GoTopless Interview: “Breaking a Taboo”

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…”

Source: GoTopless. Rimini, Italy

2013 GoTopless Protest in Rimini, Italy

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.

2013 GoTopless Protest in Toronto, Canada

2013 GoTopless Protest in Toronto, Canada

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.”

1920's male bathing suit. Source: 8tracks

1920’s male bathing suit. Source: 8tracks

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.

2013 GoTopless protest in Venice Beach, California

2013 GoTopless protest in Venice Beach, California

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.”

2013 GoTopless Protest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

2013 GoTopless Protest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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.


3 thoughts on “GoTopless Interview: “Breaking a Taboo”

  1. Hello, there.

    This is interesting. It’s not the first time I come across such a “movement” (if I can call it that?). Recently, in Brazil, students tried to dissipate the whole “public indecency” bill by walking around naked. Didn’t really work.

    (I remember I wrote something about nakedness, here –, if you’re interested. )

    It’s a touchy subject for me. On the one hand, I agree that freeing ourselves from the clothes we wear does help in being the humans that we are meant to be. On the other, I still believe in modesty.
    Of course it is men who must be “educated” and it will take time until the strong sexual connotations are eliminated, however, in trying to be free I believe we’d end up devaluing our bodies. As you put it well, our bodies are a work of art, and while it’s good to showcase Art for the public, we mustn’t forget how precious it is and we must always treat it like the treasure it is.

    Makes any sense?

    Sure, if there are women out there that want to walk topless, let them. We all live in this planet and we must find ways that make our stay in it enjoyable.

    But let’s respect those who still, with the bill in New York and other sates, prefer to be clothed.


  2. Interesting read.
    However, one topic that is too easily pigeonholed in the context of this issue is the sexual nature of the female breast. Human beings are fairly unique among mammals (and even our fellow primates) in that the females have fairly large fat deposits in their breasts and buttocks (Cant 1981), which may point to a largely sexual origin. As human beings evolved to copulate face-to-face, females with such fat deposits on their chests became sexually appealing and more likely to attract crowds of suitors.
    As far as the “ankle” example goes, the issue is not a matter of a body part being too sexualized, but rather that sex and sexuality are often considered taboo, at least publicly. Examples of this can still be seen in certain societies, and it is often the result of sexually insecure and ignorant men having immense power (religion alone accounts for much of the power and insecurity in some places). It is not a matter of whether or not female human breasts should be viewed as a sexual attractant, but rather that some ignorant or insecure people may consider the open display of such sexual ornamentation to be vulgar, inappropriate, or unacceptable.
    This leads to another issue brought up by Gary: the fact that “men can’t help but gawk and act ‘like a teenager’ at the sight of a naked breast.” Gary brings up the fact that “it should be the men who are taught to respect women’s rights.” This is very true indeed. While relevant, that doesn’t seem to be Gary’s main point (although it is an underlying argument). She seems to focus more on self-image, and how it is gradually influenced by social construction. As long as one does not operate from the false assumption that breasts are only sexual because ‘the media says so,’ one can observe the complexity of the issue in situ, as it were. In that case, one might make the not-so-slippery slope argument that any biological device that evolved to suit some form of sexual display (such as the penis or vulva) should be freely displayed. This of course is not legal in many places as going topless is (and therefore, cannot be used in the current movement), but it should be considered. If a movement like this wants to achieve greater breadth, it should treat men as active participants (i.e. facing similar struggles) rather than so many naughty children that need scolding.
    In its broadest sense, this issue concerns the problem of sexual insecurity that the human race has always been afflicted with. Gary touches on this with the idea that women should be comfortable with their bodies. If these individuals accept the fact that women are objectified (they are), they would be irresponsible if they didn’t consider the fact that all humans objectified in a sexual sense, and that the social issues of self-image and sexual insecurity have biological roots. Such activists must also consider the fact that no one is universally “beautiful,” just as no one is universally “ugly.” Physical attractiveness, especially in the sexual sense, is mostly based on the opinions of others. That is why a positive body image is the only weapon against an army of other human beings grimacing in disgust or glowering with lust. That army will always be there in one variation or permutation. People are always going to objectify and judge. Perhaps encouraging both sexes to go topless would help everyone acknowledge the issue a little more.

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