Topfreedom: The Debate with a Bust

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

     of June 21, 1934,
everything seemed normal at Coney Island in New York City.
The beach was crowded with men, women, and children dipping
into the water after a long day at work. Somewhere in this
scene, a group of men decided to remove their bathing tops and
perform calisthenics on the beach. The next day, The New York
Times reported the scandalous incident. This was the second
day in a row that men had refused to cover their chests in public.
The men were arrested and rushed to the county courthouse.
Fortunately, Magistrate William O’Dwyer saw nothing
wrong with shirtless men in the public sphere and released
them without penalty. To this day, the ease with which these
men earned the right to go topfree stands in stark contrast to
the efforts put forth by members of the opposite sex. For
instance, approximately sixty years later a woman went to jail
for going bare-breasted while hiking in an isolated area of the
Osceola National Forest. She was also forced to endure five
months on probation, fifty hours of community service, and
payment of $600 for various fines and fees. Canadian Evangeline
Gordon suffered a similar, if less extreme, fate in 1998 for
swimming topfree in a city swimming pool.At 64 years old, she
was deemed a “threat to society” and, therefore, forced to spend
two days in jail.
Clearly, most women in the United States and Canada have
yet to earn the same right that men earned back in 1934. (I say
“most women” because in several places including New York
State and the city of Moscow, Idaho, they have earned the right
to go topfree in public). In order to expose this long-overlooked
form of gender discrimination, feminists around the world
have joined the Topfreedom Movement which holds that
women should have the right to go without a top at any time or
place that men have this right. Topfree groups including The
Topfree Equal Rights Association, or TERA, and Topfreedom
USA are built around the tenets of liberal feminism aimed at
creating equality for men and women alike. In an effort to reappropriate
women’s bodies back to the women that physically
inhabit them, members avoid the connotation-laden and heavily
stigmatized label “topless” in favor of the term “topfree.”One
of the core beliefs in the Topfreedom Movement is the idea that
women should be able to choose whether to wear a shirt or to
go topfree at parks, swimming pools, and other informal areas.
Many female proponents of topfreedom,myself included, have
never (and may never) removed their shirts in a public setting.
Their goal is not to encourage or require women to remove
their shirts, but rather to provide women with the same opportunities
that men enjoy.
Topfreedom fighters are often asked why, in an age of international
terrorism, war in Iraq, AIDS, and poverty, their movement
is worthy of our attention? Yet perhaps the real question
we should be asking is why our country is devoting so many of
its resources to controlling women’s breasts when other issues
so desperately need attention? What does our society gain from
the regulation of women’s bodies? Before addressing this significant
question, it is important that we discuss the breast’s position
within modern society and the arguments currently keeping
it covered.
In North American culture, the female breast is over-laden
with contrasting and paradoxical meanings. The breast has consistently
played a central role in the perception of women as
divine idols, sexual deviants, consumers, mothers, citizens,
employees, and medical patients. It is both a symbol of the
scared role of motherhood and, at the same time, of the erotic.
For the most part, the status quo has been to treat women’s chests as inherently different from men’s chests
and therefore worthy of different treatment in
the public sphere.As a guest columnist for USA
Today argued in the July 6, 1989 edition of the
newspaper, “Bare-chested and bare-breasted
are not the same,” and should not be treated as
if they are the same. Others argue that allowing
women to be topfree in the public sphere will
lead to increased cases of sexual assault and will
be harmful for children. Yet women’s breasts
are not part of the human genitalia and, thus,
are sexual only in the way that a woman’s legs
or arms are sexual. Just as men are expected to
control themselves in the presence of women’s
legs, arms, and necks, they can also control
themselves in the presence of women’s breasts.
Similarly, given the fact that most babies are
initially nourished by breasts it is ridiculous to
claim that exposure to those same breasts is in
any way harmful to children. Advocates of the
status quo allege that topfreedom goes against
common courtesy and community standards,
but I fail to see how forcing a woman to
degrade herself and her child by breast-feeding
in a restroom or to expose her body only in
areas that profit from her exposure is anything
but an insult to a community.
This last argument touches on one of the
main reasons that modern society refuses to
relinquish control of the female breast. Our
society has produced a political economy of
the breast where the female body is sold as a
commodity. This profit-driven system
requires that women’s breasts be strictly regulated
and restricted to certain areas so that
they can be sold and exploited in magazines,
on television, and in various
adult establishments. If women
were allowed to have control
over their own bodies, covering
or uncovering their chests whenever
they pleased, certain consumer
markets would suffer
financial losses without this huge source of
revenue. If the general public was privy to the
reality of what the average female body actually
looks like, as opposed to the images of
glossed-over models and actresses that people
see so often in the media, perhaps our society
would appreciate women of different shapes
and sizes and begin to respect older women in
the same way that they currently respect older
men. If women were to view the truth about
themselves and the women around them, perhaps
they would stop worrying so much
about their supposedly inadequate appearances
and compete for the educational opportunities,
jobs, and privileges that their male
counterparts tend to take for granted.
Women’s health and overall well-being also
suffers in our current system. Requiring
women to cover their breasts in situations
where men are not required to
do so teaches women that their
bodies are unacceptable and
objects of which they should be
ashamed. Correspondingly,
topfreedom advocates argue that
when women are ashamed of
their breasts they are less likely to breast-feed
their children, perform breast self-examinations,
and get regular mammograms and
check ups from a physician. Fortunately, as
women develop the sense of bodily agency that
the Topfree Movement advocates, they will be
better equipped to avoid feelings of body
shame and be able to take care of themselves.
Surely there would be a marked decrease in the
number of cases of eating disorders, low selfesteem,
depression, and breast implant disasters
in a world where topfreedom is the norm
for both genders.
Ultimately, the Topfreedom Movement is
about exposing and deconstructing a cultural
assumption that has done much to make
women’s lives more difficult than need be. The
notion that women and men are equal and
therefore deserving of the same rights and
opportunities for choice is central to the tenets
of our democratic society. The laws that prohibit
women from taking off their shirts when
men are free to do so are not only discriminatory
but harmful to our entire social order.
With the Topfreedom Movement, American
women are finally approaching a level of
equality and liberation that has never been
available to them in the past.
For more information, visit these websites:
h t t p : / / w w w. t e r a . c a / i n d e x . h t m l ,
http://www. g e o c i t i e s . com/womens

Robin Jensen is a graduate student in the department of Speech
Communication. She studies issues pertaining to gender, social
justice, rhetoric, and visual communication.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.