Go Topless Day, Burkinis and the Policing of Women’s Bodies

A fellow feminist scholar/friend posed an interesting question to me and a group of like minded friends, today of all days — Women’s Equality Day. “Would you ever take part in Go Topless Day?” she asked.

Go Topless Day, which falls this year on Sunday, August 28, falls in line with the platform of the Free the Nipple campaign. Both initiatives seek to eliminate discrimination regarding social norms, laws and standards related to being topless in public. In short, if men can go topless in public, activists argue that women should be allowed to go topless as well.

To bring attention to the issue, ‘Go Topless’ parades and events will take place in cities around the country this weekend. The organization even goes so far as to provide a “boob map” to help would-be participants better understand “topless laws” in their geographical region.

I had a mixed response to my friend’s inquiry. Would I participate in such a public event? My knee-jerk, feminist response was defensive of the movement, despite my imagined personal discomfort with participating. My reasoning fell somewhere along the lines of: “Well, I wouldn’t want to participate, but I support other women’s right to do so.” When I think of possible causes related to women’s equality, toplessness wouldn’t top my list (ba-dum-ching!), but if it tops someone else’s list, then they have my support.

After all, I do believe that U.S. attitudes toward bodies, women’s especially, are puritanical, and these breast-related controversies that bubble up on a regular basis here, probably have our European peers snickering all the way to their packed nude beaches.

But then… I started to unpack that imagined personal discomfort around participating in such an event. Considering that I support the cause philosophically, why would the thought of participating in a Go Topless event create discomfort in me, a body-positive, sex-positive feminist? A flurry of responses, many discordant, concurrently sparked into my mind. I present them in no particular order.

Going topless on the city streets would feel too sexual. God, I hated that this was the first place my brain went, but like many other women, my mind and my body have been socialized to equate toplessness with sexuality and the male gaze. I wish I didn’t feel this way, but then again, maybe the fact that people still feel like this is the whole point? Isn’t the relentless hypersexualization of women’s bodies exactly part of the problem that this movement is trying to address?

I wouldn’t want that attention. Strangers? Looking at my half naked body? Yikes, maybe I am more of a puritan than I want to admit. What if someone harassed me? Or, perhaps even worse for my psyche…

What if someone ridiculed me? Oh, I recognized this voice right away —  the voice of Jessica’s Early Thirties Body, having now grown, birthed and breastfed four children. (And, side note, the young, slender, normative bodies that the Go Topless movement uses on their website imagery don’t exactly elicit a sense of body diversity within the movement. Can we get some fat activists in your materials, pretty please?) I’m well aware that this bullet point wouldn’t have been on Jessica’s Early Twenties Body’s radar. I’m also aware that Jessica’s Early Forties body is probably screaming from the future, “Trust me, if you’re going to do it, do it now!”  Alas.

Bras suck. Anything that moves us away from the tyranny of underwire is a good thing. Maybe I should join the cause for this reason alone?

I breastfed in public for four years, but modestly. So my boobs have been out in public at least in some small way. That was utilitarian, though. This is different. But is it? And also, nothing about the thought of “utilitarian nipple exposure” feels right.

I’m not sure where this movement leads. Is this one small step toward full public nudity? If we’re desexualizing body parts for the personal comfort of individual people, what comes next? Am I really at a place where I’m ready to see penises out in public on the regular? And if my answer is no, does that make me a hypocrite?

I’m a professional/a mother/a wife, so this behavior doesn’t feel appropriate. This does not fit my understanding of what a body “like mine” should do.

Like I said, these reactions aren’t perfect or even consistent, but all were genuine, and I think that part of the development of a feminist worldview is being open and patient to all of these conflicting instincts and perspectives that have been forged in one’s mind over the course of a lifetime — through our families, our relationships, our social institutions, our education, and our media culture. For me, one of the most valuable parts of learning more about feminist theory and other critical cultural lenses has been learning to delve into discomfort, and to allow myself time to wade through contradictory, instinctive notions rather than rushing to a too-neat conclusion.

It’s not lost on me that these Go Topless events on Sunday close out a week in which much media coverage has been devoted to an unsettling incident in France, where armed police forced a woman to remove her modest ‘burkini’ at a beach in order to implement a recent ban against clothing that indicates strong adherence to religious practices. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, in his campaign for re-election, has said that the burkini must be banned at the national level, and the Prime Minister of France Manuel Valls has called the burkini “a symbol of the enslavement of women,” connecting its presence in French public spaces with radical Islam.

Critics have called the burkini ban a gross violation of women’s rights, an act of religious oppression, and xenophobic. Though the French minister for Women’s Rights says critically that burkinis and burkas function primarily to “hide women’s bodies to better control them,” most of these officials fail to see that bans such as these serve the same function. Rather than controlling through forced covering, they seek to control women’s bodies through forced revealing.

To have a female body is to have a lifetime of experience in having your body policed by others. Wear less. Wear more. Don’t be too sexual. Don’t be too modest. Be quiet. Speak up for yourself (but that voice had better not be ditzy or squeaky or high pitched.)

In the end, I feel comfortable with my decision to sit out this weekend’s Go Topless events, because on this Women’s Equality Day, that’s my wish for women all around the world — that they have the ability to choose the actions, the lifestyle, and the presentation of self that feels most comfortable to them, be that bare breasts or burkinis. And though I won’t be marching in the streets, I’ll instead use the awareness raising these activists have done, as well as the conversations and ethical considerations of the policing of women’s bodies internationally, to continue to explore my own complex attitudes about my body specifically, and bodies in our wider society more generally. That should keep me more than busy.

Ever Watchful,

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