Does the US have a problem with topless women?

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News, Colorado

  • Published
Topless women in 2017 protestImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Topless women in 2017 protest

Women fed up with being forced to cover up their breasts and nipples are challenging American laws about nudity and sparking a debate about the country's attitude to the naked female form.

In September, Effie Krokos was awarded a $50,000 (£38,178) civil settlement after she took her shirt off in public in Loveland, Colorado, and was issued a summons for doing so.

The 20-year-old was charged with indecent exposure after she played Frisbee topless in her fiance's front yard.

She had thought that the law in Colorado had changed and she was safe to take her shirt off when she got hot and sweaty during the game - after all her fiance had removed his top too. They were equal, right?

Image source, Effie Krokos
Image caption,
Effie Krokos was playing Frisbee topless because she thought it was allowed

"I thought it was fine because there had been a ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals which covers Colorado. I'd read an article about it saying that it was OK for women to go topless.

"It was a warm September day and the weather was roasting. I took my shirt off without thinking too much about it."

But a few hours later, a police officer turned up to tell her that there had been complaints and she was facing charges.

Krokos told the BBC: "I kept asking the police officer what I was being charged with, but I was just told I was disgusting the neighbours and that there were children around, and what made it OK for me to think I could be topless?

"I was taken aback because for everyone to be here today who was breastfed, you would have had a topless woman feed you. What is so disgusting about that?"

Life-changing effects

Krokos said that by the time the officer arrived at her home, she was fully clothed while her fiance remained topless, and yet there had been no complaints about him.

"It's not like I was standing in the middle of the road, screaming 'look at me'. I was discreetly playing Frisbee in my yard when I had my top off," she added.

But it didn't matter. She had to get lawyers involved to have the charges dismissed and the case sealed so it would not come up in background checks.

If the charge of indecent exposure had been upheld it would have derailed her dream of teaching.

"There was a risk at one point that I would have been marked down as a sexual predator as indecent exposure is a sexual offence," Krokos said.

Free the Nipple

Krokos had thought she would be safe because of a court ruling made earlier in the year.

Brit Hoagland and Samantha Six, activists with Free the Nipple - a global movement that campaigns for gender equality in nudity - sued the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, for females to have the right to be topless in the same way men could be.

In Fort Collins, females aged 10 and older were not allowed to "knowingly appear in any public place" with their breasts exposed. This also included private places where there was any chance of somebody at ground level seeing them from a public spot.

There were some exemptions such as breast-feeding but Hoagland says the city council's stance "criminalised and sexualised minors over 10 years old" and Hoagland wanted to take a stand.

Image source, Brit Hoagland
Image caption,
Brit Hoagland sued the City of Fort Collins in Colorado over its ban on women being topless

Backed by lawyers as well as supporters of the Free the Nipple campaign, the pair saw success in February when the city's ban was ruled unconstitutional by the Federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Gregory Phillips wrote in the ruling: "We're left, as the district court was, to suspect that the City's professed interest in protecting children derives not from any morphological differences between men's and women's breasts but from negative stereotypes depicting women's breasts, but not men's breasts, as sex objects."

This court's jurisdiction includes Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, therefore many eyes are on these states and local governments to see how they will deal with women choosing to go topless following the ruling.

In September, after spending $322,000 (£244,964) Fort Collins eventually decided to give up its fight to keep battling the lawsuit and rewrote its local laws to reflect the court's judgment.

The local paper The Coloradoan reported that the issue remained controversial with some wishing to continue the fight, stating the original ban on public nudity had reflected the values of the community.

Changing words

Fort Collins mayor Kristin Stephens was among those who voted to remove the wording from the city code after the federal court's ruling. She told the BBC: "I can't speak for everyone, but I chose not to proceed because I felt a protracted legal battle was not in the best interest of the city."

While Fort Collins chose to amend the wording of its laws, other cities and states have not necessarily done so.

In Krokos's case, Loveland's local laws do not allow exposure in public places but the city agreed to the payout following advice from its insurers after the law firm representing Hoagland and Six got involved.

And the Oklahoma City Police Department, for example, has said that it will continue to enforce the local laws banning women from appearing topless in public, with the city's attorney general Mike Hunter stating: "These courts have recognised that states and political subdivisions have a legitimate interest in prohibiting public nudity as traditionally defined."

There are some places where it is legal for women to be topless. In Philadelphia, women can be naked but not "lewd", while in New York City, female toplessness is allowed. The website Go Topless reports that there are many states with ambiguous laws regarding what's allowed and what isn't.

In New Hampshire, three Free the Nipple protesters were arrested in 2016 when they went topless on the beach. Activists now want the Supreme Court to step in.

Image source, Francis G. Mayer/Getty
Image caption,
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they became aware of their naked state has inspired many artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder

Professor Amy Werbel is the author of Lust on Trial, a book which delves into the history of American obscenity.

She says America's opposition to female nudity is rooted in "evangelical Christian opposition to the display of the body that goes back to the arrival of the Puritans in New England".

"They brought with them a very particular reading of the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. And when Adam and Eve come into the world of knowledge, the first thing they realise about themselves is their nakedness, and they fashion aprons to cover themselves.

"It's a pivotal moment in which you recognise the shame of nudity. And that has lingered."

Werbel says in this particular theological thinking, in place when America's laws were enshrined, argue that it's the female body "which holds the responsibility for the fall of humankind".

Image source, Amy Werbel
Image caption,
Amy Werbel says America is now seeing a resurgence of the evangelical right

A search for the hashtag #FreeTheNipple generates over 4 million posts on Instagram, yet Instagram's community guidelines state that nudity - including photos of female nipples - is generally not allowed on the platform, with a few exceptions.

Werbel says: "So if then someone claims they have transitioned to being a man, then their nipples are male and that will be allowed. If someone transitions male to female, then the nipples are female and not allowed."

Image source, ullstein bild/Getty
Image caption,
The Free the Nipple campaign has captured the attention of the world

It's a complex subject, warns Werbel, who says that social media company algorithms cannot understand nuance, such as whether the posted image depicts free-speech protected art or illegal pornography.

No longer discreet

Kathryn Watzel, president of the American Association of Nude Recreation (AANR), says more people are now fighting in courts for their legal right to nudity than before.

"In the past, a lot of these attempts were quieter and discreet and people wouldn't take it to court but now it's a different case," she says. "Things change, attitudes change. Remember just 20 years ago breastfeeding in public was a no-no in many people's eyes."

Image source, AANR
Image caption,
Kathryn J Watzel says the AANR will support people's right to be naked in places where it is legal

Watzel says her family's attitude while growing up allowed for at-home nudity, but she understood that wasn't the case for everyone.

"My mum would do housework sometimes in the nude as it was so hot and uncomfortable," she said.

"My husband's background was different. Nobody in his family came out of their bedroom or the bathroom without clothes or a robe on."

Krokos remains astounded by what happened to her in Loveland, saying that in some states with legal nudity, people "won't bother you" but in states out west and in America's so-called Bible Belt, "it's like it's a crime against God if someone see you topless."

"This isn't about feminism; this is about equality.

"I do think Americans are afraid of nudity, especially when it comes to women's bodies because many have that argument in their head that every little bit of a woman's body is for sex. But that's not the case."

You might also like: