From where I see it, this is one of those topics that drive at the heart of civilization. Women in this culture, and most others, are not treated equally to men, primarily because they are not allowed to show an areola or nipple. Anytime one does appear, it is illegal or considered immoral. Any amount of breast may be visible, in most cases, and be gotten away with. Anytime a breast does appear, this is equated with sexual allure, immorality, or both.
This is not right.
Let’s define more accurately the issue at hand. Men may take their shirts off and walk around most anywhere, and nobody cares. In several locations, the rule is simply “No shirt, no shoes, no service”, and this works reasonably well. Men know they have to put a shirt on to enter a restaurant, ride a bus, show up at the office, whatever. Perfectly reasonable. Aside from those places, it is also acceptable for a man to go around shirtless. Common examples: mowing the grass, nailing shingles on a roof, cheering on a team at a sporting event, walking the dog on a sidewalk, washing the car in the driveway. In none of these examples is sexual allure of a male even an item for discussion. It garners no notice. For women to be able to do exactly the same thing, and garner no notice, is the matter at hand.
Men’s and women’s bodies are different, but oddly enough, the nipple and areola on males and females, apart from the breast they are attached to, are more alike than different. Collections of photos exist, in quiz format [see comment below], where few people can accurately classify male or female from the image alone. While their function is very different, their at-rest appearance is not. When in use, a female nipple looks different from a male’s, true, but breastfeeding is a topic unto itself. Closely related, yes, but not the matter at hand. My point is that there is nothing special about the female areola and nipple that should, by itself, be that big a deal.
The breast itself, apart from the areola and nipple, between male and female, differs in size and shape, but not as much as one might think. A large number of women have breasts smaller than many males. One key is the pencil test. Can any person, male or female, hold a pencil under his or her breast? You might be surprised how many males can, and how many females cannot. Thus it is not right to classify the issue on breast size alone.
Let’s move on to sexual allure. In this culture, and many others, it is usually tolerated for females to appear in sexually alluring settings. A large percentage of advertisements which show women at all show them in some alluring pose. Sex sells, and always has, but whether or not this is right in and of itself is off topic. Similarly, it is often acceptable for women to be very forward with this allure, whether in photos or on film or in person, though this usually stops short of behavior leading to seduction. Seductive behavior, too, is off topic here. Allure, though, is a grey area, highly subjective, difficult to measure, and with different effects from person to person. A woman can be fully covered from neck to toenails and be alluring, or wear a swimsuit and not be, depending on many factors, and again, highly subjective in effect from person to person. Thus it is not right to decide this issue based on allure.
I’ve heard other objections to women being prevented from going shirtless. Sunburn and other maladies, for one. This makes no sense. Again, men go shirtless all the time, and while getting a sunburn or even a tan may, itself, be debatable in this age of thinning ozone layers, the decision of what body parts are to get some sun is ultimately a personal one, not one to be decided by government based exclusively on gender. Same with bee stings. If you go shirtless, you risk getting stung. So what? Again, a personal decision, not in the purview of governments. The government has no business saying you have to keep a bikini top on so that you do not get a bee sting.
Here’s another one: “If I took my shirt off, the guys would be all over me.” Don’t we already have restrictions on unwelcome contact? Is their drool any different if you had a top on? Nobody is asking you to take your top off, only that you not care if someone else does. The point is, it’s the woman’s choice, not the government’s. Some women are perfectly OK with sunning themselves or patching the roof without a top on. The more often it does occur, eventually the less novel it will become. The sooner we get from “oh my” to “so what”, the better off we will all be.
Yet another one: “But I don’t want my child to see that.” See what? That human bodies are, well, human? This is often the most strenuous objection, as well as being the least describable, and least defensible. Absent all the above factors – sexual allure, sexual aggressiveness, distraction, sunburn – the matter comes down to that people are different, and children, of all people, are always in wonder about that. My point: It may actually be helpful for children, small ones especially, to see female tops in all their different sizes and shapes. Variance is normal! Body acceptance is itself a topic requiring an essay, the short version of which is that children, in our current repressive environment, develop a comparatively narrow acceptance of body shapes. If they had more unclothed examples, we might as a culture grow more accepting of our fellow humans’ body shapes.
Last one: “But I don’t want to see that.” Here’s a simple solution: Turn your head, or close your eyes. We’re again talking about body acceptance here. Some breasts are ugly, just as some faces are. Deal with it. Your parents or someone in your past trained you to think that skin should not be seen. This is merely the 21st century continuation of the argument 200 years ago that women’s ankles or knees should not be seen. As recently as 80 years ago it was not common for men to be shirtless. Men gained the ability to remove shirts, and women got as far as the bikini, but we are discussing the logical conclusion to all that, that women are equal to men in all regards.
In no case here have I talked about anything below the waist. I do not challenge anything there. This discussion is strictly about dress above the belt. Pants and footwear are a given. Nor have I referred to anything so far as nudity. Nudity refers to below the waist. As shirtless males are not considered nude, similarly a female uncovered from the waist up is not nude or even partially nude. She is simply shirtless, or to use the preferred term, topfree. The term “topless” carries sexual connotations, and should be avoided.
Again, this entire topic has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with the absence of sexual themes. Anything a man is allowed to do, a woman should as well. It should be nothing remarkable for a woman to relax at the beach wearing only a swimsuit bottom. And by “woman” I mean any female over the age of 8.
So let’s have it so that women can mow the grass, nail shingles on a roof, cheer on a team at a sporting event, walk the dog on a sidewalk, and wash the car in the driveway, shirtless, same as the guys. This isn’t about showing off, it’s about getting along, and not caring what the other guy or girl is wearing or not. It’s about live and let live. It’s about treating others as you would have others treat you.
It’s about being human.