For six years, GoTopless has been fighting for equal topless rights: either everyone can go topless, or none at all. The movement began in 2007 after Phoenix Feeley, a topless protester, was paid $29,000 for being wrongfully arrested for going topless in New York City. That’s right, wrongfully. In the state of New York, women are allowed to go topless. In fact, many states legally allow women to go shirtless to some extent, and yet most women don’t. Nadine Gary, the spokesperson for GoTopless, says, “When a society is very repressed, the women don’t want to uncover…”
Gary got involved in the GoTopless organization through Rael, the spiritual leader who founded GoTopless after hearing about Feeley’s case. Rael, a man, teaches that humans were created by and in the image of humans from another planet who we have mistaken as gods. According to Gary, Rael teaches that “the body is a scientific and artistic…work of art and so it is a tribute to our creators.” Gary, a Raelian (a follower of Rael), finds these spiritual teachings to be a “very freeing way of looking at life,” which she associates with the freeing feeling of going without a shirt. Gary grew up in France where going topless is normal. “It’s such a natural thing,” she says. When she came to the US at 18, she was shocked to find that American women did not do the same.
When Gary first heard about Rael’s plan for GoTopless, she was very excited. She finds the repressive nature in the US to be very dangerous: in a society where a topless woman is unacceptable, men can’t help but gawk and act “like a teenager” at the sight of a naked breast, something that is so unusual and taboo in our society. GoTopless fights not only for women to be legally allowed to go topless, but also for women to feel comfortable to do so, and this begins with “educating the men that they have to be respectful of the women when they go topless.” Women have been taught to “cover up” in order to protect themselves, while it should be the men who are taught to respect women’s rights. Gary says: “[Women] don’t want to be restricted in order to be safe. We want the law to protect us with our right.”
However, breasts are still considered a very sexual body part, one that is not to be shown in public. Some people have even said that it’s unrealistic for a woman to go shirtless and expect not to be sexualized, but Gary disagrees: “Objectification is just a passage, it’s just a moment enough for people to get used to [topless women].” Gary points out that women were once objectified for showing merely their ankles, and before the 1930’s not even men could go topless. In 1935 on a beach in New Jersey, 42 men were fined $82 collectively for removing the tops of their bathing suits. “Well, if men are crossing the line, why can’t the women?” Gary argues.
While many conservative and religious groups have spoken out about the GoTopless protests, the organization has faced very few issues. In fact, the police force has very been very involved and even escorted the protesters in locations like Venice Beach. Again, it is legal in most states for women to go topless, but many just choose not to (or are not aware of the legality). In states where the topless laws are not equal (or the protester isn’t fully comfortable going nude), the female (and male) protesters cover their nipples with tape or bikinis. GoTopless isn’t fighting for the world to become a giant nudist colony – the organization, according to Gary, is fighting for “the world to see human beings as human beings.” She says that without the layers of clothing, people can be their truest selves.
As my interview with Gary wound to a close, she wanted to ask me a question: “Would you ever go topless?” Taken aback, I quickly responded, “Well, I, uh, am on the very busty side, so going unsupported can be very painful. I would like to think that I could, but I can’t say for sure.” Then we laughed as Gary continued to encourage me, insisting that I could lie on my back in the park if I was uncomfortable walking. But then she turned more serious and repeated what she had said earlier: GoTopless is fighting for women to do what they are comfortable with. She said, “For [everyone], it’s important to have a good body image, to have the image that women are not all made the same way. Some women are completely flat-chested, some women are very busty, and everything in between.”
While I am not positive I will ever be able to go shirtless and make Gary proud, I can truly stand behind her final sentiment. Women, and men, come in many shapes and sizes, and this should not be a reason for us to hide our bodies in shame.