Public Shirtlessness: The Next Feminist Frontier?

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In the midst of one of the hottest NYC summers on record, it seems folks in 2010 are revisiting the age-old question: should women be allowed- both legally and socially-  to remove their shirts in public, as men are?

This is a particularly popular topic these days. Jezebel has been tracking the “Go Topless” Equality movement in LA, where more than 200 people showed up over the weekend to protest gender inequality in laws about public nudity and toplessness. (They also expose some of the sketchy origins of this movement).

And women aren’t the only ones pushing for new norms in the realm of toplessness.

This LA Times article explores the phenomenon of the “bang ye” — or exposing grandfathers, Chinese men who raise their shirts in an attempt to stay cool. According to the paper, “the practice is increasingly considered rude” but is still on the rise.

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While it may not seem like the most pressing feminist issue of our day, I have to wonder if it’s small things like these where big gains can be made. How many of us haven’t felt a tinge of jealousy on a hot summer day when our male companions can take off their shirts to cool down without being automatically sexualized or scorned (or arrested!)?

As Kate Kelleher over at Jezebel puts it:

“…we do believe making bare breasts legal is an important step toward stopping the unnecessary and seemingly inescapable sexualization of the public female form. There is nothing obscene about boobs, and there is nothing that makes our nipples any more offensive than men’s.”

Word. But is this a fight worth fighting? Is it a semantics battle or one that would represent an important gain? And does the movement for equal rights to toplessness ignore fundamental differences in the male and female bodies that require some sort of legal and social acknowledgement?

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17 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    “How many of us haven’t felt a tinge of jealousy on a hot summer day when our male companions can take off their shirts to cool down without being automatically sexualized or scorned (or arrested!)?”

    I think you hit the nail on the head there. The problem isn’t fundamentally just about breasts. It’s about the fact that the female body is sexualized in a way that the male body is not. Breasts are part of that, and an important part. So is the catcalling women experience when they’re outside. Or the vast differences in the way advertising portrays men and women.

    • Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      I agree.
      I think the problem goes much further than legalizing toplessness for women. I live in Canada, and this has been legal for a number of years. The thing is, the catcalling, name calling, leers, shouting, etc. don’t necessarily stop when toplessness is allowed. I have never walked around publicly topless myself for the sole reason that I’d feel massively uncomfortable with the amount of attention – whether flagrantly negative, or negative disguised as “compliments” – that I’d get from passers by. I feel like until there’s more public awareness of the reason WHY women should be able to go topless, and until there’s a more widespread and general understanding that street harassment is unacceptable, women will have a really hard time taking advantage of being able to wear – or not wear – what they want.

    • Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Think of how much easier it would be to breastfeed in public if women could go topless. But I think the bottom line in the cultural taboo of female toplessness is that covered breasts sexualizes them, or rather, makes them an object for others’ sexual pleasure. I think allowing women to go topless could allow breasts the same freedom that our necks or ears enjoy. These body parts are not sexual until we make them sexual through engaging in an act that brings US pleasure, and hence, gives us control. I really think the cultural taboo against female toplessness is about preserving patriarchal privilege over female bodies.

  2. Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It is my understand is that there’s a law on the books that literally states that woman can be topless in public, provided that it is part of a protest. It’s a very open-ended law on purpose, but makes me wonder if being topless for any reason is its own form of protest.

    • Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Oops, I forgot to mention where. It’s in Portland, Oregon.

  3. Posted August 24, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I find the argument ‘fundamental differences in male and female biology require some sort of legal and social acknowledgment’ a little scary here because it is exactly the same reasoning that anti-feminists use to justify every other kind of sexism these days.

  4. Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    i cant say that taking off a shirt might be cooler (at least where i live it actually a little bit cooler to wear a loose thin long sleeve shirt than allow exposed skin to be nuked by the sun’s rays). i run around in tank tops, light colours and thin material as much as possible from may to october.

    that said, gender equality in the law regarding above the waist nudity would help bolster the legal support for breastfeeding in public – not only do women have the right to nurse in public without risk of exposure or indecency laws, they would also be legally allowed to be nude above the waist without a child attached to the boob.

    in theory at least. i believe women have the right to be shirtless in canada and there was that huge clusterfuck at dufferin grove hockey rink in 2004.

    http://dufferinpark.ca/editor/wiki/wiki.php?n=BreastfeedingAndHumanRightsEditorials.FrontPage

  5. Posted August 24, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    It is all about making sure women’s bodies remain shameful things that need to be controlled.
    Women have shameful nipples, men just have nipples. Any differences don’t matter, because there’s way too much overlap between the sexes. For example, if I watch a documentary on Discovery Health about a man with gynecomastia, his breasts are not blurred even though they’d be indistinguishable from those of a woman.

    Also, going back to Discovery Health, they have documentaries on transmen as they progress through their transition. Unlike the cis man mentioned above, their nipples are blurred until they undergo mastectomies, then POOF! it’s ok to unblur the nipples. The implication is that they are not men, no matter what they say, until they reach that point in transition.

  6. Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I would love to live in a world where everyone could see boobs around in all their different shapes and sizes…maybe them women could spend less time worrying about whether their breasts are “normal.” breasts are sexy, I don’t think it’s possible (or necessarily desirable) to completely desexualize them. But shirtless men aren’t completely devoid of sexuality either. And, for anyone of any gender, there are other reasons besides looking sexy to take your top off.

  7. Posted August 24, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m all for legal equality regarding public toplessness. I’m sure there are plenty of straight guys who would also be for it, but i’m not sure if they would be for it because of equality or because they just want to see topless women walking down the street, even if they say its because they believe in equality.

  8. Posted August 24, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with sunset’s comment above. Unfortunately breasts — although only evolutionarily seen as just a means of nourishment — have been socialized at least in the U.S. to have extremely sexual connotations and implications. Young boys and girls grow up with an idea that breasts are a sex symbol, to the point where girls with big breasts (I would argue) are also taken less seriously in media depictions and everyday society as well. While striving for equality, feminism should not overlook the obvious sociological differences that would have to be overcome for shirtlessness for girls to occur. Again, the issue of street harrassment, sexual assault, and the woman’s own personal safety is unfortunately compromised. Shouldn’t be –but inevitably IS. And obviously this is not to victim-blame or say men can’t control themselves but to point out the obvious–some people simply will choose NOT to control themselves. I think before proposing public shirtlessness as a legal right for women, we would actually have to address and challenge the underlying depictions of women’s bodies and what they connote to the rest of society. Another question to consider is–do we want the connotation to change? Do we want breasts to become sexless objects of nourishment meant only for babies? Or do we want them to remain an enjoyable part of the sexual experience? Women too also benefit in some ways from the sexual connotations of breasts. Just sayin’.

    • Posted August 24, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      I disagree that allowing women to go shirtless in public would render breasts “sexless”. For example, I find men with muscular shoulders and arms to be extremely attractive, but I can still acknowledge that the primary purpose of those muscles is lifting things, not being a lust object — and I certainly don’t believe in mandating that men wear long sleeves just to keep women (or maybe just me) from being whipped into a frenzy from sexual arousal.

      Or how about hair? In many, if not most, cultures, including our own (assuming a primarily Western/American Feministing readership), hair is a significant part of a woman’s sex appeal. In some places in the world, it’s so sexualized that covering it up is mandatory or nearly so. Despite the fact that the US and Western Europe are not among those places, hair is still a part of sexuality, and women don’t generally get catcalled or harassed just for having their heads uncovered.

  9. Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s crazy how a woman’s breasts are considered sexual all the time, no exceptions; so much so that a woman breastfeeding can get shamed in public even though it’s not the same as walking down the street topless( especially since they usually keep themselves covered as much as possible.) but as far as walking around shirtless, i think both men and women should stay covered because i just find inappropriate, but it’s inappropriate for men as much as women in my opinion.

  10. Posted August 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m really glad to see that you’ve addressed the distinction between social and legal allowance. Here in Ontario, women have been allowed to go topless since I was a little kid – I can’t remember the year offhand, but it’s been a good 15 years or so. And how many times have I seen a woman walk topless down the street here in this province where I’ve lived my entire life?

    Zero. Not once. To put this in perspective, this has been the hottest summer I can remember in my hometown, and I still don’t think I’ve seen a single woman wearing even just a bra (besides the occasional runner in a sports bra). So sure, we have the legal protections to let the twins hang out, but it’s a long way before it becomes socially acceptable to do so.

  11. Posted August 24, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    …I’ve seen plenty of topless women on the beach this summer, actually. Maybe it’s an European thing (I’m a Dutchwoman), but it doesn’t seem like anyone really cares around these parts…. I remember everyone I know being completely baffled about the whole Janet-Jackson’s-boob at the Superbowl implosion a few years ago, by the way.
    It’s true that being topless in town would generally be frowned upon, though- but that’s the same for guys. I used to be a supermarket cashier; we’ve actually asked shirtless guys to leave the store, as it’s inappropriate.

  12. Posted August 24, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Here in New York it’s already legal for women to be topless, thanks to a court ruling in 1992. The only times I’ve seen women do so has been at Dyke Marches & Pride parades, and at clothing-optional beaches on Fire Island. There’s certainly more that needs to be done to make it socially acceptable, but legalizing it is a good step.

  13. Posted August 25, 2010 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    It is unfair that men are allowed to walk around topless and women aren’t- when the only difference between topless men and women is the amount of fat and tissue stored underneath their nipples. Nudity is classed as female nipple not male nipple. Porn magazines can be publically shelved as long as any nipple on the front cover is obscured. Why should a female nipple which is exactly the same as a males, be sexualised and the other not. Once you look at the facts it really does seem stupid doesn’t it.
    I don’t think the problem lies with it being illegal. The illegality of it is not the thing that’s making breasts sexual. If it was made legal then breasts wouldn’t suddenly stop being seen as sexual things. That’s why making it legal isn’t going to change anything – all that will happen and all that has already happened in places it has been legalised, is that the women have been looked at sexually and objectified because men will still see them as objects related to sex, then will still lust over them and still masturbate over them (to be completely frank). I would not want to go out topless on a hot day knowing that I was being used as a sexual object like that. Julie Bindel on the guardian.co.uk site says:
    Many men support GoTopless, but not all because they believe in equal rights. A number were seen on the protest ogling the topless women and taking photos and film footage on mobile phones. Something tells me that “get your tits out for equal rights” will never become a feminist mantra. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/aug/24/go-topless-day-demonstration)
    “How many of us haven’t felt a tinge of jealousy on a hot summer day when our male companions can take off their shirts to cool down without being automatically sexualized or scorned (or arrested!)?” The legal status of revealing breasts is not what sexualises it. The problem lies in what we are taught about breasts. In our culture they are almost regarded as genitals because they are treated as sexual body parts even though they are not. In popular media, films for example, “nudity” classification warnings almost entirely mean female nudity, especially of the breasts. Male nudity is very rarely seen because male nudity = penis and we very rarely get to see genitals on screen. The sexy scenes in films are almost always of women and almost always their breasts. There is no male equivalent of the breasts though – the nearest thing I can think of to compare is testicles and that doesn’t quite work.
    If legalising female toplessness made the sexual connotations of breasts disappear to their rightful status of the equivalent of male nipples, existing solely for the purpose of nourishment and reproduction – then I’d be all for it. I can’t see it changing anyone’s minds though, all I can see it doing is causing more objectification and damage to women.

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