Normalizing bare breasts one conversation at a time

National Mall, Washington D.C October 2015. This wonderful, spontaneous family from Delaware decided to join us!
National Mall, Washington D.C October 2015. This wonderful, spontaneous family from Delaware decided to join us!

Normalizing the sight of female breasts can only happen when the general populace stops being afraid of them.

Any time I can reduce an observer’s fear, I have taken some ground.  Often, this ground is won in quiet conversation.  People often ask questions, offer support or voice objection.  I consider any conversation, friendly or hostile, an opportunity to make change.

Pardon our progress; democracy under construction. United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. October 2015.
Pardon our progress; democracy under construction. United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. October 2015.

Here are some of the ways I respond to frequently asked questions.

  1. Q: What are you doing? A: “I’m walking.”  (Or laying in the sun, reading, swimming, riding my bike, etc.)
  2. Q: Where’s your shirt?  A: I don’t answer.  I just look down.  The answer is self-evident.
  3. Q: What are you protesting?  What’s your cause?  Etc.  A:  “I’m just walking.”  I think it is vitally important that people begin to associate bare-chestedness with normalcy.  Now it is primarily associated with commercial sex and protesting.  Even sunbathing can carry with it this implicit external motivation, namely that the woman doing the “topless” sunbathing wishes to have an even (and therefore presumably more attractive) sun tan, presumably to be found more attractive by her desired gender.  People then think, oh, she wants to be pretty.  I understand now.  It can be deeply jarring to people when I decline to associate some pre-chewed motivation to my bare-chestedness.  I am doing this for me, not for you.  It can really challenge a person’s view of a woman’s body and who owns or controls that body.  I’m just walking.
  4. Q: Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?  A: “Because I enjoy the feeling of walking bare-chested.”
  5. Q: But… why?  A: “Because it feels free.”
  6. Q: Is that legal here? A: Usually I say something simple like, “Yep, since 1986.”  Sometimes I just say, “Yes it is.”  If the statutory language in the state I happen to be in does not explicitly criminalize female breasts, but there also exists no definitive case law and I haven’t had a confirmation from the local police department that they agree with my position, I answer something like, “Maryland law treats women and men equally.  There is no statutory language criminalizing female breast exposure.  A woman’s right to be bare-chested in public in Maryland has not been tested in court as it has in other states but I don’t think it will ever get that far because the law is clear.”  The reason I say it this way is because I don’t want a woman to rely on my declaration that it is absolutely risk-free to appear bare-chested and then go get arrested for doing so.  It goes without saying I am confident that the law allows breast exposure.  I’m doing it.  But I also want to express the fact that it’s an evolving process and something less then certain.
  7. Q: Can I take your picture?  A: “I’ll pose for a picture with you.”  We know people share photos.  That’s why they are taking them.  Posing with the person creates a bond between us.  We have shared an experience.  It also creates an opportunity to effect people who weren’t there at all.  Seeing someone they know and trust standing next to me will form a psychological endorsement.  It also shows that a bare-chested woman is not scary, an impression cemented hopefully with the ensuing conversation.  What did she say when you asked her for a photo?  Was she cool?  Did she make fun of you?  Where is she from?  Did she say why she was doing this?  Etc.  Ripples…
  8. Q: Is your husband/boyfriend okay with you doing this? A: “It’s not his call, but yes.  He is very supportive.”
  9. Q: Excuse me, will you put a shirt on please?  A: (if asked by a civilian as opposed to a police officer) “Would you ask a man to put a shirt on?”  (Note, on the rare occasions I push back like this, I do so in a calm, non-aggressive tone.  It’s more a way of saying I won’t attack you, but I won’t be intimidated, either.)  I will write a separate article on how I converse with police officers.
  10. Q: Seriously, would you please just put a shirt on?  A: “What upsets you about the sight of my breasts?”  This tends to draw a little string of venom and insults.  I simply let her (it’s almost always a woman, or in one case a man sent by a woman, followed by the woman herself when the man returned unsuccessful) vent for a bit.  It is very important that I don’t cover my breasts during this confrontation, so I usually cross my arms across my stomach or put my hands on my hips.  I don’t orchestrate this but I have noticed from the photos my fiance has taken of these moments that I take a pretty balanced stance.  But it is important for her to vent without interruption because she needs to hear the sound of that fear and hate coming out of her own mouth.  It may take a few minutes, but so far, all but one has eventually softened.  The one who didn’t was in a mid-brain panic.  I wasn’t getting her back.
  11. Q: So you’re not going to put a shirt on?  A: No, I’m not.
  12. Q: Are you part of the Free the Nipple Movement?  A: I’m not part of any movement.  I’m just going for a walk.
National Mall in front of the National Art Museum, Washington, D.C. October 2015
National Mall in front of the National Art Museum, Washington, D.C. October 2015

Here is how I respond to common statements and objections.

  1. I support what you’re doing!  A: “Thank you.” (I had one man, a runner caught off guard as he ran by, point at my breasts and say, “Freedom!  Freedom!  Freedom!”  It cracked me up.)  Anyway, then I usually say, “Where are you from?”  This gives the person a chance to end the conversation or continue it.
  2. You have really nice breasts.  (Or some general compliment about my physical appearance, because they don’t know what else to say.)  A:  “Thank you.”  I don’t lecture these people.  They are trying to be nice.  I’m banking on the fact that they will think this over in time.
  3. You should put a shirt on. A: I don’t answer.  I also don’t put a shirt on.
  4. There are children around/children will see you.  A: “Seeing breasts doesn’t hurt children.  Seeing fear and hate in their parents hurts children.  Children don’t care until their parents tell them to.”
  5. You should be ashamed of yourself.  A: “Do I look ashamed of myself?”
  6. Women should be modest.  A: “Women should be however they want to be.”
  7. You’re (enter insult here, a whore, fat, ugly, etc.)  This has only happened twice.  I didn’t respond either time, because I have prepared for this in advance.  It’s more important for the people observing the episode to see me stay calm and decide for themselves who the more worthwhile person is.
  8. Be careful.  A man might touch you.  A: “It’s not a woman’s responsibility to keep men from acting illegally.  The only times I’ve ever been touched against my will, I’ve been fully clothed.  I’ve never been touched against my will when bare-chested.  A man who would do that is a bully and a coward.  He isn’t going to be stopped by a thin layer of cotton, but he might be stopped by confidence and strength.”    
  9. Your husband/boyfriend is the man! (meaning, a lucky man).  We’ve heard this a few times and like other seemingly benign attempts at a compliment, it carries with it a disturbing note.  My man is fortunate because I will walk around bare-chested for him, and other men will presumably be envious of him.  Sometimes they even shake my fiance’s hand or high-five him.  This is a delicate situation.  I don’t want to react so harshly that the guy associates a bare-chested woman with shaming or embarrassment.  (I’m not saying he doesn’t maybe deserve it.  I’m saying that making enemies puts the goal of normalcy that much farther out of reach.  And shame begets shame, and hate begets hate.)  Nor do I want him to carry this opinion with him any farther than this.  However if I bark something like, “I don’t belong to any man!” it will come across to the guy as an over-reaction (being as he is not privy to the years of thought I and other women have put to this type of thing).  However if my fiance answers for me, something like, “She doesn’t belong to me,” then he is the one speaking for me.  It’s a trap!  So, here’s what we do.  We accept the compliment, my fiance shakes his hand, high fives whatever, (I have joked that hold on, I’m the “wo-man” and demand a high-five too) and I ask him what his name is and where he is from and get him talking to me (not just the man standing next to me) and slowly, patiently turn the conversation to something unrelated to my breasts, nice day, how about those Nationals, did you see the Ravens this weekend?  Many things happen this way.  The guy himself begins to associate my appearance with a non-sexual context, even if it is just barely, it’s a start, and the ever important observers of our interaction see us chatting, not arguing.  If they see me arguing with him, there is a chance they will be scared of me and people who look like me.  If they see us behaving like adults, they will move on, less afraid or not afraid at all.  All is well = all is normal.  I am writing this blog for women to be empowered to appear bare-chested if they so choose and for men to understand the subtleties of their behaviors, thoughts and actions.  So let me say for the record, I can feel the deep well of rage that so many women feel when I am treated like a man’s possession.  I am not immune to anger.  But I have spent a lot of effort pre-planning conversations like this, similar to a “soft” martial artist rechanneling an aggressor’s strength, to transform forces working against me into energy I can use to power change.
She fell asleep! On the lawn of the United States Capitol Building. Now that's a pro. October 2015
She fell asleep! On the lawn of the United States Capitol Building. Now that’s a pro. October 2015

4 thoughts on “Normalizing bare breasts one conversation at a time

  1. Hi again,

    you may find it reassuring that – across a language barrier – you are not alone. I just found this page on a German web site:
    And even if you don’t speak that language (a conclusion to which I jump without any justification whatsoever 😉 you will most probably find the photographer Sophia Vogel in Berlin and her models is in a very general sense kindred spirits.


  2. Hi,
    I’m a sculptor. Because of a family history of and acquaintances who have/had breast cancer I felt compelled to create a sculpture to help bring awareness of this disease. It is one of the leading causes of death in women but also strikes men as well. Twenty-seven women ranging in age from early twenties to 80s along with me as the male representative were molded. I then cast each breast mold in aluminum and welded pairs of casts into a DNA helix. The sculpture is over 7 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter mounted on a granite base. One of the casts, placed at eye level, is a woman doing a breast self-exam as a reminder.

    Each woman that participated has a story. About one third of the women that participated had/have breast cancer. Some chose to have reconstruction and others did not. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to find volunteers. I was so wrong! Once word got out I had “enough” volunteers within two weeks! More would have participated had I been able to make the sculpture taller. Every woman that participated was proud of who they are as a woman. They knew that my goal was to find a public “home” for this sculpture to bring more awareness of breast cancer and be a reminder to do regular breast self-exams along with mammograms.

    What surprised me the most was the difficulty in finding a permanent public location in our mountain community of western North Carolina for the sculpture. Public institutions, like the hospital, are afraid – “too much nudity” – of the negative reaction. The sculpture is in part a gift from me to the public. I am sadden by the local reaction but know that some public institution somewhere will embrace the need for both public awareness of breast cancer and as has been said in your blog and elsewhere, the “normalization” of and freedom for women being topless.


    1. What a beautiful idea. And what a sad commentary on our ability to prioritize women’s health over some conceptual offense or embarrassment someone might feel at having to consider the breasts as a non sexual and in this case vulnerable part of the human body. I’m reminded of Paulette’s comment regarding gentle breast cancer awareness campaigns … Breasts cancer isn’t pretty. It isn’t pink ribbons. Will you email me some photos of your work? Thank you for writing and for making the sculpture.


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