The Free the Nipple campaign has spurred a cacophony of reactions online.
I’ve been mulling this over for a good few weeks.
While most of us can agree that the issue of “equal rights” is what’s most important, opinion is divided as to whether the right to bare breasts and nipples is truly going to make a positive difference.
I originally had chosen an image to show above that showed a topless woman on someone’s shoulders at a concert. She was surrounded by men who were looking at her with happy expressions. The image brought to my mind: Is this music event one that evokes actions of rebellion to the status quo? If so, how amazing is that? Who is the man on whose shoulders the topless lady sits? A partner perhaps?
He seems quite happy to support her decision.
Is she a free spirit as a rule? What prompted her to remove her shirt?
What should I make of the reactions of the men in her circle? Are they leering? Is their reaction creepy or supportive?
Toplessness in women is still a profoundly powerful subject.
Nudity has been, and still is, a source of religious controversy, a political quandary, a question of propriety. And not just on the internet where nudity has become the hot potato to pass around until we either give up or stand up to a powerful social media icon—it’s a topic for all layers of society.
We’re addicts of nudity in the West and beyond; the forbidden is incredibly attractive.
Polling some men and women recently, I was not entirely surprised that the majority of men were in favor of toplessness and nipple freedom while the majority of women were not.
The issue has extended far beyond whether it should be allowed through social media, it has expanded to whether we should allow the exposure of female nipples anywhere. (Barring Europe, where we have been civilly and happily naked for many years on beaches and in advertisements.)
The women I spoke to just could not see how it would benefit society to have this freedom, and while they agreed on the equal rights issue, they disagreed on the acting out of the right, and therefore thought it best to leave things were they lay.
The most cited objections were; protection of their children from visual stimuli, objectifying of women’s breasts, and safety of women should they decide on exercising their rights.
Here in Ontario, Canada, women are allowed to appear topless in public places.
Personally, I’ve always been against the double standard favoring men on this issue, and love skinny dipping, topless sunbathing, and gardening in the nude; but mostly, I remain clothed even though my provincial government has deemed it my right to bare breasts in public.
Let’s face it: female nipples, as practically or philosophically as we would view them, are attached to breasts, which for the most part, within the human psyche, are all about the sex. Just as children in their innocence, do not view nudity as “bad” until we teach them that, adults tend to associate female nipples with an erotic image.
It might take some dynamite to wedge that association from (most of) our brains.
I don’t see too many Ontario girls topless in public. No matter how legal it is, both men and women are likely to view this as something overtly sexual in nature rather than an expression of freedom.
The same goes for breastfeeding in public, which ridiculously many are still opposed to. It is undeniable that to be faced with harsh criticism for any kind of public baring of breasts or nipples is enough to keep us from doing it.
If I want to take up my legal right and sunbathe topless on an Ontario beach, I can do so, but should I, the area would clear, mothers towing their children away, men ogling, teenagers giggling.
Still, social human conditioning aside, there is no doubt that the altering of laws must precede our collective perception of what is or is not appropriate.
What I find interesting is that it is photographers, journalists and other artists banding together in open opposition to the restrictions placed upon their freedom of expression. They are pushing the envelope for all of us, and I am grateful for their courage. Their actions are and will continue to have a positive impact on the gender equality movement.
I see the Free the Nipple campaign as a beginning, the new frontier of the women’s rights movement.
So how did we change the laws in Ontario anyway? What brave soul championed the cause?
In 1991, toplessness as an indecent act was challenged by Gwen Jacob in Guelph, Ontario who removed her shirt on an exceptionally hot day and was charged with indecency. She was convicted, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal. This case determined that being topless is not indecent within the meaning of the Criminal Code.
However, it did not establish any constitutional right of equality.
This case subsequently led to the acquittal of women in British Columbia and Saskatchewan who faced similar charges. Each Province and Territory reserves its right to interpret the law as it pleases, however, the Ontario case has proved influential.
A 1992 poll showed that 62 percent of Canadians were opposed to women having top-freedom, with women being more likely to be opposed—which is about what I found in my informal poll.
In 1997, Linda Meyer, a top-free activist who appeared in a number of public venues topless went to a swimming pool in the bottom half of her bikini. Some parents complained and she was charged, but the judge in this case (Justice Holmes) voided the by law, stating:
“interalia+20  In R. v. Jacob, supra, a woman who walked bare-breasted on a city street and then reclined top-free on the front step to her home was acquitted on appeal of committing an indecent act. The Court found the baring of her breasts was not harmful to anyone. There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in her conduct. The Court noted anyone who was offended was not forced to look.”
“The fact that women still don’t choose to go topless is not the point,” said Judy Williams with the Vancouver-based Top-free Equal Rights Association, a group started in the wake of the R. v. Jacob legal battle.
“The whole point is we have the right to divest ourselves of our tops…it’s not a moral issue. It’s a civil rights issue,” said Williams. “If a woman is hot and wants to enjoy the sun all over, why is it that she can’t, while a man…can?”
To me, breasts and nipples to me transcend art. They represent the survival of the human race, they epitomize maternal comfort—and yes, they are part of our sexual experience.
Can we de-sexualize nipples and breasts? Can we post pictures of ourselves topless as an expression of our right to do so and demand that this action not be viewed as sexual in nature?
We can only control our intent. But I doubt that every eye will receive our intent for what it is.
Perhaps this is still about finding safety amongst men. Perhaps this is still about releasing religious dogmas about nudity as indecency. Perhaps this is about freeing women from their archetypical roles of mother, whore and saint?
Just as we hope that when we let our children run naked around the yard for the sheer thrill of it without them becoming prey, we also crave to see images of the breastfeeding mother for what it is: a profound expression of the beauty of nature, and to feel free to bask in the sun as men do without comments of indecency.
Will we reach a point where we are no longer ashamed of our bodies, will we shed the fig leaves and be allowed back into the Garden of Eden, where naked is not sin?
I don’t know. Time will tell. Our courage and our will to stand up to the powers that be will be our road to progress. In the meantime, let us see nakedness for what it is. Beauty. Art. Let us love what we are in our most uninhibited, most vulnerable state.
Let us honor our bodies for more than a vehicle for sexual expression. And at the same time, let us acknowledge that we are sexual beings, and that there is nothing wrong with that.
References and further reading:
The Canadian Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA) assists women in both Canada and the United States who are prosecuted for being topless in situations whereas men are not. It does not advocate toplessness, but promotes the concept of freedom of choice of the individual woman, and the de-sexualisation of breasts.
Wikipedia: Topfreedom in Canada
Author: Monika Carless
Editor: Renée Picard
Image: Wikimedia Commons