This issue (as well as occasional pushes to legalize going entirely naked in public) has been in the news off and on for quite a while.
Now, intellectually, I recognize that going topless should not be an issue, regardless of gender, gender orientation or gender expression – and frankly, treating two groups of people differently because of something they have no control over always disturbs me: it just isn’t right.
On the other hand, this is a society that sexualizes women’s breasts; and – from an emotional perspective – the prudish old fogey in me recoils at the idea of actually seeing a woman’s bared breasts in public.
Before we go further, I think we should distinguish between the two issues here: public nudity is far different than merely toplessness.
Public nudity, for one, is a sanitation issue – there are important and valid reasons we all (usually) wear underwear, and pants (or skirts), after all.
Secondly (and the more obvious reason) full nudity exposes our gender-specific organs. I hope there’s no need to go into a full dissertation on this aspect of the issue! Why we’d have concerns over the possibilities of abusive behavior, child molestation, and such things should be readily apparent.
As for mere toplessness, one must bear in mind that at the beginning of the 20th century, public toplessness was not acceptable for people of either gender, and male bare-chestedness was illegal in some parts of this country as late as the 1960’s. And even Bikinis; for instance, were quite controversial when introduced in the 1940’s, and remained so at least into the 1960’s. As a society, we got used to this partial nudity, eventually. (Well, at least most of us have!) In fact, most states now have laws that are gender-neutral when it comes to baring one’s upper torso in public.
One should also consider that a mother needs to expose her breasts (at least to some extent) to breastfeed her young child. This is a necessary function of motherhood, and is in fact a legally protected right. Some folks still freak out when they see this, sometimes reacting in ways that humiliate the mother and those with her, including siblings of the child – which is extremely insensitive and far more damaging than any amount of toplessness ever could be. If nothing else, we need to remind ourselves to give women who are working hard to be nurturing mothers and seeking to provide the best nutrition possible for their child the room and support to breastfeed, which means tolerating the sight of a woman’s breast without getting weird about it. If we do this so breastfeeding Moms can be comfortable when caring for their child, why should we prevent any woman from being comfortable on a hot, humid summer afternoon?
I would point out that 30 or so years ago, many of us – including myself – would have similarly strong emotional reactions to Public Displays of Affection by gays and lesbians (and perhaps breastfeeding too, for that matter). Now, there are still many of us who are uncomfortable in seeing gays or lesbians kiss, but we’ve come to accept that even though we are uncomfortable, those engaging in such displays of affection and love have just as much right to do so as their heterosexual peers, who were seen as just as scandalous when engaging in identical activities a half century earlier.
Things change. New norms develop over time, all the time; and we come to learn they aren’t as bad or scary as we first imagined. We’ve come to accept that interracial relationships are OK, that sex outside of marriage is OK, that integration of blacks and whites in schools are OK – and yet all of these were prohibited by law just half a century ago.
So in the end, I admire those who are pushing for equality and acceptance in this area. If it makes me uncomfortable, that’s fine: change always does. We’ll survive, and we’ll adapt. Things will be just fine, and our society will once again prove itself to be much more resilient and adaptable and compassionate than we imagined.
We are called to affirm that we love one another, loving “the other” just as they are, not dictate who or how they are to be.
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)