Hundreds of thousands of people have seen me topless. This is shocking and true, and perhaps more shockingly, I am proud of this.
After a Trump protest my friends and I went to in November, we were cold and went inside a random storefront, which happened to be the gift shop for the Museum of Sex. As we looked around we noticed the Free the Nipple shirts, which depicted a pair of breasts taped with black Xs, which supports movements for gender equality, bodily autonomy, and defies social standards of female hyper-sexualization. When we heard about the Women’s March, we felt compelled to attend. We’d attended other protests individually, but this one felt more urgent, and called for a greater sense of unity among people who want equality.
As we painted signs and picked our outfits the night before, we realized that we wanted to make a statement. We wanted to create conversation about the issues presented. The memory of the Free the Nipple shirts was stuck in our heads, but because we didn’t have time to return to the museum gift shop to buy them, we formed another idea. We wanted to recreate the shirt with our own bodies. We wanted to go topless.
The next morning we procured black electrical tape, taped our chests with the same black Xs, and hopped on the train to the march. We kept our windbreakers zipped even as we arrived and joined the massive crowd of over 400,000. Insecurity took over our minds, and we felt uncomfortable at the thought of exposing ourselves (albeit not our nipples) in front of thousands of strangers. But the more we talked, the more we realized the action was necessary. Why did we feel uncomfortable? Why could a man do the same and not feel uncomfortable? Why is my body seen as inherently sexual, simply because of the slight difference in anatomy?
We took off our jackets and moved with the crowd down Fifth Avenue towards Trump Tower. The crowd around us reacted instantly and in the sea of pink hats and colorful signs, people began to snap photos of us and congratulate us. It was attention I was simultaneously excited and empowered; talk about what feminism means was increasing, and the more people shot us smiles the more we threw our shoulders back and held our heads high.
After the march, we decided to post the photos on social media of us and our signs. On my public Instagram account (on which I typically have about 300 likes per photo) the photo garnered over 2,500 likes and 300 comments, and was reposted on multiple other accounts. Within hours I had numerous people messaging me. The majority was strangers, and I was glad to see all the people who agreed with the message, but along with an outpour of support there were words of hate. Random people told me I was a “vile creature”, threatened violence, and told me I worship the devil. Of these people I ended up starting conversations with about ten of them, all hailing from 4 different countries, and a few ended up being productive. One notable one was a conversation with a college student from Lisbon, which started with him criticizing the march but ultimately ended with him inviting me to visit Portugal.
A few weeks later, at the Stand with Planned Parenthood rally in Washington Square Park, another friend and I decided to tape ourselves again. Although this was a much smaller gathering, we quickly found ourselves in a crowd of amazing people. We watched model (and my personal style icon) Kate Bowman, author Eve Ensler, and more speak about their experiences at Planned Parenthood. As the rally continued, we met Adam Werner of Dazed, who snapped a photo for the magazine’s Instagram story (an account followed by almost a million people), and after leaving we discovered we were the cover photo for the Snapchat story covering the rallies. But what truly shocked me was when I spoke to a girl around my age who recognized me from my topless Women’s March photo. I hadn’t realized my post had such a wide reach, and it truly made me cognizant to the fact that I have a voice in activism, as does everyone else.
What I’ve since realized is that I want to keep spreading these messages. And more importantly, I want to empower other young people to fight for the causes they believe in. Social media is giving us a voice in politics whether we can vote or not, and awareness is inciting change. One can go naked or completely covered, the importance is in the creation of discourse about the issues, many of which people choose to ignore. Keep talking. Keep asking these questions. Your voice is as loud as you make it.