Is It “Breast Nudity” Or Is It “Top Free”?

Top free activists go fishingI fondly remember the genuine quirkiness of the first episode of Malcolm In The Middle, mainly because of the opening scene when Malcolm’s mother Lois answers the door topless.

Caroline: I’m here because I think there is a tremendous opportunity for Malcolm. Could you maybe put a top on?
Lois: They’re just boobs, lady. You see ’em in the mirror every morning, and I’m sure yours are a lot nicer than mine.

The scene set out to show just how different Lois was from your standard sitcom mother, but it also raised a very good question about the status of breasts in our society.

The reason I’m pondering about boobs today is because I found the Topfree Equal Rights Association site. This group believes that women and men should be treated equally by the law and society when it comes to not wearing clothes on the top half of the body. In other words, it shouldn’t be a problem for a woman to get her boobs out in public.

Now even the way I’ve written that last phrase is evidence of the cultural assumptions that surround breasts. We’re trained to see boobs as always sexual and always a source of scandal if they are revealed in public. This is why people still get into a huff about women who breastfeed at cafes. The law backs up this cultural belief. Women can be charged with indecent exposure if they go topless but shirtless men are left alone.


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The folks at Topfree make a very good case for the rights of women to reveal their breasts. I liked these two quotes:

If men (and any woman or gay man will testify that men’s chests can be ‘sexually alluring,’ depending entirely on who the man is) are allowed to strip to the waist, women should be too. The fact that we aren’t is a purely cultural issue, not a sexual one—labelling flesh as ‘sexual’ or ‘non-sexual’ depending on the gender of its owner is nonsensical.


“This is a rebellion against a woman’s body being considered everywhere and always a sex object. As women we want the right for ourselves to decide when our breasts are sexual. That isn’t going to be in a swimming facility, and therefore they must not have to be covered. We want permission to bathe topfree, as men do.”

The site documents various examples of nipple-phobia including a giant billboard for Wrestlemania where someone had Photoshopped out all the male nipples.

I found myself thinking about bikinis and how they are deemed acceptable at the beach or pool, even if they are a single square of cloth covering the nipple. Take away that social signifier, however, and you’re a wanton whore. Or something like that.

The Topfree people have also posted about the censorship of the Bill Henson photos with an interesting take on the issue. Because you can only see the girl’s nipples in some photos, they argue, the pictures aren’t actually nude. At least, not according to their definition.

Contrast this with the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification (the OFLC, or censors as they should properly be known) which today officially declared the photos to be rated PG, which is one step above a G rating. The said the images were “not sexualised to any degree” and the “image of breast nudity … creates a viewing impact that is mild and justified by context”. No charges will be laid because a successful prosecution is impossible.

I’d never heard the term “breast nudity” before today and it really caught my eye because I’d been looking at the topfree site. And I guess it comes back to that whole thing about the way society is determined to always equate nudity with sexuality, to the point that a teenage girl’s body becomes a philosophical battleground. In this case, the whole country has been arguing over whether a pair of developing breasts is obscene.

In any case, isn’t it nice to know that “breast nudity” is now rated PG? Thank goodness the OFLC is there to clear it all up for us!

Meanwhile, the Topfree people have an uphill battle ahead of them. You know that thing where a guy talks to your chest instead of your face? Topfree probably doesn’t help that.

The expectation that your breasts should be covered is also fairly deeply ingrained in women. I remember swimming as a kid, wearing only a pair of brief bottoms like the boys. And then one day, at the public pool, I suddenly got shy. I remember holding my hands over my flat chest, saying I needed a top, because I was a girl. I think it’s one of those things that women are always conscious of, this major aspect of difference from men. Boobs are still tied up with sexuality and with our own self image.

Still, when it’s a stinking hot day, it would be nice to just whip the shirt off like the guys do and for people to think nothing of it.

Would I go topfree in public now if I could? Well… if the guys didn’t blink an eyelid… maybe. But only at the indoor swimming pool, not at the beach. And that’s simply because I’m a redhead with blindingly white skin that begins to burn at the mere thought of sunlight. In fact, I’d probably be a nudist except that I could only be in the sun for a total of five minutes. Which makes me less of a nudist and more of a streaker.

Pic is of Liz Book, a US topfree campaigner.

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