There is a new war and it is on… breasts. At least, some would say. Being topless in America has recently sparked a debate this week when New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio decided that the infamous topless women covered in body paint were driving away tourists. Though it seems to have been the opposite case—tourists have flocked to these women clad in patriotic colors and body paint (wearing thong underwear as main coverage), there has been rising hostility towards women’s ability to express themselves in this manner.
Laws on being topless in the United States vary. In New York City, it is permissible for women to be topless in areas in which men are topless. However, it is still possible that a woman could be cited for disorderly conduct should her exposure seem to cause a disturbance. Even though the law may not be the most important part to understanding this debate, it sure is a reflection of our ideologies and culture as a whole towards sexuality and acceptance of the female body.
Nudity does not cause a stir in Europe. In the case of Spain, where I studied and taught for a year post-college, I did not tend to see nude people walking the streets often but I knew that nudity was legal. In many secluded beaches like the one my friends and I walked to in the south of Spain, full nudity was acceptable. No one spent time ogling other people’s naked bodies and despite the fact that the majority of people would be characterized as “beautiful” by our cultures’ standards (a former roommate used to call Spain “the land of the pretty people”), there were not solely women who were rail thin. Though I cannot recall many plus-sized women on those beaches, there was more than one shape on display and the women appeared to be genuinely content.
One thing that both men and women alike are taught at a young age is acceptance of their bodies. It doesn’t all have to do with beachwear being lacking, but a lot to do with the media. I remember sitting with my Spanish “host” mom one night after dinner and they featured a movie segment where a man and woman were engaged in sex act and there was no censorship of her breasts. My host mom didn’t bat an eyelash. I, on the other hand, felt enormously uncomfortable. Maybe this situation of me watching softcore porn with my host mom is a little extreme, but one cannot deny that sexuality in Europe is a lot more accepted than in the United States. Our mainstream TV stations would not include graphic sex scenes, especially not in such a blasé fashion. However, one cannot deny that women appear to have a lot more comfort with their bodies in Europe. To simply say, “Well, that’s Europe and we are in America” may not be the best response.
The United States is a great nation with its flaws, like any country. Instead of legalizing nudity as in most parts of Europe, Americans would reap many benefits by opening the dialogue between parent and child about the body and sexuality. Most people would be unnerved to see a woman topless in public because we are not used to seeing it. However, an issue arises when people see nudity as profanity. Nothing is profane about the female form. When it comes to reproductive health, words between parent and child are sparse. A good case study on how opening up the dialogue between parent and child can lead to benefits is TLC’s 2011 documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
In the documentary, European teenagers are compared to their American counterparts and unsurprising, teenage pregnancies and STD rates are very high in America, unlike European youth (teenage pregnancy 4 times higher in America than in Netherlands alone). The focal point of the discussion is, unsurprisingly, the way parents talk with their children. A family from the Netherlands can be seen discussing sex at the dinner table while American families interviewed discussed NOT discussing the topic. The message is clear: when there is silence regarding sexuality and the human body, American youth pay the price. If we cannot discuss something so basic, no wonder a topless woman covered in paint, parading the streets of New York, can cause such a stir!
There is no simple answer as to how America should approach this issue but something so small as opening the dialogue between parent and child about sexuality could be a huge help. The documentary discussed focused on disease prevention and early pregnancy but opening discussion would help enforce positive attitudes about the human body, a step in the right direction.