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Should Women Have the Right to Go Topless in Public? An Interview With NYC's Topless Activist

Moira Johnston wants to "expand the vocabulary and definition" of breasts: "They can be non-sexual in any culture."

Moira Johnston is 29 years old and lives in lower Manhattan. She shops at Whole Foods and practices yoga in Union Square. She visits her family often. She’s also a “topfreedom” activist who recently began receiving media attention for walking around in public without a shirt on.

Johnston, who started going topless in public this past January, recently shared her thoughts about her life and activism with AlterNet. Naturally, Johnston was topless throughout the interview, which was conducted in New York’s Union Square. During that time, one female passerby told Johnston politely but firmly that she should put a shirt o; a man asked her about her views on polyamory; and another woman expressed support for Johnston’s cause. But Johnston says most people -- men and women -- simply turn away in embarrassment.

Johnston argues that gender discrimination is a civil rights violation, and if men are allowed to go topless in public then so should women. In fact, women are legally allowed to go topless in New York state. The same is true of several other states around the country, though many cities have anti-female toplessness ordinances in place. (Topless activists argue that such ordinances are unconstitutional.)

So who is the woman who has the ovaries to fight topless discrimination in New York City?

Shiuan Butler: Are you topless all the time?

Moira Johnston: I do go topless as much as possible. In public, I'm usually topless. Unless I go into some kind of business that requires shirts. Then I wear a shirt.

SB: I was wondering about that. Like Starbucks -- they have shirt requirements.

MJ: Yeah.

SB: How was your first time going topless?

MJ: It was very draining. [laughs]

SB: In what way?

MJ: Just the response it gets from people, and it's a lot of talking to people. Doing something that's different from the social norm can be draining energetically.

SB: What is your main reason for going topless?

MJ: My main reason is to educate the public about women's rights. People don't know that it's legal for women to be topless in the whole state of New York. So it's primarily about raising awareness about that and about equality for women.

SB: I read about how bras can be detrimental to our health by weakening our tendons so we’ll sag more when we're braless. Is that part of why you go topless?

MJ: It wasn't part of my thinking initially, but I certainly think it strengthens the case for women to go topless or for women to go braless at least.

SB: How did you first get into topless activism? What inspired you?

MJ: I was practicing yoga at Jivamukti [Yoga School] right here in Union Square and I felt like taking off my shirt during class. I didn't do it at first. I actually went to the founder and asked her if it was OK because a lot of my male counterparts practice without a shirt there and in other yoga studios as well. So I practiced yoga topless and a bunch of people complained about it, and so I realized that they didn't know it was legal. That's what inspired me to become more active about letting people know that it's legal.

There are other yoga studios in the city that are saying that men are allowed to practice without a shirt but women are not allowed to. And that is actually against the law. It's a civil rights violation to make a distinction based on the sex of a person. And so the more people become aware that it is legal for women to be topless, the more that won't be an issue in places like businesses.

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