“The first time you do it, your heart races and you think, ‘Am I really going to do this?'” Alethea Andrews, cofounder of the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, recalls of her first time baring her breasts in public. “But very quickly it just feels… normal. Sensible. Like, why in the world didn’t I do this sooner? Why doesn’t everyone do this? You feel a weight lifted off you, and it’s more than just the weight of your shirt.”
Andrews’ blog, which chronicles the experiences of the several hundreds of topless women in New York City who’ve joined her, has been viewed some 20 million times since she and her co-founder launched in the summer of 2011.
But while the society seems an anomaly—perhaps why it’s garnered so much attention thus far—female toplessness has been legal in New York for decades.
“The bottom line is that in 1992 a New York State court rendered a decision that a group of women who were arrested for going top-free in a park should not have been, because arresting women for baring their chests when you don’t arrest men for the same conduct is a violation of equal protection under the law,” Andrews explains. “Ever since that decision, it’s been legal for women to go topless anywhere a man can (in New York), as long as they’re not doing it for commercial purposes.”
Enter: the partially nude pulp fiction book club that’s desensitizing the public to the unaccustomed sight of bare breasts.
We’re now past the point—in New York, at least—of people thinking bare-breasted women represent something perverse or dangerous. Not everyone is ready to do it themselves, but most people seem to have made their peace with it.
“We knew plenty of our friends who enjoyed sunbathing topless when they were on vacation in Europe or the Caribbean, or surreptitiously did it on the roof when there was no one else around,” she said. “Who wouldn’t? When it’s 80 or 90 degrees out, it’s a lot nicer to be bare-chested than it is to sweat under a shirt and a bra.”
Andrews therefore decided to gather a group of friends and head out to Central Park to just do it.
“Were we nervous? Of course,” she affirms. “But no one said anything, no one bothered us and we had so much fun that afterwards several of us said, ‘This can’t just be a one-time thing. We’ve got to do it again.’ So we decided to form a group. And since we were all book lovers, we decided it should be a book club—an outdoor, topless book club.”
The society’s first meeting welcomed just eight people. However, hundreds of women—and a handful of supportive men—have attended one or more of the events since. The largest single event hosted nearly 50 people, and a typical gathering consists of about 10 to 20.
“No one has to pay anything to join our group—it’s all about freedom, after all,” Andrew adds. “All you have to do is email us and be female, and we’ll invite you to our next meeting.”
The meetings occur rather regularly during the warmer months of the year. During May through September, they get together almost weekly. In six years, they’ve congregated outside the Flatiron Building and on the steps of the New York Public Library. They’ve gone rowing on the Central Park lake, have visited museums and have even done a bicycle tour. But, for the most part, they’ve assembled at almost all of Manhattan parks including Central Park, Riverside Park, Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Fourteenth Street Park, the Battery Park Esplanade, the High Line and more, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. When the temperatures drop and getting outdoors in the nude isn’t as feasible, they still convene for a spa evening, a dinner at an open-minded restaurant (such as Ayza or Les Halles) or a nude yoga session about once a month.
Generally the group agrees on a meeting location, brings towels, books and snacks, and spends a few hours lounging—and admittedly getting less actual reading done than intended.
“Good company, good books, a cold drink, a warm croissant and not too much clothing—when you’ve got those things, you really don’t need anything fancier,” Andrews says.
As much as they love reading (everything from lurid thrillers to non-fiction on sexuality studies to French editions of Harry Potter), the events are more about enjoying each others’ company, the pleasure of being topless outdoors and the satisfaction of educating people about body freedom and gender equality.
“It may sound selfish but, honestly, our principal missions are simply to have a good time and to create an environment in which we can enjoy being topless outdoors in peace and comfort, without being bothered or anxious,” she explains. “But in the process of doing this, we believe we’re also educating people in the city (and, thanks to our blog, around the world) about the fact that a woman’s bare chest is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, nothing that should have to be covered or hidden. And that a woman taking her shirt off is not automatically a sexual act or immoral or attention seeking, any more than it is when a man does the same thing. Sometimes it’s just about comfort.”
It wasn’t too long ago in our history that men, too, were forbidden from baring their chests in public. Likewise, it was deemed scandalous if a woman showed her legs or back.
“Hopefully, not too long from now, a woman exposing her nipples will mean no more than that,” Andrews says. And if not, “We’re New Yorkers. We don’t shrivel up just because someone gets in our face… We know we’re in the right.”
While the women involved were at first worried about the fate of their inevitable interactions with passersby and the police, almost all of the feedback they’ve received has been uniformly friendly and supportive.
“Most of the random people who have seen us have either ignored us or have given us a smile or a thumbs up,” she says. “When we take our tops off in the park, we often see other women take theirs off, too, once they see we’ve done it without adverse consequences. It’s a little like the discussion over same-sex marriage: At the start, many people thought it was peculiar, even unnatural, but once you’re exposed to the idea enough, it stops being strange and just becomes normal. We’re now past the point—in New York, at least—of people thinking bare-breasted women represent something perverse or dangerous. Not everyone is ready to do it themselves, but most people seem to have made their peace with it. Certainly, fewer people stop to ask us if what we’re doing is legal than six years ago.”
On one occasion, a woman who was picnicking with her parents and two young children got up and approached the topless bookworms; they were sure it was going to be an unfriendly encounter. Instead, she held out her phone and asked if one of the women could help take a photo for her and her family.
“It was such a nice interaction; sometimes your guard goes up and you expect the worst, and then people are just human and decent,” Andrew remembers. “Happily, far more of our interactions have been like that than they’ve been negative. More than once we’ve had older women come by and tell us how proud they are of us and say how much they wish they had this freedom when they were younger. We’ve had mothers tell us they’re happy their daughters can get to see examples of women who are comfortable in their own skin and not ashamed of their bodies. That feels great.”
The single most memorable experience she says was their Tempest production last summer, in which a cast of a dozen women performed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death before a rapt audience of hundreds in Central Park, totally naked.
“It was artistic and beautiful and natural and no one felt for a moment that we were being judged or sexualized or objectified,” she says. “We were simply allowed to be ourselves: human beings with female bodies—that’s not something to fear or repress; it’s something to celebrate.”
For women interested in stripped down, Andrews notes that it is indeed easier to do it with a group, but urges women not to worry about how others might perceive them, regardless.
“There really is safety in numbers, and comfort in having friends around, too,” she explains. “It also helps to remind yourself that you’re not taking your shirt off for anyone else’s pleasure, just for your own—so it doesn’t matter what you look like, or what sort of body you have, or how old you are, or whether you’re pierced or tattooed or whatever.”