I have spent a lot of time studying fear and anxiety, both generally and how it relates to normalizing female bare-chestedness.
I traveled to New Hamphire this week to attend the trial of the women who asked to be cited after police officers asked them to cover their breasts at a Gilford town beach.
Two witnesses testified that they were mothers and were offended on behalf of their and other children. One said she was offended in her own right, and didn’t want her son to see breasts.
I also just watched poorly made news footage from Woodlawn Beach in Buffalo where women have apparently been going bare-chested with some regularity (according to the hyperbolic reporting) and they managed to find an offended mother who said she was totally fine with topless sunbathing, just not in front of her daughter.
And of course I have heard the same argument from mothers, in particular, on my bare-chested outings.
So without judging them, can we understand what is scaring them and try to reduce that fear? I think so, reserving the right to be wrong and understanding that everybody is a bit different.
Let me first say that the vast majority of parents and children I have encountered have either been neutral or positive. I can’t emphasize that enough.
With that said, I have see some panicked expressions from a couple parents. I’ve had some conversations with these parents, too.
Mothers of daughters who object to public bare-chestedness seem to express a common theme. They often start out by saying they are offended, but upon further examination what they say is they wouldn’t want their daughters to go bare-chested. Whichever reason they cite to say they don’t want their daughters bare-chested, it eventually boils down to fear that some harm will come of it, whether it is shaming, embarrassment, pregnancy, STD, assault/rape, and so on.
There is no deeper seated fear than a parent’s fear for a child’s welfare. Therefore I try to be very patient with this personality. I also endeavor to honor this in my demeanor, in presenting a non-threatening but non-threatened energy. That helps the parents who are actually concerned that bare-chested women might create some actual harm feel less like they are being attacked.
But let’s dig deeper into the mothers and fathers who fear their daughters will want to go bare-chested. The conundrum is that the more normal it becomes, the less scary socially, the more likely it is in that parent’s mind that his or her daughter will eventually want to go bare-chested. It’s a circle.
So let’s at least understand that some element of that fear reaction is arising because bare-chestedness is beginning to look normal. That in itself is the scary part for some people. There won’t be any major impediment to their daughters doing it or asking to do it.
Another component of parental fear has to do with having to converse with our children about difficult topics of inequality, flaws in our society and ourselves, and also of our sensitivities and mindsets regarding sexuality and shame. Seeing a woman walking bare-chested, I think they fear, will trigger questions they don’t feel comfortable answering, for individual reasons, and they resent having this conversation forced on them during what is supposed to be a relaxing day at the beach or in the park.
Resentment is anger, which is fear. Fear of what? Loss of control. Someone else is dictating when you have this conversation with your child. Someone else has controlled some aspect of your life. And to some people, that is terrifying on a deep level. Most people accept that in society and in relationships, people affect and influence each other constantly. A minority pretend this doesn’t exist, it’s too scary, and react strongly when forced into a space in which they feel uncomfortable.
Many people feel female breasts and the female body itself are sexual. This is a conditioned idea, one that society, those in power and the media have commercialized and sold back to us. The thing is, we just have no way of knowing what panics and fears trigger when a person is unexpectedly placed in what he or she perceives to be a sexual situation, especially if he or she perceives a child to be cast into that situation. It could be dredging up molestations, rapes, assaults, shame, whatever. Serious stuff. And because they equate breasts with sex… trigger panic.
Even if the uncomfortable conversation isn’t about sex, there is still the awkward conversation about inequality. So why does dad or brother take his shirt off at the pool or beach and mom doesn’t? What about a hot day? And why can’t I? Because the answer is either, okay, you can take your shirt off (about which the parent feels uninformed and vulnerable- Is it legal? What will the other mothers say? Will we get kicked out of the YMCA?) or no you can’t take your shirt off…because you’re a girl.
And that opens up a whole conversation about gender roles, expectations, freedoms, rights, opportunities, and inequalities. Which asks the parent to verbally and specifically admit that this world we live in isn’t perfect, and there are things that are very much wrong with it. Ugh.
Parenting is difficult. I try very hard to remember this when confronted by an angry mother. She is afraid. And she is not afraid ultimately of her daughter seeing breasts- it has little to nothing to do with me or any other bare-chested woman. She is afraid of her daughter showing her breasts, because to that mother the world is a scary, dangerous place (perhaps real, perhaps perceived) and anything her daughter does to lower her guard or draw attention could make her a target.
This is sad to me, because the power of rape culture seats in parents as well, who teach the next generation. If you take your top off, you might get raped, and in a way, it might be your fault. We as a society place the onus upon girls to take measures to prevent bad things from happening to them and to prevent the perpetrators of the bad things from doing them by not inviting them to. A parent doesn’t have to say those words. It communicates anyway.
I think in time, as in other cultures, when parents have seen enough bare-chested women not getting assaulted, shamed or attacked, that fear response will lessen. How can it not? I can’t imagine parents of the 1960’s felt comfortable about their daughters suddenly wearing two piece bathing suits or short skirts. Nor the families on the beaches in the late 1930’s when men first started going bare-chested. Now these things seem completely normal, as if it were always so.
Few people want to stick out from the herd. Lions attack isolated wildebeests. Being first with something is by definition leaving the herd. The first time a parent sees a bare-chested female she or he may feel isolated, triggering a panic. Am I the first parent to deal with this? I’ve never seen this before. But with time, as they see more and more parents negotiate bare-chestedness, the fear will lessen.
As far as parents of sons, I feel like parents of 11-13 year old boys have shown the strongest reaction, and I think maybe that is a fear of that child growing into an adult, fear at the passage of time, fear about the dangers of male adolescence, drugs, sex, trauma, pregnancy, disease, and general derailment.
These parents are living under the misconception that their little boy is pure, that they have successfully kept sex from impinging on their child’s innocent child mind. Reminding them that most kids have seen some form of pornography by the age of 7 and are actively talking about sex (poorly and irresponsibly) around that same age does not reduce the panic of these parents. It only makes it worse, but that’s not a bare-chested woman’s fault that the parent has not made room for those important conversations with the child yet. Fault or no fault, it’s important to understand the source of the fear so we can reduce it.
Truth is, children barely care about seeing a bare-chested woman. They are curious, little more. Kids react the way their parents tell them to react. Think of a child who scrapes a knee and immediately looks up at his mother to see if he is hurt or not. The mother who stays calm keeps the kid calm. The mother who throws her hands to her face and exclaims will see a child react the same way.
This article could be a book. There are so many sources of parental fear. I think the important thing is to at least honor the fear without submitting to it. This is the only way we can reduce it and then have a conversation about bare-chestedness which should reduce it further and might even erase it. Panicked brains cannot hear reason. Cannot happen. Surviving the lion attack is all that matters.
So bare-chested pioneers out there, please pre-plan your reaction to and conversation with a panicking mother or father, keeping in mind that yelling at them will only make it worse. In the end, that would really be making it worse for their children, not yourself. Nor should you back down. Be neither threatened nor threatening. That requires inner strength and confidence. Do the work before you go out and it will translate. Negative interactions don’t happen often, at least to me, but they do happen and my blog is about sharing my experiences so other women will be prepared and comfortable.
The parents I have been most impressed with were the ones who allowed their child time to process (is my knee really hurt, or am I just scared), stayed calmer than the child to model that behavior, and not only allowed their child to ask questions but also answered them openly and with reason and not fear. I have heard several parents use questions about female bare-chestedness to discuss equality and potential and independence and body pride. The conversation can go toward fear. It can move away from fear. It’s a choice, and a choice that we can help sway to one side or the other.
I think the fear of parental fear is the last hurdle to normalizing female bare-chestedness. Politicians and police worry about angry parents making their lives difficult.
Since this topic is so pivotal, I would like to gather our collective wisdom to reduce parental misconceptions and fear. I would love to host a respectful conversation from all sides on this topic in the comment section.