A reader wrote to ask how he could meet other topfreedom activists. I started to reply and realized it was an article topic.
So after staring at the ceiling for a spell, I’ve come to this. I think the fundamental issue in forming a network of activists is for each individual person in that web to prove and maintain her or his credibility.
That sounds nebulous, but it’s critical. I was thinking about professional athletes who claim they aren’t role models. What they mean is they don’t wish to be role models. They don’t want the burden.
But the reality is that each of us represents what Kant called schemas, a conception of what is common to all members of a class.
So I am a white-skinned, red-haired, 20-something American female. Observers place the elements of my existence in these boxes in their brain, schemas, that allow them to order the world. Otherwise life would be too overwhelming, so goes the theory.
When I am walking around bare-chested people will see me schematically (if that’s a word) as a female, as a white female, as a white person, as a young American, as a young female, as an old female, as an American, etc, and they will associate my appearance and behavior as representations of what is common to all members of each of those classes. If they see me yelling, that goes in the schema. If they see me behaving quietly and peacefully, that goes in the schema.
That’s why it’s so damaging when the media predominantly shows young African-American males committing crimes or being violent. People are constantly updating their schema, and every piece of data informs their “conception of what is common” to all members of that class. So we see a black male teenager commit a crime, we form a schema of all black male teenagers, but also of males, teenagers, black people… etc. If we see images of a second black male teenager commit a crime, that schema hardens. And so on. Overcoming that schema, especially one that taps into our fear mechanisms like crime and violence, requires seeing plenty of black male teenagers getting good grades, going to college, being entrepreneurs, volunteering, etc.
Point? Overcoming the schema that bare-chested females are acting in an overtly sexual manner is going to require a lot of data to the contrary.
How is this an answer to the question of how to meet other activists?
Asking how to meet activists is a really asking how to get people to trust you. I can only speak for myself, but to earn my trust I need to know that a person is genuine and dependable, meaning her or his motivations are pure and she or he is strong enough to rely on in battle. Those are two separate things. A person may really, really want to lift this big weight with me, but may lack the strength. I appreciate the effort, but I’m not standing under the weight with her!
To normalize female bare-chestedness, women will have to prove that we are not trying to simply expose ourselves for exhibitionist sexual pleasure and that we have legitimate reasons to bare our breasts. I happen to feel very, very strongly that women should be free to express their full sexuality without guilt or shame. However, part of the practicality of this topfreedom movement is that people will be scared of bared breasts if they think they are being bared solely for sexual reasons and I want to tackle one issue at a time.
Men who wish to support topfreedom and engage with female activists, must, must, must prove through their behavior that they are capable of viewing women as strong, capable, non-sexual human beings.
For example, I visited Pittsburgh this week to discuss female bare-chestedness with the police there. While in town, I met a man with whom I have been e-mailing for months. I reached out to him to meet because he has proven himself to me to be a sincere supporter of gender equality and body pride. After meeting him and talking with him, I believe so even more.
On the flip side, I meet men sometimes who say they support what I’m doing, meaning they support me showing my breasts in public because they like seeing breasts. That’s fine. Honest. I’m totally okay with people being sexually attracted to breasts. But if that’s your only reason for appreciating what I’m doing, you’re missing the point, and I’m not going to engage with you as a fellow activist.
My fundamental goal in all of this is to enable happiness, in women and men. I happen to believe this requires equality of opportunity between the genders and races and the neutralization of body shaming and bullying.
It just so happens that female bare-chestedness is at the intersection of several issues dear to me and this is how I have chosen to enable happiness in the world. It is a stone that ripples.
So if I meet someone and I think that person is motivated primarily by a desire to live and to be happy and to contribute to the happiness of others, I’m far more likely to work with that person toward common goals.
So in answer to the question, how do I meet other activists…first, be one. Truly be one, right? Believe in the cause, examine your motivations for advocating for that cause, get right with yourself by reconciling your own internal struggles with gender equality and body shaming (insofar as it is possible) and then and only then reach out with your message.
I have been approached by a lot of people offering support. I’ve always been a people reader, but now after all these bare-chested walks I can spot a gender equality fraud from a mile away.
I see people who would swear up and down they believe in gender equality balk when confronted with a bare-chested woman. It can be obvious (rolling eyes and saying to no one, “Seriously?”) or subtle (a hitch in the conversation, a frozen expression, that reflex response that says I feel threatened.)
If you know in your heart you support topfreedom for legitimate reasons, and there are many from which to choose, others who also believe in it will recognize it in your demeanor.
After that, the hard work is done. The practical work of connecting with activists is a simple matter of voicing what is in your heart. The people who agree with you will engage you. Keep this simple truth in mind; we want to find people who support the cause. We want you to be a supporter. We just want and need you to really be a supporter and not a phony. So be patient, show people you mean it, make responsible statements of support, put in the work and stick your neck out a bit.
Also if you have a particular brand of knowledge that will contribute to the movement, use it. Make it known. My friend in Pittsburgh for example was able to give me a brief history of the political background of the police department which enabled me to walk into my meeting more informed. He also made a carefully worded message of support for topfreedom which he circulated among a mixed-gender social group that previously had nothing to do with topfreedom, from which more than 75 people have visited my blog in just three days! In other words, he exposed himself to scrutiny, but because he believes in what he said, it rang true. His sincerity is established with me, as it is hopefully with his social network after all of these people have visited my blog and seen that he has directed them to a responsible and meaningful conversation on a difficult topic.
Practically, you can find people on social media who claim to be topfreedom fighters (besides #freethenipple I recommend #liberateALLnipples and #barewithus) and assess their credibility yourself. Be part of the conversation. Be a model of behavior. Respond to bullies. Put yourself out there and offer help and see if anyone takes you up on your offer. If you hear of an event, go there, introduce yourself and prove you are what you say you are. Leave some contact information and take cues. If they accept, great. If not, it’s on them, not you. Find someone who does appreciate your contributions.
As for me, I do very much appreciate when sincere people reach out and offer help.
I’m not getting anywhere alone.