Tits Ahoy! Why I Love Being Semi-Naked in Public

I just want my swimsuit-bits to get a little sunshine, okay?

Jul 12, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Dyke March 2012. Barely not pictured: my tiny boobs.

One of my favorite things to do in San Francisco is to take my shirt off.

When I first came to this city, I wasn’t laboring under the delusion that everyone here was a genial hippie. But somewhere around my first Pride, I realized that public nudity in this city is often looked upon with a sort of fond bafflement.

“So many dongs,” one of my straight guy friends moaned after accidentally taking a wrong turn in the Castro. “So -- many -- dongs.” 

Lots of San Franciscans regard any sort of public event as a personal invitation to let their swimsuit-areas get some sun. Still, though, when I tentatively took off my shirt at my first Dyke March, I felt a little shy. 

Because unlike some people, I don’t have a very impressive rack. The girls on my soccer team growing up used to call me “Spike,” because my tiny, pointy boobs posed a danger to the eyes of passers-by if I wasn’t careful. Combined with my giant shoulders and thick waist, there’s just not a whole lot going on in my titular region. 

In the years since puberty, I’ve learned to like my chest fine. Ironically, I’m definitely a big-boobs girl in terms of sexual attraction, so it’s kind of a bummer that I can’t occasionally just feel myself up for fun on both sides. But I work with what I’ve got. Mostly. 

At the Dyke March, though, I got cagey. People actually want to look at big-breasted girls, I reasoned. People on the Itty Bitty Titty Committee need not apply for public nip-slippage.

But as I walked through the Mission, I noticed that more and more women were letting their breasts fly free. So, after some hesitation, I reached up and unhooked my bra.

The minute it was off, I felt way more vulnerable. My boobs immediately felt colder, and I fought the urge to cup my nipples like baby hypothermic mice. All of the topless woman around me had the swagger cultivated from years of living in the city’s queer community. They felt safe, and it showed. Meanwhile, I was new in town and I just had smallish B cups.

I was just starting to get a little more confident when I heard the telltale click-click of a camera. I jerked my head up, startled, only to stare into the lens of some dude’s fancy-ass SLR. He gave me a letchy grin, looked me up and down, and snapped another picture, shrugging. 

I reared back, briefly horrified, before crossing my arms over my chest and hurrying away. A few feet away, though, I stopped. I was still pissed off -- who was this straight dude leering at women in the Dyke March -- but I also felt weirdly vindicated. Though he was probably just snapping photos of every topless woman under 40 he happened to see, I hoped that he’d had a specific “type” in mind: the buxom, curvy badasses that were flooding down Valencia Street. I wasn’t one of them. I hoped that my tiny tits had thrown him through a loop the way he’d thrown me through one. And I refused to let his presence, or the presence of people like him, control my reactions to being in my own skin. I walked the rest of the parade with my head held high, haters and creepsters be damned.

As a woman, being partially naked in public is a bizarre exercise in simultaneous defense and aggression. There are the assholes like Dyke March Guy, who see your nudity as an invitation to approach you: as if having your nipples on display automatically means you’ll give out your phone number to whatever dude holds out his iPhone. The ever-present nature of digital cameras means that, like it or not, your boobs will probably end up on the Internet. 

At the same time, however, showing skin in public automatically challenges anyone who sees you not to look again. It’s kind of thrilling, at least for me, to see the degrees to which strangers will go to catch a glimpse of “OMG BOOBS.” And they scare people! For being hunks of fat, my tits certainly seem to endanger the hearts and minds of quite a few children.

Recently, two of my grumpier guy friends came to visit me from New Jersey and outside LA, respectively. It was a sunny Saturday in the Mission, and I was very busy doing the smug tour guide thing, happy to engender every Bay Area stereotype just to give them something to giggle about when they got home.

“Kate,” Tom said. “Is it true that there are naked dudes everywhere?”

“Tom,” I told him, equally serious. “Nudity is legal in San Francisco. Except for the towel thing.”

“It is not!” he squealed. “I dare you to take off your shirt. You wouldn’t. You won’t. I was joking. Kate, no -- "

Too late. Bra was off. Nips were out. Tom was horrified.

I was busy feeling very pleased with myself when a young mother brushed past me. “Excuse me,” she hissed, covering her children’s heads with her palms. “This is a family area.”

“Yeah, well -- uh, sorry,” I mumbled, grabbing for my shirt back. 

Because here’s the other tricky thing about public nudity: it may be legal, and super fun, but women’s bodies have been so sexualized that it is impossible for some people to separate the sight of skin from obscenity.  

Take topless activist Holly Van Voast, recently arrested in New York for hanging out topless outside of a Hooters. Apparently, a woman without a shirt is so dangerous that she deserves to be physically removed from the scene. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t call in the SWAT team. 

When Holly protested to the cops that it is legal in New York State to be topless, which it absolutely is, they ignored her. Instead, they hauled her in for three hours of mental evaluation, citing, among other things, “the children.” 

And I admit it: I felt a little bad, actually, for exposing those kids in San Francisco to my naked chest without their consent. They weren’t anywhere near the kind of parade settings where that kind of thing is way more common, and I don’t blame that mother for being taken aback. But is it really so different from them seeing American Apparel ads on the sides of buses all over town? So your children see some boobies. Honestly, so what?  

The sight of a topless woman still invites a whole lot of “hurr-hurr”=ing and snorting from passersby (for proof, just listen to the commentary in this video and try not to get severely creeped out). I think that simply seeing breasts in a non-sexual capacity is such an inherent disruption of the norm that it turns otherwise reasonable people into gibbering loons. 

Breasts attached to women in subway ads, strip clubs, or even on dance floors -- those are places where the sexualization and availability of women’s bodies has become expected. Breasts attached to someone who is eating a giant burrito and dripping guacamole everywhere are a threatening non-sequitur. They don’t present themselves as a readily available part of the fuck-package. And I guess some people don’t like that.

When nude about town, I’m doing it of my own accord. I’m doing it because I don’t think there’s anything particularly upsetting about the sight of my tiny boobs, regardless of context. And, frankly, I’m doing it because I’m tired of being a bra-vampire. I need some all-over tan, stat.