As for the mountain bike ride, I had really wanted to take my top off the whole time, but only mustered the courage when we were stopped for a while in the hot sun. When I asked my biking buddy if he would feel uncomfortable, he most sensibly replied, “Not at all! I’m about to take mine off.” A few female hikers walked by on the other side of the creek and did a quadruple take, then another hiker in the opposite direction, who eventually yelled across, “Heather, is that you?” Turns out it was a friend of mine walking her dog. She engaged with me in conversation, clearly feeling very comfortable, and stating that she was happy to see a topfree woman out in nature, and hoped it would be catching on!
In general, those are the the two types I reactions I get to being bare-chested – either people act as if nothing is out of the ordinary (perhaps with great effort, which I do appreciate), or they encourage me with positive, respectful comments. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I’ve been at this for a few years and have not had a single negative interaction. This doesn’t mean that I’m all happy-go-lucky about it. When the weather is warm, I struggle with the status quo on a daily basis. As Valarie Kaur (award-winning filmmaker, speaker and advocate) says, “We have a choice: to continue supporting the status quo, or to follow our moral compass – and leap.” I am not yet free to remove my shirt whenever and wherever I please, so my choices are often preceded by much deliberation. When I DO manage to take that leap of faith however, the taste of liberty is so sweet, that I know it is worth it. In the words of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a suffragist and speaker from the 1850s, “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven; that word is Liberty.”
I come back from from those times feeling tremendously victorious, and would like to help other women feel the same, so I’ve devised a step-by-step guide to help you on your journey of liberation. And a quick word about the law here; In many places in the US, it is both legal and illegal at the same time, as there are often overlapping conflicting laws, e.g. state vs. municipal, municipal vs. city park, etc. I have given up trying to figure out the law, because it is so convoluted that pretty much anything you do could be possibly illegal according to some “open-to-interpretation”-type law, and besides, that will not lead to change anyway. The changes we have seen thus far in terms of women gaining the right to be topfree have all been through direct action, and not through following some beleaguered legislative process to a dead end. Many women have sued for their wrongful arrest, which has thus led to changes in the laws so that they protect women’s constitutional rights. The fact is, all humans whether male- or female-bodied, young or old, fat or skinny, sometimes feel hot, sticky, sweaty, constricted by tight clothing, or just want to feel the sun or gentle breeze on their chest, and this right should not be restricted to only one half of the population. For more information on topfree cities, legalities, news and happenings, visit www.tera.ca or gotopless.org.
It’s possible to change the public consciousness little by little, and most likely you will NOT get arrested, unless you want to. If you are in a place where someone is even able to call the cops on you, and then they actually find you, you will most likely receive a simple warning. Sometimes, sad to say, the cops themselves don’t even know the law and are simply responding to a complaint. If you have an understanding of the law that is different to theirs, challenge it, and see what happens. I had success with this at last year’s GoTopless Day in San Francisco, where it is legal for women to be bare-chested. Upon responding to a complaint, the cops who showed up did not have a clear understanding of the law, so we made them check in with their supervisor about the correct interpretation. They left us alone, and our topfree cavorting in the park continued in peace.
Whatever level of comfort (or discomfort!) you’re at with topfreedom, know that it is a journey, so it’s a good idea to take whatever steps you can, no matter how small, and trust that they are leading you in the right direction. Below, I take you through some possible steps to building up your courage.
1. At Home: This is a lot easier if you live by yourself or with a partner, but if you have housemates, you can also choose to do it at times when you know you will be home alone. Just see what it feels like to be in the space without your top on. You may start with your own bedroom (“Hey, wait a minute – why do I have on a tight bra and two layers of tank top when I’m alone and its 80 degrees?”), and eventually feel comfortable in other areas of the house. The thought of someone “popping in” unexpectedly will eventually start to seem like no big deal.
2. In the Yard: This was a big liberator for me. It is a good bridge to feeling comfortable with your top off outdoors because you’re not “in public” yet. You could sunbathe, garden, do yard work, work on your bicycle, make jewelery or other projects, all bare-chested in your yard or patio.
3. The Quick Change: This may be your first public appearance, and refers to getting changed in a somewhat public area without caring if someone glimpses your breasts for a couple seconds, e.g. changing at the beach, changing in the parking lot after a sweaty bike ride, changing in a park when your under-layer gets too warm. It’s best done with the air of making it a “non-event”.
4. Bodies of Water: This is a great excuse of go topfree, since you can count on half of the other people on the beach being bare-chested already! It’s a natural place to want to take one’s top of, and who hasn’t heard of topless sunbathing or skinny-dipping? People are less likely to think you’re a freak of nature, and generally understand that you’re just a courageous woman who wants a little freedom. You could start at a friend’s pool, then graduate to hidden streams, or maybe a lake you have to hike a long ways to get to. Eventually, you can try it at bodies of water where there’s more people around, and hopefully enlist a few friends! I’ve tried this at popular beaches full of families, with no ordeal whatsoever.
5. On the Trail / Out in Nature: Being in nature can help us reconnect with our bodies and inspire us to shed a sweaty, or otherwise stuffy shirt. Plus it’s not like the cop cars are going to come rolling up. You can find a hidden picnic or reading spot in a grove of trees, lay out in the sun, or take your shirt off during a few minutes of a strenuous hike or a gentle stroll. I’ve even found it comfortable to go trail jogging without a top on. It’s a good to practice even a just a couple minutes of topfreedom in a place where you might reasonably run into people, as a big part of this is about normalizing it. The more bare-chested women are out there, the more acceptable it becomes. Be a trail blazer!
6. At a Summer Festival: At many summer festivals, in northern California anyway, bare-chested women are nothing out of the norm. At others, you might turn a few heads, but festivals are generally accepting places to try out your new topfreedom. Now that’s something to celebrate! Even if you think you’re the only one, my experience is that once you do it, others will follow suit. Women are just waiting for permission, and you just might be able to inspire that.
6. In a Park: Ever get jealous seeing the guys strip off their shirts and lay in the grass in your town park? Well, next time you can just say, “That’s a great idea!” and do the same. I’ve found men to be quite understanding of this, since it’s a freedom they can relate to experiencing.
7. International GoTopless Day! This day is observed on the Sunday closest to Women’s Equality Day (August 26th), which marks the anniversary of women’s hard-won right to vote. Perhaps you are ready to support this movement, with or without your shirt on. The point is, it should be your decision to make. To check for activities in your area or to organize one, visit gotopless.org. You have to get past the whole “spiritual leader, Rael” thing. The Gotopless Day event I organized in San Francisco last year had not one “Raelian” present, so don’t be put off by feeling like you don’t belong. This is about women’s freedom no matter what your creed. Also, you might just want to plan something more informal with your friends in observance of this day.
8. Come out of the Closet! Once you start talking with other women (and men) about your beliefs in equality, you’ll realize you’re not alone. Someone’s got to be the ice breaker to get people talking about these taboo subjects, so why not you? Plus, it’s so much easier to do once you realize you’re supported; strength in numbers! (Although I don’t let that stop me!)