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Free the nipple: meet the women campaigning for the right to go topless

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Anna Brech
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Going topless is a discrete and careful act for many women - but should it be a fundamental human right? Yes, says a growing movement of women taking their #freethenipple movement through the US Supreme Court system

Topless sunbathing on the beach is a rite many women around the world enjoy; but the very same act got three activists arrested in the American state of New Hampshire in 2016.

Heidi Lilley, 58, Ginger Pierro, 28, and 27-year-old Kia Sinclair lost a Supreme Court appeal against their convictions for indecent exposure this weekend.

The women argued that the state’s indecency laws discriminate on the basis of gender. 

“It’s pathetic how highly sexualized a woman’s breast is,” Lilley tells the New York Times, in a new profile. “I thought that it was necessary that we make a change to that.” 

Sinclair points out that even though the state laws made no mention of breasts or nipples, she and the other two women were handcuffed by police and taken to a station in the 2016 incident. This happened after they removed their tops and refused to put them back on when other beach-goers complained. 

“When we were driving in the [police] car, there was a guy — totally shirtless — walking outside,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh, are you going to get him?’”

All three women are part of the Free The Nipple campaign, a global movement that advocates for the right of women to go topless in public.

The organisation was set up by activist and actor Lina Esco in 2012. 

It’s intended not only to give women the choice to bare their breasts publicly, but also to prompt a wider conversation about gender equality and body politics. 

Free The Nipple argues that women’s breasts should not be seen in a provocative or sexual light; and that when we, as a society, do so, we reinforce the concept of gender-based shame, underscoring a fundamental inequality between men and women. 

As Lilley, one of the women involved in the New Hampshire protest, says: “I don’t want to shake things up… But I do want the same things as you [men]. I want to be treated the same way as you are, damn it..I just want to normalize it. My breasts don’t shoot flames, and there are no bullets coming out of them, either.”

Her co-activist Sinclair says she only became aware of the taboo around breasts when she started breastfeeding (an act that many women are made to feel uncomfortable for, even now).

“I had never thought about it until I was a breast-feeding mom,” Sinclair said. “How come men are just running around with their shirts off, mowing the lawn and going swimming, and I can’t do so when I’m feeding my baby?”

In passing judgement in this latest ruling, the New Hampshire Surpreme Court concluded that women’s breasts are an “erogenous zone” that are expected to be covered up based on “social norms”. 

It added that the indecency laws were not discriminatory since both men and women are barred from exposing body parts that are “intimately associated with the procreation function”.

However, one of the judges on the panel disagreed, writing in a dissenting option that, “If a woman and a man wear the exact same clothing on the beach, the woman is engaging in unlawful behavior — but the man is not.”

Dan Hynes, a lawyer representing the Free The Nipple trio, said they were “extremely disappointed” in the ruling, which effectively condoned “making it a crime to be female”.

He said that the women may now appeal their case again at the United States Supreme Court. He added that it would only be a matter of time before women being topless in certain places, such as the beach, becomes standard practice in America. 

Under current laws, it’s not an offence to be naked in public in England and Wales, unless it can be proved that it was done to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

So technically, women could still be arrested for being topless in public, if it’s deemed to be offensive. In reality, though, many women do go topless on beaches and in parks during summer - albeit with a discretion that the Free The Nipple movement would argue should not be necessary.

Images: Getty, Instagram

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.