Meet the Woman Fighting to Normalise Toplessness
"I don't have slogans painted on my body. I don't carry signs. There are times for that, but to normalise bare-chestedness, you have to do normal things."
Chelsea Covington chatting with the police in Washington, DC. Photo via Breasts Are Healthy.
On Wednesday, the New Hampshire House of Representatives is scheduled to debate a bill that would allow towns in the state to "regulate attire" in public areas as a way of criminalizing female toplessness. The legislation was proposed after another New Hampshire bill, which would have banned exposed female breasts outright, was shot down in March.
While it's legal for women to be topless in many parts of the United States (you can find a full map here), people aren't exactly comfortable with it yet. Chelsea Covington is fighting to change that. Covington, 27, started going bare-chested about three years ago. (She prefers the term "bare-chested" over topless, because "topless [implies] you are lacking something.") Now, Covington gardens, bicycles, picnics, walks, and sunbathes sans shirt, wherever legal and whenever comfortable. She also keeps a blog, Breasts Are Healthy, where she documents the everyday outings of her nipples. I spoke to Covington about how the police and laypeople react to her bare chest, and what she hopes to achieve by choosing not to wear a shirt.
Warning: Photos of bare breasts below.
VICE: How much time per week do you spend bare-chested?
Chelsea Covington: Weather is definitely a factor. In the wintertime, there is definitely less [bare-chested] activity. But really, I will take any opportunity I can. Cooler temperatures don't bother me so much, but I also am not going to do it just to do it either. I do it because it is how I am comfortable and how I like to be, so if it's snowing outside and you wouldn't be without a shirt on, I wouldn't be without one either.
How cold is too cold?
Probably below fifty. I'm pretty warm-blooded, so I can handle some [low] temperatures.
When you travel, where have you gone out bare-chested?
Washington, DC; it's been legal there since '86. New York, since '92. I've been to both places a lot. [And] Pennsylvania—Philly and Pittsburgh, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. Pretty much most of the northeastern United States.
And the first thing you do is get some kind of legal clarification, right?
I do some research first about what the laws actually say, if there is any case law, and then I either call or go to the police department and ask to speak with someone. They often say, "Hold on, let me find the Title IX coordinator," because everyone is so afraid. It's been fascinating noticing the difference in different police departments because it's never the same. Because some people will read [the law] and then consult with the legal department and be like, "OK, there's nothing saying female bare-chestedness is illegal, so go for it!" And then there are others that take months and months to get back. Of course, there are more pressing issues. However, it's still a question that needs to be answered.
I try to [get clarification with the police departments], because street-level cops aren't ones who make decisions. They're there to enforce the law as they have been instructed, and often are not in position to make decisions, so that's unfair pressure to put on them.
You've compared it to open-carry demonstrations. What do you think that says about our notion of breasts and how we perceive them?
Well, that's a heavy subject. I believe that to get some people to understand you have to approach it from an angle to which they relate. There was an officer in DC who said, "I understand this is legal, but it's unreasonable." And I was like, "But it's legal." We had a conversation, a very long conversation. It wasn't antagonistic or anything like that. He was just trying to wrap his mind around it. And he said he wished he was in Montana where he could have his guns strapped out or whatever. I said, "Exactly. All these people are going to the supermarket or the diner or wherever to normalize arms. That's what they're doing. They're normalizing it by doing things they would normally do, except armed. And that is getting people used to the sight, and then they won't be offended anymore." My main goal is to normalize the sight. Just like men: We don't talk about a man being without a shirt, because it's been normalized.
What reactions do you get from passersby?
Overwhelmingly neutral. People walking by might just look, or they might not even look.
Really? Do they avoid eye contact?
I try not to challenge people. I want people to have whatever reaction they're going to have without feeling like I'm judging them. I want them to do their own internal work. I don't want them to think I am looking at them and going, "Yeah? And?" I'm not. That's not who I am, and that's not my goal. They're going to feel how they're going to feel, but I would like to be seen as a human being and have my own rights protected. So I don't engage people unless they talk to me, and that has happened so many times.
People come up and talk to me. How many times can you say you've walked in DC or New York and a stranger has talked to you? Probably never. People come up and talk to me all of the time. It's with questions and encouragement or "I don't understand. Can you explain this to me?" And I have had some of the most beautiful conversations and interactions with people I have ever had in my entire life, and that's wonderful and heartening to me, that people are going, "OK, I wasn't sure how I felt about this, but now I understand that you are not scary and not trying to ruin by day, and I'm not trying to ruin yours," and it doesn't matter that I don't have a shirt on, because that's the goal.
"I don't have slogans painted on my body. I don't yell. To normalize bare-chestedness, you have to do normal things." — Chelsea Covington
What's the most difficult interaction you've had?
There was one time where I was in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and my fiancé and I were sitting and having a picnic. It was a quiet day, and this man walked by on a path, and he was dropping the f-bomb left and right and saying, "This is a fucking family park!" It was pretty ridiculous. He was talking about me, but he wasn't talking to me, and calling me fucking garbage and a whore and a harlot.
That's an old-school one, harlot.
Points for originality there. But it was interesting because he wouldn't even look at me, wouldn't confront me. I was looking to see if he was coming toward me to have a conversation, and he literally walked by, ranting. It was strange. Then there was this family that walked by with a stroller, and they took more notice of him [than me], and I realized that he was doing work for me, because who really was out of place in a family park? The guy dropping the f-bomb and ranting and raving or the bare-chested woman sitting there eating grapes?
Is that partly why you started blogging about this?
It was at the request of family and friends, because I had been gathering stories and sharing them with people. There were people who knew what I was doing and said, "You have to write this down. You're accumulating this unique brand of knowledge." There were some other women out there, my friends included, who wanted, but didn't know how, to go about doing this, being bare-chested, being in-public, and not understanding how to go through this and deal with people in general. So that's why.
I never meant for it to be a spectacle. I don't have slogans painted on my body. I don't yell. I don't carry signs. There are times for that, but to normalize bare-chestedness, you have to do normal things.
I noticed a comment on your YouTube channel from a guy "thanking" you for a free peep. Do you ever feel unsafe doing this?
No, and I will tell you why: I and every woman you have ever met has been physically or verbally sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, probably multiple times. It happens in school—I remember walking up the stairs and having my ass grabbed and then turning around and not being able to figure out who did it. Even though other people saw it, nobody said who it was, and no one copped to it. I have never once been touched inappropriately being bare-chested, and it's interesting. I think it's because it has this humanizing effect. That's what I gather from the way people interact with me. It's me taking ownership of my own body, and that is really powerful.
How do you feel about being looked at by someone like the commenter?
It's OK to look. But it's not OK to demean me to only that, or any other woman. We look at you, too! I look at a [male] shirtless jogger walking by! Heck yes, I do! It's OK! We have eyes! But it's not OK to demean and diminish someone to only his or her body. We've done that a lot with women. We've done that with men, too. Look at these superhero characters with these muscles that are impossible, so men suffer with some of the things women do, but it's more exaggerated with women. The [men] who actually come talk to me want to talk to me, too. It's not all about getting the free peep show, as my YouTube guy said. I greatly appreciate that. We need the support of men. We need the support of everyone.
I understand you are making a political point and engaging with society, but what about being bare-chested is physically comfortable to you?
I'm a really warm-blooded person, so I get really hot, hot to the point where I wish I could take my skin off. Guys can walk around without a shirt on when they get hot, and I have wanted, since I was a very young child, to be able do the same. I get very hot, especially in bras. They're very tight to the skin. You end up feeling gross.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.