By Gaela LaPasta
Before I moved into Risley Hall, my Freshman year at Cornell, I had no idea that I had any desire to be casually topless. As a child, I ran around the house, the beach, the pool topless. When I grew up a little and being topless in public stopped being acceptable, I never questioned it. My brothers and every other male I knew could take their top off at will and I could not. It didn’t bother me, because that was just the way it was. When I came to Risley, I was exposed to a culture that questioned this social norm for the very first time. In Risley, I call women being topless normal. Outside of Risley, I call women being topless top freedom.
According to gotopless.org, top freedom is legal in America, in 33 out of 50 states, and is considered acceptable in cultures all over the world. For example, public nudity is normal and legal in Germany and many people, both male and female, forgo clothing in parks, the beach, their yards. Despite the existence of top freedom, in theory, within most of America, in practice, many women are still arrested or even taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation by the police for being topless, as happened to Holly Van Voast in 2013 in New York City. This police practice has since been amended in New York City after a command to stop arresting topless women was given to all 34,000 NYPD officers, according to the New York Times. Just last year in Canada, a country that has universal top freedom, an eight-year-old girl was forced to leave a public pool because she was not wearing a top, according to the Guelph Mercury Tribune.
My Risley-inspired interest in top freedom led me to do some research on Cornell’s public nudity policies. Cornell is very vague on the subject of top freedom and nudity in general on campus. The full rule on nudity from Cornell’s Campus Code of Conduct states that it is prohibited “To intentionally (1) expose a private or intimate part of one’s body in a lewd manner or (2) commit any other lewd act in a public place.” This rule seems to allow top freedom, which is it great. However, it fails to specify what a “private or intimate part of one’s body” is, and what is actually allowed in terms of nudity in public altogether. This leaves the legality of public nudity up to the interpretation of the Cornell University Police Department. Depending on the rule enforcer’s definition of the word “lewd,” someone exercising their right to top freedom could be in big trouble. Most people at Cornell at probably not even aware of this rule, but I wasn’t about to leave it untested.
Although from my research it seemed top freedom should be allowed in Cornell, as I saw from the experience of many women in places where top freedom is legal, that doesn’t mean the right to top freedom will be respected. So, my friend and I decided to take the issue of the normalization of women’s nudity into our own hands: we planned a topless Frisbee game on the arts quad. I decided that the game would be open to those who weren’t comfortable playing topless, as well as those interested in trying it out. We also wanted allies to attend, so we invited some men to join us, to enjoy the freedom they already and to juxtapose the arbitrary differentiation between men’s and women’s nudity. We told a group of our friends about what we wanted to do, and wound up with about ten people and two Frisbees on an overcast Saturday afternoon.
I was really scared to take my shirt off when it came down to it. Although I’m used to being casual about nudity when surrounded by my accepting, non-conforming friends—to come out and do it on the arts quad felt very different. When we arrived on the quad, it was cloudy and raining, but we knew the weather was going to turn soon (there hasn’t been a Saturday above 65 since), and this was our last chance for a while. We began by simply playing Frisbee, but soon huddled up to discuss. “Should we just do it?” “Yeah, why not? We don’t need an excuse.” “But it’s raining so it might seem weird.” “Let’s just do it.”
And we did. It was incredibly freeing to feel the cool breeze against my sweaty upper body. I realized that I hadn’t felt this sensation since I was a little kid—since my body had transformed into a sexual object. And, best of all, no one stopped us. We played an intense game of ultimate Frisbee as strangers passed by and gawked. Some averted their eyes, while others said “Jesus! Jesus!” or other exclamations of surprise. Nobody called the cops. Nobody stopped us. It was fantastic, but unfortunately not the reality for most females who try to take advantage of top freedom.
So why isn’t it normal here? Why is top freedom the domain of hippies and weirdos like my friends in Risley? If half the population can run around a college campus topless, why should it be so strange that the other half would do so as well? In Cornell’s Campus Code of Conduct, the policy on nudity in public is vague enough to be interpreted as in favor of top freedom. In my experience, there were no negative repercussions for being topless on campus. I see at least one and usually many more male-bodied students running (literally running) around campus topless on any given day. Other than in the late hours of crazed college weekend or in Risley, I have never seen a female-bodied person topless on Cornell’s campus.
What I feel most fervently about in regards to this cause is that top freedom not be treated as something weird. I don’t want it to turn heads. I want top freedom to be normal and fine. The only way that top freedom can become normal is for females to to take advantage of the freedom we already have. The battle of legalizing top freedom in most the United States is (mostly) won, but the war of normalizing top freedom is yet to be fought and, at the moment, isn’t being fought. I urge men to foster awareness about top freedom and realize the freedom they have. Most of all, I want women to know how freeing and fantastic it is to be topless in public. Half of the people who read this article most likely already know this, and the other half probably don’t. So, next time the weather is nice, look for some people playing Frisbee topless and maybe join us, bare-chested or not, to help normalize top freedom.