I have received several requests from women this month to share my thoughts on how to start going bare-chested where it is established as legal, but still socially new, when all you want to do is have a quiet day free of attention and fuss.
Normalizing female bare-chestedness means reducing the psychological and emotional reaction people have when seeing the female breast. My life goal for topfreedom is to normalize bare-chestedness to the point where women can comfortably go bare-chested at family picnics and pool parties as easily as men can if they so choose. Realistically, that is probably decades away in places and will be a generational process. All normalization is. Bare-chested men created a stir at first too, but as people became accustomed to seeing the male chest, its effect has fallen to nil.
In order for that process to occur with female bare-chestedness, at least some women will have to go bare-chested in public on a regular basis. But it is important that the choice to go bare-chested rest with the woman herself, and that she does so when and only when she is ready and willing to do so.
With that said, there are already many places and settings where certain types of bare-chestedness are already virtually normalized.
I am obviously comfortable going bare-chested in crowded places with people watching and reacting. As I emphasize often, I enjoy the feeling of freedom bare-chestedness gives me, and I make most of my bare-chested outings simply for my enjoyment, but at times I am also clearly walking in places aimed at prompting conversation and raising awareness. Those outings are the ones that tend to get viewed on social media the most, which is fine, that’s part of the goal, but through all of this I have also learned how to pretty much avoid attention while bare-chested too, and that is what I want to share with the women who have written to me recently asking me how to do this without becoming a topic of conversation on social media.
So here are some ideas for getting started. This presumes female bare-chestedness is legal where you will be and the police know it is legal.
- Start alone or with family, friends, roommates, in and around the house. In theory at least, our families are who we trust the most. If bare-chestedness is important to you, talk to them about it. Neighbors too, if you can. My neighbors are awesome. Explain why it is important, connect the dots for them regarding topfreedom, body shame, victim blaming, body pride, bullying, freedom, equality, etc. Whatever your reasons are, share them. Explain them. And answer questions. Respect your family’s concerns and address them. They will almost certainly react by wanting to ensure your safety. Mine did. I wouldn’t roll your eyes at this. They are genuinely concerned for you. When I first started, honestly, I really didn’t care much about what the “public” thought of me, but I did feel anxiety about what my close family would think of my bare-chestedness. But the conversations I’ve had on this topic with my family members, female and male (Happy Father’s Day, dad!), have been some of the most beautiful of my life. And now armed with the confidence that my family understand and for the most part support what I am doing (I didn’t expect everyone to get it), it translates into a calm demeanor when I go into public. And that calm, confident demeanor I’m convinced keeps most of the few people who might try to bully me from doing so. Which allows for quiet, enjoyable experiences in return. A friend of ours just went bare-chested on a beach for the first time last week in the company of her four children, ages 2-15, three girls, one boy. She didn’t even tell me she did this. Her 15-year-old son did. I asked how he felt about it. He said, “I was incredibly impressed, actually. It was amazing. She’s so strong.” And then he said something even more beautiful, in my opinion. He said, “It inspired me to go bare-chested myself, for the first time in my whole life.”
- Go braless in public. I have found public bralessness to be a similar but less “wow” experience to going completely bare-chested. One of the “visuals” our society has to normalize is breast movement. Nipple erection also. I don’t wear bras ever, (well, for bumpy sports I do) so people see my breasts moving in the grocery story and at soccer games. Maybe more people notice than let on, but the range of reaction feels a lot like going bare-chested in the street. The vast majority of people ignore me, as in don’t even notice at all, a few show some signs of confusion or disapproval, and a few show support. The difference to my public bare-chestedness is that the ones who show support are pretty much universally other braless women, and it is just a nod and a smile. Public bare-chestedness can be seen as so bold as to be an invitation to conversation, which I am comfortable with. Others may not be as comfortable. But I have never in my life had someone approach me to talk about me being braless, even when I am wearing something like in the following picture, which I do quite often, and pretty much anywhere I go.
- Act normal. Easier said than done, I know, but I’ve found that the more I go bare-chested, the easier it is to act like it’s the most normal thing in the world, which honestly it is beginning to feel like to me. As a direct result, fewer and fewer people react to me. And when they do react, I’m able to stay that much more calm, which communicates more effectively than anything else I can say or do that this is perfectly okay and all will be well. If I don’t believe it’s normal and healthy, others won’t either.
- Blend in. Choose somewhere bare-chested men or barely-clad women will already be. For my activism, I often choose to walk through urban areas, but I also often find places where my bare-chestedness is just an expansion of what is already being done, rather than a complete departure. Last month in D.C. for example we set our blanket in front of three volleyball courts full of bare-chested men and women in sports bras. Some people noticed us, most failed to, and no one interacted with us at all.
- Use the buddy system. Humans are herd animals. If a friend or family member will join you in your bare-chestedness, awesome. Strength in numbers. Even if your friends don’t wish to go bare-chested, ask them to come along and act normally in the presence of your bare-chestedness. This is a powerful visual model for others. I have seen observers thinking, well, that person seems okay with it, so it must be okay. And even if they aren’t okay with it themselves, it is psychologically difficult to overcome the sensation that one is going against the herd to object to something other people accept. (Group think works in both directions, after all.) I would suggest preplanning reactions to confrontations though, because “sheepdogs” (i.e. protective friends) can cause unintentional harm by trying to protect you. It’s important that we deescalate peoples’ fears about female breasts, not strengthen them with hostile confrontation.
- Pick your spot. The most likely negative interaction, I have found, will come from the mothers of pre-teens. I don’t poke them if I can help it. I have written about this here. It’s a scary world for these souls and I don’t begrudge them their anxieties. I do reject the idea that they feel their anxieties should be honored to the point we would limit another persons’ civil liberties, but psychologically, I give them space. It’s not the children I navigate. It’s the mothers. Children don’t care about bare-chestedness, and this in itself terrifies mothers because mothers naturally want to protect their children from all possible threats, including at times their own bodies. If their preteens get the idea that the female breast is healthy and normal, they could go bare-chested themselves, and with an anxious-mother worldview, this makes their daughters feel like targets in all sorts of terrifying ways. But I hate to say it, we are already targets. Topfreedom does not make us more of a target. Topfreedom is about pushing back with confidence, strength and ownership. But if that message hasn’t arrived in mom’s consciousness yet, it’s just plain scary. In other words, I look around before I set my blanket down.
- Be overtly non-sexual. I make special efforts to present myself with neutral sexual energy. Because some in society associate breasts with sex, the mere appearance of my breasts will create the impression in some that I am being sexual. So it is vitally important to me that I counteract that by doing things that would not normally be seen as sexual, like tossing a Frisbee, reading a book, eating a sandwich, riding a bike, chatting with a friend, simple sunbathing, swimming. I stay out of my phone, though. Something about scrolling down a phone screen screams I don’t care about your feelings. It does to me anyway. So no selfies. No obvious posing for photographs. No Facebooking about look at me I’m topless in the park. If I dance, which I sometimes do, I dance for myself, not for others. Reading an actual book is anachronistic and messes with people’s associations. If people talk to me or greet me in some way, (a wave, head nod, middle finger), I am polite, but I don’t flirt. A woman doing bare-chested yoga was cited in Laconia, New Hampshire last week (where the police chief is openly defying a 2016 court ruling and state law that allows females to go bare-chested). The person who called in the complaint apparently said she didn’t have a problem with the bare-chestedness. She said she actually considered the yoga to be “indecent.” Ponder that. Anyway, in conversation I use a confident but non-confrontational voice that says I am not threatening, nor threatened. I also don’t cover my breasts when I interact with people, even children, with my arms or hair or hands or a towel. I feel this would imply embarrassment and modesty and wrong-doing. If a male-female couple walks by, and the woman takes the man’s arm or makes some gesture that she is feeling insecure because his attention might be on my breasts, I make eye contact with her and greet her in a way that says it’s not about that. I’m not after your man’s eyes. She may still react negatively, but it’s important to me that I give her something to ponder later when she remembers the interaction.
- Give people a choice. If you want to increase the chances that people leave you in peace, give them a choice to interact with you or not. In Pittsburgh for example, we set up close enough to the trail that people could see us, and openly enough that they could see us from a distance, but far enough away from the trail that they could either choose another direction or keep some distance. They also had another trail option. If people feel forced to deal with bare-chestedness some will react negatively. I accept this when I make my walks through city centers and such, but when I just want to sit quietly somewhere, I leave people room.
- Go somewhere public. Ironically, the more public, the less confrontation. Sunbathe in Central Park and no one will notice. Try to hide in a small local park and it will look all the more out of place. It might even look like you are being furtive and trying to hide illicit behavior. Beach blankets can create a zone of ownership in some people’s minds. So at beaches, I usually set up somewhere with some space around me and remove my top while sitting up so people can see it. I also apply my sunscreen while sitting up. Standing can be a bit too much for people, right at the start. This all allows neighbors to make a choice or adjust their expectations. Sometimes, depending on the crowd, and my mood, I lay on my front for awhile, but I don’t make any special efforts to cover my breasts. Then when I eventually turn over, the people around me have had some time to adjust. The families who put their blankets down close to mine after I am bare-chested presumably are okay with bare-chestedness. This happens a lot, and makes me all the more hopeful we can evolve.
- Trust your guts. I personally do not cover up if someone asks me to cover up, which in all this time has only happened twice, and both more than a year ago. But I say trust your guts on this one. If you feel uncomfortable and want to cover up, by all means do so. This entire process is your choice, and dictated by your comfort level and decision-making. There is no requirement to be an activist. The whole idea is to live and experience joy and freedom. Deescalating a panicking mother through patient conversation may not accomplish these things for you. Or they may. Or it may change from day to day. It’s your call.
- Eat and hydrate. I should have put this higher on the list, but self-care is huge. Keeping myself calm, hydrated, fueled up, free of anxiety, clearly creates a quieter energy in the people around me. I learned early that if I feel comfortable in myself, strong, confident…people react accordingly. If I have doubts, bullies will sense that and aggress. It’s what bullies do. I think this is why the last year of outings has been so quiet for me. Whatever doubts I had three years ago about my body, my right to be treated equally, the importance of body-pride, those doubts have dissipated. I believe in this. And it effects how people react to me.