“Free the Nipple” campaign should not be priority for equality movement

Laurel Thompson

Laurel Thompson
Laurel Thompson

Gender equality activists lined the intersection of Mulberry Street and College Avenue Aug. 23 in a Facebook-organized event called “Go Topless Fort Collins 2015,” a local twist on the Free the Nipple campaign recently initiated in New York. The demonstration attracted women and men alike, each flaunting tape-covered or painted breasts and holding satirical posters that criticize Colorado’s public indecency laws.

Although the fundamental issue of gender inequality is represented through these kinds of protests and the demonstrators’ bravery is admirable, the topless campaign might be taking gender inequality too literally.

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First and foremost, the Colorado Criminal Law Guide defines public nudity as a class one misdemeanor on the premise that indecent exposure causes “affront or alarm” to those in proximity. In addition to that, any partial nudity that causes the same discomfort to the public is no exception to the rule and those who disregard it as so are subject to compliance with sex offender charges.

While I do not agree that a woman should be charged as a sex offender for going topless, it is reasonable that she should be held responsible for covering her breasts in public as she would her genitals. To put it simply, there are biological differences between men and women that give women another area to cover in public and I believe that men would also be expected to wear shirts in public if they had breasts. Due to this mere biological difference of the sexes, it is neither sexist nor discriminatory to women that Colorado law prohibits them from going topless in public, and in no way does the law suggest that women should be ashamed of their bodies.

So what about breastfeeding? Does a bra count as a top? What about artistic expression involving nudity? These are the exceptions that deserve discussion and clarification, rather than the general topless debate.

According to the Colorado Public Breastfeeding Law, “A mother may breastfeed in any place she has a right to be,” which is anywhere she is deemed an “invitee,” or a welcomed guest of that environment. A popular example of this is breastfeeding in a restaurant or in the workplace, both of which allow public breastfeeding if the woman has a right to be there and is in no way trespassing.

While going topless for the sake of “doing it because men can” seems a pointless effort to me, I fully support the exception of breast exposure for nursing mothers because the intent is purely maternal and serves a practical function. To be offended by breastfeeding is therefore inherently sexist, as it is unique to women and there is no other foundation for prejudice besides gender. On the other hand, a woman who takes offense to nursing mothers may have a prejudice against motherhood or be embarrassed by the confidence of those who share her gender.

Several other blurred lines regarding toplessness are the use of nudity for artistic expression, and what constitutes a publicly acceptable “top.” For both instances, it is up to the discretion of specific institutions whether toplessness is appropriate, and to what degree.

For example, if a dance or art studio uses nudity to convey a message within its own walls or within the walls of a consenting institution, it is appropriate. If a beach allows nudity and the local government complies, it is appropriate. Hypothetically speaking, if legislature approved topless equality for men and women, the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule would still apply to anyone, regardless of gender, within any institution, store or area that enforces it.

As a feminist and a woman, I am a strong advocator for gender equality, yet my distaste for the topless equality campaign is influenced by the more pressing issues I believe take precedence over our inability to go topless.

For instance, the gender pay gap has not shown any significant improvement recently, resulting in women earning a steady 78 cents to a man’s dollar in the same occupation. While this might seem like a small difference to some, it adds up over time to show an exponential difference when comparing a man and a woman’s yearly salary.

Additionally, women continue to be highly underrepresented in governments, national and worldwide, leading us to have many laws and decisions made for us by a majority male group. We are only fortunate in the U.S. to battle the lack of total equality while women in most developing countries encounter much higher rates of violence, abuse and misogynistic culture. Although predominantly male governments are not necessarily a terrible thing, and I’m not saying that their decisions are always bad or anti-woman, I believe women should have equal representation in their governments and obtain an equal amount of authority as their male counterparts.

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Maybe then we would achieve equal pay.

Although there are countless examples of gender inequality to list, these are just a few of the biggest ones. So, to the protesters and those who are distracted by their media coverage, I would encourage a return of focus to the issues that directly impact and discriminate against women in their day-to-day lives. I can say without hesitation that I’d much rather live in a world that promotes equal authority and pay for the sexes than be able to walk my dog topless.

Collegian Columnist Laurel Thompson can be reached at hmcgill@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurelanne1996.