Issue 9 : The ‘topless’ debate

You would have imagined, now that we’re into the second decade of the 21st century, that the ‘topless’ debate, which probably began in the early 60s, with Rudi Gernreich’s monokini, would have been won, lost, done and dusted by now. The debate’s now 50 years, half a century, old!


Peggy Moffitt modelling Rudi Gernreich’s monokini, 1963

Throughout the 1960s we had ‘women’s lib’, and ‘bra burning’ (although that was a nice conflation, in the context of the times, relating to draft card burning in protest at the Vietnam War, and an echo from the 1870s, when Elizabeth Stuart Phelps urged women to burn their whalebone corsets).

A brief history of ‘toplessness’ is readily available at wikipedia.

Yet the debate rages on, and in some ways has become front line news again, with the actions of the Femen group (whom we’ve referenced on the blog before), and the actions of the likes of Moira Johnson, who regularly appears topless in New York as a form of feminist action to highlight inequality. She has a Facebook and tumblr web presence, for those who wish to connect via these things. moira-johnston

Moira Johnston topless on the streets of NYC

Even in a non-sexual context (and topless sunbathing or publicly topless, as in Moira Johnston’s case, must surely be seen as non-sexual), with breasts being utilised for the purpose for which they exist -child feeding, there’s still a collective intake of breath from the patriarchal society which seeks to keep them hidden, undercover and out of sight. Various countries have different approaches to the issue of breastfeeding in public, with ‘the developed and allegedly ‘civilised’ West some distance behind ‘the Third World’.

‘Breastfeeding and human lactation’, a book by Jan Riordan, claims that in the likes of Saudi Arabia it is not uncommon for a veiled mother to freely and openly breast feed her child. (see pic, below)

saudi breast

Other countries, such as India, where public nudity might be frowned upon, take an equally enlightened view to public breastfeeding.

Attitudes to public toplessness, dress and ‘immodesty’ in Swaziland, to take one example, are varied according to context, and the foreigner’s perception of ‘the Reed Dance’ are such that I’ve written a separate article on this, found in SLN9, here.

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‘Topless’ is now widely accepted at beaches all over the world. And not before time!


But what about the street?

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Or in an airport?

I think the problem with ‘topless’ in certain locations is that it remains unsuitable (just as males with their shirts off is unsuitable in some situations). I’m not convinced Moira Johnson’s activism is ‘suitable’ in the context of shopping, but it’s important to realise that it’s activism like hers that pushes the argument to the forefront of debate. Only by doing what she does will that debate be move forward so that women have the fundamental right to be topless, if they so wish, in locations that are suitable -swimming pools, beaches, sunbathing in a public park.

It’s a difficult debate to grasp properly. On one hand, breasts remain sexualised by (male) society. We de-sexualise them, to a degree, by making them more visible, everywhere, and so men don’t take that ‘phoaar!!!! titties!!!’ approach that they currently do. But in the long run we don’t want to see nipples, male or female, in the checkout queue at Walmart/Lidl’s/Tescos, do we?


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