Alex talks about her experiences going top free at festivals and in Manchester City Centre. We thought we would take this moment to point out this gallery of “normal” breasts; whilst we don’t agree with everything on the site, it can be a pretty useful resource.
In early July, we had a heat wave. I was at a festival in the beautiful Ribble valley and it was around 30 degrees C- a far cry from our usual weather in Lancashire! Everyone was lounging around on the grass, soaking up the sun and naturally, a lot of people were shirtless. Wanting to enjoy the sun on my skin too, I took my top off, but within minutes I had security personnel telling me that I had to put my top back on or leave the festival. The difference between me and the numerous other topless folk there? They were all men and I am a woman.
When I went topless in the centre of Manchester while filming “My daughter the teenage nudist”, it took less than a minute for a police officer to come over and insist I put my top back on. He didn’t even seem to notice my topless male friend standing right next to me. In Michael Deacon’s review in the Telegraph he describes the policeman as “valiantly trying to maintain eye contact”; yes, how valiant of him to manage not to stare at my breasts, despite such a provocation on my part (can you hear me rolling my eyes?!) He goes on to say that “[w]hile Alex was admonishing the policeman for his sexism (walking around topless in public is “a freedom you’re denied as a woman”), a fully dressed man, brandishing a mobile phone, asked if it was OK to take a photograph of her. “No, it is not OK!” she snapped, clearly affronted…” From Deacon’s tone, his implication is perfectly clear: if you get your tits out, what do you expect?
This response is so telling of our attitude to women’s bodies; by revealing my chest I am somehow inviting harassment, and if a man can manage not to ogle me, he should be applauded. Now I am not so naive or optimistic to have thought that my going topless was not going to get a reaction. I knew perfectly well what to expect. But that is exactly the point I was trying to highlight – a woman can expect to be sexualised, told she is being indecent, harassed or even arrested simply for possessing a woman’s body. The freedom I am angry about being denied is not the freedom to walk around Manchester city centre topless, it is the freedom from constant objectification, sexualisation and the male gaze.
There is no excuse for this double standard – there is simply no good reason why a woman’s chest should be indecent in the same context in which a man’s is innocuous. At the festival, when I asked for a justification the first thing they said was “there are children here.” Yes, God forbid an innocent child should see a woman’s bare chest, they might… what, exactly? Be corrupted into thinking that a female nipple is no more obscene than a male one? See a woman enjoying the sunshine? But of course such a relaxed attitude to women’s bodies would be at odds with the cultural message they are receiving every day- that a woman’s body is a sexual object first and foremost. After gently suggesting that children couldn’t care less about a topless woman, the second explanation the festival security gave me was “there are teenage lads here and it will cause a commotion.” Like Michael Deacon, they felt that my breasts, and not the teenage boys themselves, would be responsible for any ensuing trouble; indeed men would be incapable of simply treating me as another human being rather than a sexual object once my nipples were visible.
It is worth noting that the issue is not having breasts, it is being a woman. I have no doubt in my mind that a flat chested woman, or a woman who had undergone a double mastectomy, or a trans woman without breasts would face a similar challenge to being topless in a public setting. I have no doubt that if an androgynous person were to go topless, the deciding question in whether or not to allow them would be- are they a woman? Indeed when the androgynous, male-bodied model Andrej Pejic appeared, arguably presented as female, topless on the cover of Dossier Journal, shops and newsstands placed the magazine on the top shelf or even covered it up. Pejic, as biologically male, does not have breasts, but when presented as female, the acceptable male chest becomes an unacceptable female one.
Yes, I knew exactly what to expect when I went shirtless in Manchester city centre, but how should you respond to a society that tells you your body is obscene because of your gender, other than by refusing to accept that? My suggestion to everyone, regardless of gender, is this: resist the objectification of women in your own thoughts and behaviours, turn off MTV, go topless in the sunshine (when you feel safe to do so), challenge sexism in any guise, think of your body as a vessel that allows you to experience the world and recognise that other people’s bodies do the same for them, they are not there for your titillation.