Thomas Pluck hopes that the recent lifting of the ban on toplessness in New York City will bring about positive change.
As a writer, I’ve followed the Topless Co-Ed Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society for some time. They are a group of women who relax, sunbathe, and read together in public in the comfort of their own skin, making use of the recent legal decision that allows women in New York City to exist without covering their breasts in public.
As expected, this small group has generated quite a bit of attention and controversy. Seeing them at the New York Public library steps before the lions, Patience and Fortitude, was quite moving, and I don’t mean stirring in the loin area. When I saw their latest photo shoot, I was reminded of numerous photos that have surfaced recently of suffragettes in London who trained in martial arts (bartitsu, the same art Sherlock Holmes was written to use) to keep their protesters from being hassled and arrested by police. It’s a lost picture of rebels who changed the world, and part of me, the part that wasn’t simply dazzled by brave, beautiful women, wondered if I was seeing a similar act of rebellion that would have some small part in history.
I imagined these photos getting rediscovered a hundred years from now, like those photos of the suffragist bodyguards in London, forgotten pioneers and heroines fighting the backward and oppressive mores of their age. Or was I just enjoying the view? I won’t deny that the Topless Pulp women are beautiful. It takes bravery and confidence to bare yourself in public for any amount of time. I spent a weekend once in a naturist retreat, and I can still feel the knot in my stomach. I’m not comfortable with my body, I’ve never gone to gyms with showers and locker rooms. When I used a sauna recently, I felt like Tobias Fünke, the never-nude (there are dozens of us!) in my modesty.
My thoughts are mixed. Certainly there is exhibitionism at work. I’ve watched the Topless Pulp crew, on their blog, go from quiet secluded park settings and rooftop pools to rowing in the lake in Central Park, to this most public of places. Working themselves up to it. The first instinct is to chide them for seeking attention. But women attract attention no matter how they’re clothed, and I sat back and thought of the co-ed shower scenes in Starship Troopers, and how back then it was seen as a joke. Because men and women could NEVER be comfortable together naked. Our atavistic urges would crush our fragile brains and we’d be reduced to slavering animals.
We all know we’re better than that. At least when other people are watching. And that’s what’s so brave and powerful about what these women are doing. They are forcing us to confront centuries of Puritan upbringing. When we see a man without a shirt, sometimes we think he’s a show-off, but most of the time, depending on the situation, we just don’t care. Guy working on the lawn on a hot day? Who cares. Driving his car, maybe not. Riding a bike, we probably judge his physique before commenting. But a woman, we immediately think there’s something wrong with her, she must crave attention. Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to hide those away to make men hunger to see them?
I think about breasts a lot, no surprise. But what I think about is how much of masculine desire for that particular part of a woman is caused by culture and secrecy. In tribes where women go topless, breasts are not fetishized. No, we fetishize what is hidden. Does that mean every woman should go topless all the time? No, but if a few brave pioneers and rebels make us think that breasts aren’t secret goodies, they are just another body part, maybe they’ll move us a short way toward viewing women as people and not fetishizing them in their entirety, as strange unknowable creatures we need to attain and protect.
Or maybe I just like all variety of breasts, but for now I’d like to think they’re forcing us slowly toward inexorable change.