On a sunny cool Maine day, I had the task this afternoon of picking up my seven year old son and the daughters of some friends (aged 7 and 11), grabbing dinner at Amato’s and then bringing them home to play for the evening. En route to get them I noticed a woman walking around campus with a long skirt but no top. On the way back I mentioned what I had seen, and of course the kids wanted me to drive by so they could see. As I did my son asked why she wasn’t wearing a shirt, “girls are supposed to wear shirts.”
The 11 year old filled him in on the story. A student here at UMF, Andrea Simoneau, is planning an April 30th topless parade here in Farmington. Conveniently, it will be right alongside the building in which I work. She organized a similar parade in Portland not too long ago. The reason is simple: freedom and equal rights. Men can go shirtless, why not women? After picking up our pizza we were driving home when we saw her again; another topless woman had joined her. Interestingly, people seemed non pulsed — this is New England, after all.
But just as Mainers can have a stoic let people do as they please attitude, you also have New England prudes. They have been complaining, asking the legislature to pass a law banning being topless in public. As the law stands now, every woman in the state could decide to go without their shirts and bras tomorrow, and no one would be in trouble.
Some say that the reason men can go shirtless is that women’s breasts are sexual. But having seen the reaction of female friends when a muscular guy takes off his shirt (alas, not when I take mine off), I find it hard to accept the idea that there is anything truly less sexual about topless men. Moreover, are thighs, legs, and the parts of the body you can see on any beach, or on the lawn tanning on any sunny day really that much less sexual? What about lips, fingers and eyes?
The difference is not sexuality, but culture. We’ve learned too see female breasts as an especially sexual feature, forbidden to see or fondle unless invited. As someone who finds legs much more attractive than breasts, I must say I never found that cultural norm convincing. But it’s there. Back in 2001 I was with students in Italy, and they pointed at me and started laughing. I looked behind me and there was nothing but a man running a newsstand. They kept pointing, raising their eyebrows, smiling and gesturing me to look. I thought they were just trying to play a mind game with me and asked them what was going on. “Look,” they said, laughing and pointing. “WHAT?!” I demanded, running out of patience.
They were pointing at the newsstand, and a large poster with a topless woman. Those are so normal in Europe I don’t even notice them. But to Americans steeped in this culture of “breasts as forbidden” it stood out and got their attention. Having been at topless beaches many times, I can say with certainty that it is not a sexual experience to have women without shirts. One gets used to it quickly, and it becomes normal. For those never experiencing the American breast-prudery, it is hardly noticed.
So I agree with these women, there is no reason that women should have to live by the double standard of having to cover their chests. It’s not as serious, but this double standard is based on the same logic that has Muslim women in Saudi Arabia covered head to toe. To be sure, most women (as well as men) would likely choose to cover their chest most of the time. I hope legislators resist the temptation to try to create a new dress code for Maine. Women can walk around bear chested and life goes on.
These women are noticed, but yet as they were walking down town and on campus, they were generally walking alone, handing out fliers for the upcoming parade, and not treated as some kind of freak show. I admire their courage and principle. It’s a calm, non-violent protest of a double standard so entrenched that most people consider having the double standard to be natural.