Rudy Sison, who had visited the park where the event took place. "They're topless."
While it is comforting to know people like Sison don't mind that the women were semi-nude, the reason for all the attention is still somewhat troubling. We have sexualized and censored the female breast to the point of gawkiness, to where people are stunned — if not happily so — if a woman is walking around topless. You just don't see the same kind of reaction when a man walks around without a shirt.
It feels like the cause doesn't attract the attention it should, right? While people are all too happy to stop, comment, and take photos of topless women, they express little interest in the inequality itself. Moira Johnson found out why when she walked around NYC topless in July.
"Isn't that already legal?" a man asked her in Union Square.
Of course it is. But there are also already laws in place to prevent sex discrimination in places from school to the workplace and beyond — yet women are still paid less than men, charged more for health insurance, and stereotyped beyond belief when they want to do totally legal things like run for President, become an engineer, or be their family's sole breadwinner. Just because women can do some of the same things as men doesn't mean it's allowed.
So protest on, topless ladies. Protest, protest, protest, until we don't have to worry about standing out because people finally see us as equal humans.