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Nips ahoy: Experiments in chest equality

Not wearing a shirt is my protest against the prospect of forced birth.
An illustration shows a group of figures holding a topless protest. Across a railing from the topless protestors are another group of figures, including a woman yelling "Shame!" and a man wearing a shirt that reads "boob lover." The words "Nipple Equality" are written in the top left corner of the image.
Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Not wearing a shirt is my protest against the prospect of forced birth.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

In one of my first memories, I’m four years old, running around a backyard pool with my slightly older and therefore infinitely wiser friend, Amanda. I’m wearing only shorts because my mom and I had just dropped by, so I don’t have a proper bathing suit. The sun, air, and water feel good on my skin. Some older boys are playing nearby. Amanda stops, turns to me and asks incredulously, “You’re gonna let boys see your privates?”

My tiny baby mind was blown. My chest was a “private”? Her question cast me as responsible: I was making a bad choice by exposing my body, while the shirtless boys were simply existing in theirs. 

As I grew up, I internalized the restrictions and shame society hurled at my sacred femme bod. But the older I get, the more I throw off that social control like a tight underwire bra. And like a shirt—which is fortunate, because in Madison, nipple equality is a way to stand up against ongoing threats to bodily autonomy.

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Since SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, performance artist, activist, and Topless Evangelist Lili Luxe has been strolling around Capitol Square, freeing the nipple on her lunch break and weekends. Luxe is promoting equal bodily rights and fundraising—more than $7,000 to date—for the Wisconsin Women’s Medical Fund, an abortion facilitator. Madison’s only laws around states of dress concern lewd and lascivious behavior. Full frontal is nothing new for Luxe: she held her ninth-annual Equality Bar Crawl a few weeks ago. For years, I was too timid to attend. I actually felt safer on the annual Madison World Naked Bike Ride, surrounded by middle-aged men. But bullshit times call for daring measures. 

Every so often, I join Luxe for lunch. A few months into her campaign, the Capitol crowd doesn’t pay much attention. A young family walks past, no one bats an eye. A college student jogs up, thanks us, and says she’ll join when she can. A grateful older woman asks for a high five. The support is affirming.

This summer, I have freed my nipples: 

  • Dancing at the Moon Tent at La Fete de Marquette, joined by a few friends.
  • On a patio at a private dance party during a storm. A gleeful handful of friends and strangers joined in. I cackled joyfully multiple times.
  • At the tail end of my time at Pride Fest with a group of pastied queerios. A stranger walked up, learned about the equal rights and took off their shirt immediately. Then I biked to a pool party a few blocks away and put my bikini top on. And took it off again 30 minutes later. 
  • Kayaking from the mouth of the Yahara to Olin-Turville Park and then back to Tenney Park. There were a few gawkers from the shore, but the other kayakers didn’t seem phased.

Five years ago, I stopped shaving my legs. I’d felt bad about that half of my body—thick black hair and Casper-white skin—since the fourth grade. I wanted to advertise—particularly to cisgender heterosexual men—that my body was not for others’ consumption. My hairy legs in a skirt were a middle finger to patriarchy. And a step towards coming out as nonbinary.  

I was working with young people at the time. I wanted to be an example of alternatives to gender norms. It might spare them some shame. When I was at a more impressionable age, Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna were role models for me. I’m back on that vibe, but this time it’s my nipples I’m using as an example. 

When Roe v. Wade fell, I was fucked up by the lack of mass protests. In 2011, when the world’s least-awesome Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature obliterated public-sector union rights with Act 10, the whole state and some of the country showed up. But now, a clump of cells with some faint electrical current—inside and created by my very own body—has more human rights than me. Not wearing a shirt or bra is my protest against being seen by the law as a baby machine.

As my grandma’s Alzheimer’s advanced, she often repeated stories. Her favorites were about her undergrad days in the mid 1930s. Instead of paying the five-cent bus fare, she would take off her “nylons” and run to campus. Then, she could buy a candy bar. In those days, pantyhose signaled a woman’s respectability. A way of hiding and protecting her body from “the boys.” But now, folks don’t feel that social pressure to wear pantyhose everyday. 

Here’s what I’ve noticed. When you’re one of the first people to get on the dance floor or to stretch off to the side of a group, others more readily follow suit because 1. They would have felt vulnerable being the first person to do it and 2. It looks like it feels good. Slowly, our numbers grow. What once stuck out now seems typical. Lili’s been freeing the nipple for almost a decade.

In the year of our Björk, 2022, small, personal, grassroots shifts add up. They also empower us and show young people that there are options outside of the gender binary. The law has failed people with uteruses and, looking at the Republicans’ court-packing legacy, will likely continue to do so. Americans are too ideologically varied and ruggedly individualistic to affect wide-scale change with protests as people in other countries have done. In Ireland, abortion was legalized in a landslide popular vote in 2018 (though barriers still remain in Northern Ireland). In Argentina, the legislature made the procedure legal in 2020 after decades of popular pro-choice pressure. 

So I’m gonna let the boys see my privates. 

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