The topfree movement looks beyond the taboo surrounding naked breasts
Story by Katy George
Photo Illustrations by Rebecca Leisher & Maiko Ando
Breasts. Just over 50 percent of the population has them. American culture is fascinated by them. Slang terms number in the hundreds. They’re in magazines, on billboards, in beer commercials—always as purely sexual attachments, bouncing enticingly as physical manifestations of femininity. But in spite of this inundation of busty images, one part of the breast has remained taboo: the nipple.
Despite such strong reactions to exposed nipples, going topless (or topfree, as some advocates are calling it in an effort to remove the sexual connotation) is completely legal in Oregon, as well as other states such as Vermont and New York. Oregon law specifies that nudity without the intent to arouse is perfectly acceptable. Many cities (Eugene, Portland, and Medford included) have only added statutes barring genital exposure. Oregon is a haven for women hoping to free their assets from constraining shirts and bras, thanks to a number of clothing-optional resorts and beaches. Naturists, as nudists are increasingly called, flock to the state: The Oregon Clothing-Optional Beach Alliance’s Yahoo group has over 3,000 members. With the influx come more and more women who want to doff their shirts in everyday life.
Ashley McDowell, a twenty-something nurse from Eugene, is one of these women. Sitting calmly on her blanket at Glassbar Island with her boyfriend and their dog, she is as naked as the day she was born—except for a pair of sunglasses. Her womanly body is thoroughly golden brown, with no ghostly clothing imprint in sight. “I used to love tan lines,” she admits, a slow smile lighting up her sun-kissed face. “I’d wear my bikini in the [tanning] beds so there’d always be a line.” That is, until her boyfriend—a nude sunbather since his teens—suggested she try catching some rays at Eugene’s own clothing-optional beach on the banks of the Willamette six years ago. Since then, she’s ditched both her tanning bed habit and her bathing suit. “It just feels more comfortable to be relaxing out in the sun without anything on,” she says.
Not that it has always been so easy to get naked. “The first time, I was a little uncomfortable,” McDowell acknowledges. “I was worried about taking off my bottoms.” The top, however, was much easier. “Boobs aren’t necessarily sexual to me, so it didn’t feel awkward to go topless.”
At the moment, it’s hard to imagine McDowell ever feeling awkward. She lounges in the late afternoon sun with such effortlessness that it’s easy to forget she’s not wearing clothes. “I definitely feel much more confident about my body now that I come [to Glassbar Island]. I know that I’m comfortable in my skin and nobody else seems to be bothered by it.” She shrugs nonchalantly, tossing her long blonde hair. “I just don’t see why my chest is so different from his,” she says, motioning to her boyfriend. “Maybe if people saw more naked breasts out there things would be different,” McDowell speculates. “I think a lot of people are just afraid of what they don’t know.” Her advice? “Go get familiar!”
Ashley and her fellow Glassbar Island visitors are not the only ones shedding clothing. Gennifer Moss, a topfree supporter and naturist, takes things one step further. Originally from California, she spends her time riding a bike through the streets of Ashland, Medford, and occasionally Portland clad in nothing more than a hemp thong. In her adopted hometown of Ashland, she is known simply as the Naked Lady, and her fame has grown to the point where large media organizations such as CNN have interviewed her. “Peace begins with ourselves,” she said in a 2008 feature on NBC, “and our bodies are an integral part of ourselves … No part of me is obscene.”
Not everyone shares Moss’ point of view. The City of Ashland passed an ordinance in 2010 outlawing female toplessness in public due to her antics. She was also denied a permit to participate in the Independence Day parade in 2008 as a direct result of her lack of nipple coverage. Parade chairman James Kidd, who denied her request to participate, was unapologetic. “We don’t feel that someone in the parade who is topless or nearly naked is appropriate for a family audience,” he told Fox News. “She’s welcome on any other day of the year to do that, but not on the Fourth of July while in the parade.”
Breasts, it seems, are suitable for viewing only when the center of their main evolutionary function—the nipple—remains hidden. The nipple and areola of female breasts are sexual objects to the American public, while the same parts on a man are commonly exposed. Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 cost CBS $550,000 in fines from the Federal Communications Commission, based solely on the partial exposure of her nipple, which aired for nine-sixteenths of a second. Incidents like this have caused women all over the country to begin to reject the stigmatization of breasts, proclaiming their right to go without shirts in the same way men can. Topfree advocates say the hyper-sexualization of women’s chests has only harmed society. By hiding breasts, American culture has made them an enticing taboo and encouraged both males and females to consider them nothing more than aesthetic ornaments, ignoring their true function as sources of food for infants.
With such strong sentiments against nipple exposure and the sexual status attributed to breasts in the U.S., public breastfeeding has become a controversial action. Thanks to the general view of breasts as sex organs, many see nursing in public as an indecent and impolite act that forces passersby to be exposed to nudity. Supporters of breastfeeding, however, counter with the fact that producing milk is the only natural function of a breast and is far better for both mother and child. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and a combined diet of solid food and breast milk for two years. Still, 26 percent of American women didn’t breastfeed their newborns at all in 2008. Only 32 percent breastfed exclusively by the third month after giving birth. Many women cite difficulties finding places to breastfeed as a reason for introducing secondary food sources, such as baby formula. American attitudes toward naked breasts play a large role in persuading women to make the switch to formula, as discrimination against and harassment of nursing women are all too common despite numerous state laws allowing public breastfeeding.
La Leche League International is one of a number of organizations that devotes itself to promoting breast milk over formula. With outposts in fifty-seven countries and all fifty states, La Leche League provides support and information for mothers all over the globe. The local chapter in Eugene meets every fourth Tuesday of the month in Friends Church, a Quaker establishment on the west side of town. The room is sparse but comfortable, with a circle of chairs around the outside and crates of books on breastfeeding and pregnancy in one corner. Sue Scott, a volunteer leader of the group, sits serenely near the door, warmly welcoming visitors. Her dark hair, threaded with silver, is tied neatly back at her shoulders. Around her sit a handful of women ranging in age from twenty-three to mid-sixties. Two toddlers play on the carpet under the watchful eye of their mothers; two more of the attendees are visibly pregnant.
“La Leche League is ultimately a support group,” Sue says. “Whether it’s your first baby or your fifth, you’re going to have questions [about breastfeeding]. With every baby, you have to relearn how to nurse.” La Leche League, Sue says, is there to offer the help mothers need to breastfeed in a society that normalizes bottles and formula over nursing.
Christina, a bright-eyed young woman with short black hair and sharp features who is training to become a La Leche League leader, is quick to add that the purpose of La Leche League is not to judge mothers who choose formula. “We’re accepting,” she says firmly. “[The members] have our personal opinions, and we might express them, but we don’t want to offend anyone. We just believe that mothers should have all the information that’s out there.”
Everyone in the room at meetings can attest to the fact that breastfeeding is not always easy, especially not in modern America. “People don’t always react kindly,” says Audra Williams, the mother of one of the babies tearing around the room. She watches her daughter from the corner of her eye, her slender body always ready to stop any real mischief. “I’ve had a few times where I’ve been feeding [my daughter] in public and people will stop and say something.” She shrugs her thin shoulders, a lopsided smile on her small face. “My brother really doesn’t like it, but I figure he should just deal with it.”
The topic of discrimination is a hot one; many of the women have experienced some issues while nursing outside of the home. Christina even tells of a friend who was called a pig by a man while she was breastfeeding in a mall.
“You try to be discreet about it,” Williams says, “but sometimes the baby just won’t let you.” In the hot summer months it can be especially difficult, she says, because a nursing blanket traps in the heat and makes both mother and child uncomfortable. “I try not to just whip out my boob wherever, but if the baby’s hungry, she’s hungry.” As if to prove her point, Audra picks her daughter up and pulls down one side of her camisole to let the child eat. Very little shows—just a hint of a curve against the toddler’s soft cheek. “I’ve stopped being self-conscious about it.”
La Leche League meetings are a refuge for breastfeeding mothers, but outside the safe walls of the quiet Quaker church, the world is rarely as understanding. In April, Bethany Morton of Saint Paul, Minnesota, said she was asked to leave Old Country Buffet because she was breastfeeding her baby. Initially, she attempted to cover herself with a blanket, but says her baby kicked it off, leaving part of Morton’s breast exposed. Minnesota law protects breastfeeding mothers regardless of nipple exposure. Still, according to Morton, a server and a manager both asked her to leave and later called the police. They took no action, but Morton assembled a boycott of the company and staged a “nurse-in” at the restaurant on April 12, 2010. She and over a dozen mothers and supporters sat outside the buffet and nursed their children in a form of protest. Morton said the parent company initially defended the employees, stating that Old Country Buffet was a “family restaurant” and thus, could not allow women to breastfeed without covering up. They have since apologized, but the Facebook page, “Boycott Old Country Buffet (they don’t like breastfeeding),” still has more than 2,000 members.
Incidents of discrimination are not just unique to restaurants. In early June, Colorado resident Sandra Snow was breastfeeding her baby at a baseball game in Denver. She said she had moved to an empty section and covered herself fully, but ushers still came to tell her she had to leave. “[They] told me I needed to [breastfeed] in the family restroom,” Snow said, but the idea of feeding her baby in a bathroom did not sit well with her. “What other time do we eat and use the restroom? That was not an appropriate area for me to feed a child,” she said. Colorado law allows nursing mothers to feed their children in any location, public or private, but the humiliation Snow felt at the rebuke caused her to leave early.
Critics, male and female alike, argue that public breastfeeding is disrespectful to anyone who might not wish to see a naked breast. “Cover up or stay home,” a commenter on the Star Tribune’s website stated in response to Bethany Morton’s story. The argument is that nursing indiscriminately, without any attempt to be discreet, is what causes confrontations. But what can women do when their babies refuse to eat under a blanket? Many nursing mothers report that their infants scream and kick until the cover is removed. For women exclusively breastfeeding their children, few choices remain. Babies fed breast milk alone must nurse seven to twelve times a day, which leaves little interim time to go out without feeding. When covering up is not an option, mothers can either nurse uncovered and risk offending people, stay home for the majority of the day, or forgo the exclusive breastfeeding recommended by the WHO.
In her essay on public nursing, Jacqueline H. Wolf, a professor of social medicine at Ohio University, says freedom to nurse is an essential ingredient to raising breastfeeding rates. “Women who have successfully breastfed for long periods of time know that unless women can feed their babies anytime, anywhere, they’re going to end up housebound,” she says. When women do not have that key ability, due to either perceived lack of legal protection or social stigma, they are less likely to breastfeed as recommended.
It is no wonder, then, that the United States has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the developed world. 007 Breasts, a website devoted to normalizing the use of breasts to feed babies, has a section that allows readers from around the world to write in with their viewpoints. Responders from six continents and hundreds of countries have left their cultural perspectives about breastfeeding on the site, and the vast majority support nursing anywhere, anytime. A Sri Lankan poster identified as Ruhunu wrote that despite his country’s relatively conservative culture, nursing is perfectly acceptable outside of the home. “Women do not go topless at the beach [in Sri Lanka], but they have absolutely no hesitation about breastfeeding in public,” he wrote. “Breastfeeding is considered something sacred and natural, and I hope it remains that way in my country for generations to come.”
Americans, however, often view things differently. When the general public is uncomfortable with the act, mothers are hesitant to nurse. The underlying sentiment is that breastfeeding is somehow dirty and shameful—an attitude directly related to American society’s highly sexualized view of breasts. The end result is that many children do not benefit from the myriad of health advantages associated with breast milk. Formula feeding is associated with increased chances of allergies, obesity, gastrointestinal problems, and a lower IQ. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, passes on antibodies from mother to baby, nurtures their bond, and even helps women lose the weight they may have gained during pregnancy.
To women like McDowell, Moss, and the members of La Leche League, the censoring of breasts in America has gone too far. Whether large or small, perky or pendulous, boobs are more than just funbags—they have a biological function to fill. There is nothing inherently indecent or obscene about them. They’re just breasts. So the next time the heat gets unbearable, think about busting them out.