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Topless in New York – help kickstart an exhibition

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Kate Townshend
WVoN co-editor

New York might be famous for its theatres, Central Park and the Empire State Building.

But one fact that you probably won’t find in the tourist brochures is that it is also one of the few US states where you can engage in a spot of topless sightseeing and still find yourself entirely within the law.

At least as long as it’s somewhere where men would also be allowed to take their tops off.

Despite attitudes that still see bare breasts as somehow provocative and taboo, New York women have had the right to display theirs publicly for quite some time.

Since the case of People Vs Santorelli in fact, in which a group of women arrested for picnicking without tops in 1986 sued to challenge the law that made their arrest possible. As a result, New York State’s highest court struck down the law in 1992 on the grounds that it violated their constitutional rights to equality.

Photographer and public interest attorney Jeff (he seems to go under one name) knows the ruling well.  Not least because he has carried a copy of it around with him the past few years, whilst photographing all sorts of women in all sorts of locations across New York State.

But what makes his photos unusual? They all show women enjoying the public spaces of the city and its surroundings, without their tops on.

Jeff hopes to turn the photographs into an exhibit later this summer, with calendars and coffee table books  to follow.

So what’s the point of getting women to bare their breasts, especially in the sometimes chilly climes of New York?

Jeff explains:

“As a culture, Americans have been conditioned to think of women’s bare breasts as sex organs, and we’re so used to women covering up their breasts out of ‘shame’ because of that conditioning, that we consider it shocking that any woman would choose not to.

“The Topless New York series is designed to dispel those traditional attitudes by showing women topless in public in everyday situations, to challenge not only the notion that breasts are “sexual,” but the notion that baring them in public is ‘weird.’”

In fact, not all of Jeff’s photographs show women from the front at all. The emphasis here is very much on women’s right to be topless without being reduced to the sum of their mammary glands and the photographs deliberately avoid making the breasts themselves centre stage.

As Jeff puts it: “The models aren’t flaunting their breasts, they’re exercising their equal rights under New York’s constitution, and that’s what I’m capturing for these images.”

In a culture where women’s bodies are often used purely for titillation, shock value or marketing, it’s easy to be dismissive of awareness raising campaigns like Jeff’s as  a drop in the ocean when it comes to wider issues of equality. And whilst Jeff makes no claims that this is the most important issue out there, he is still passionate about the value of the work:

“The right to be topless in public matters, and here’s why: Every time you break down one more barrier, one more myth that puts women in a lesser, more ‘shameful,’ less autonomous category, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, the rest of the fight gets easier. And I’ve got a camera, so I might as well use it.”

If the Topless New York project strikes a chord with you, you can find out more about how to get involved at the Kickstarter website.

Of course, it’s not the first time bare breasts have been used in the name of protest lately.

WVoN stories like this onethis one, and this one from just a few days ago make it clear that Jeff’s work is part of a wider movement to reclaim breasts (and women’s bodies in general) as integral, shame-free parts of the women who own them; rather than discombobulated objects of fetishistic fantasy only allowable in contexts of porn or marketing.

The bottom line is that breasts are part of women. And if removing our tops is one way to remove the shame and the shock value that society wants to attach to them, then that has to be a step in the right direction.

  1. Patricia says:

    This is not women’s empowerment.

  2. It’s actually very unusual to see a topless woman in public in New York even though it’s been legal since 1992. You can consider this women’s empowerment if you want to but over 99% (no exaggeration here)of New York women are not interested in topless equality.

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