A Revealing Q&A With a Toplessness Advocate

What Women Really Think
Sept. 27 2013 9:00 AM

A Revealing Q&A With a Toplessness Advocate

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No fair.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim 2014

It sounds like the tagline for a movie about pornstars turned reluctant superheroes: How far would you go for the right to expose your breasts in public? After refusing to pay the fines she incurred sunbathing on Spring Lake Beach, N.J., sans shirt, Phoenix Feeley, a 33-year-old woman from New Jersey, spent nine days in jail (and on a hunger strike). Feeley belongs to a group of activists called Go Topless, which, the Atlantic reports, “advocates for women’s right to go topless on the basis of gender equality.” The organization embodies one side of a fringe but fierce debate over whether female chests should be treated as legally identical to male chests. Their case: That lady breasts are no more (or less) inherently sensual than man breasts and thus no less (or more) appropriate to display on the street. Also, a woman’s freedom to undress on top should trump someone else’s discomfort at encountering her nude bosom.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

When I first read about Go Topless, I was skeptical. But then I talked to Nadine Gary, the organization’s spokesperson. Gary, who grew up in France (naturally), defrocked my culturally conditioned prejudices for what they were, letting each sexual double standard swing in the breeze. By the end of our 30-minute chat, I felt like a boob. A condensed (milk) version of the conversation is below.

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Slate: What is Go Topless?

Nadine Gary: We are a grassroots organization, founded in 2007, claiming women’s constitutional right to go topless in public. Men have that right. According to gender equality, what is due to one gender is due to the other, or it is due to neither.

Slate: Why do you want to demystify my breasts?

Gary: I don’t think I’m doing that.

Slate: Well, you’re unsexing them, right? You are reducing them from sex organs to the equivalent of a dude’s flat chest.

Gary: I’m not sure what you mean by sex organs, but breasts are not used for reproduction. The female reproductive organs are vaginas, ovaries, uteruses …

Slate: OK, but you don’t think female breasts are sexy?

Gary: Sure, I think they’re sexy. But male breasts can be appealing sexually, too. When I look at my husband’s chest, it’s quite sexually appealing. Males with beautiful chests—wow, they are very arousing. And there are nerves there. I just don’t think the “sexy” argument is valid. The same goes for the size of the chest. For men, when they get older, when they put on weight, they can have huge boobs. You see them around the swimming pool: They have quite a bit of tissue! And likewise, I have many girlfriends who are so flat. So amount of breast tissue doesn’t mean very much. If we are going to speak about tissue and size, we need to be very specific about how much tissue is allowed.

SlateWhat are the benefits of toplessness?

Gary: Why would it be desirable to cover your breasts? To me, it’s degrading. It makes me feel bad that I have to hide. I’m not protecting my breasts by hiding them. My freedom is taken away from me. Of course, if women don’t want to exercise their rights, they don’t have to. It’s like voting. Some women are very shy, very private. But just because they don’t want to exercise their right doesn’t mean mine should be taken away.

Slate:  What is the intent behind bans on female toplessness? Is it to protect women from being sexualized or to coddle conservative sensibilities?

Gary: Women’s bodies and sexualities have been repressed for ages. It has lifted a little bit: A hundred years ago, we could not show our ankles. Gradually, we came to show our knees, then our thighs. Now we’re OK with women in miniskirts. But it’s time now for women to stand up and say, “I’m equal to men.” Let the men contend with their sexual thoughts. Let the police protect my rights. Don’t tell me to cover up to protect my rights. That’s what the police are for.

Slate:  How do you feel about full-on public nudity?

Gary: Oh, very good! I grew up in France. My mom was topless. My grandmother would go topless on the beach. It was certainly not to show her sexual beauty. It was just an older woman entitled to her freedom. When I arrived in the United States 30 years ago, I noticed, wow, this is a conservative society. We don’t do that here. For 30 years I have been in this repressive society. This is why I jumped on the toplessness bandwagon. I wanted to stand up.

Slate:  Right, but genitals … ?

Gary: Do you ever walk around naked?

Slate:  Sometimes? At home?

Gary: That’s good! That’s a beautiful thing. It’s important to be very open-minded toward human beings, sexuality, and nudity. Judeo-Christian beliefs have weighed on our laws, taken away our rights. In the 1930s, men weren’t allowed to show their breasts—it was illegal. They wore wool one-piece bathing suits.

In 1935, a bunch of men, 42 of them, in Atlantic City, N.J., decided to take off their tops. They were fined $1 each. The judge said, “We will not have gorillas on our beach.” The next year, many more men gathered and took off their tops. This time the authorities did nothing. I don’t know why—because it was too expensive? But they let it go, and 80 years later we think nothing of it. Because a breast is not that sexual really. The perfect breast, maybe, in Playboy magazine. But regular women and regular men: They just have regular bodies.

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