What Happened When I Legally Exposed My Breasts in Public

In some parts of America, it's perfectly legal for women to go topless in public. This doesn't stop the discomfort and accusing stares.

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Experiment: Under New York state law, all chests are created equal: both men and women can go topless in public, provided you expose your breasts in a manner "neither lewd nor intended to annoy or harass." On a hot summer day, would going topless in a public park prove empowering, or would I get burned?

Hypothesis: Guys do it all the time, and the law says I have the right to bare breasts. Moving this equal right from theory to practice should be just as relaxing as any other afternoon in Central Park.

Breasts (literally)
Public Park
Balls (figuratively)

Even though I knew the law was on my side, female toplessness still felt like the medical marijuana of the east coast: legal but somehow illicit. I was nervous as hell the morning of my experiment. Even worse, I couldn’t decide what to wear. I settled on gym shorts and a tank top, with a nice bra underneath since everyone would be seeing it. It was like getting ready for a hot date: I was apprehensive, flustered and had already decided how naked I'd get by the end of the night.

I promised a day of sunshine and laughs (perhaps at my expense) to two friends/bodyguards, and we arrived at the Sheep's Meadow in Central Park with blankets, books, and my boobs. The clearing was packed with sunbathers; although no one was topless, there were a rainbow of skimpy bikinis and skin across the lawn. We claimed a clear patch of land and, far sooner than I would have liked, it was time to take off my top. "Here," my friend Jim offered, removing his own shirt, "I'll do it too."

Easy for him to say, he’s been doing this for decades, I thought as I pulled off my tank top. So far, so good, but still nervous as hell. I thought perhaps I could ease into the public nudity by acting like I was sun-bathing. I lay on my stomach and removed my bra, and rested a moment, thinking feminist and empowered thoughts. We were making progress, but I couldn't hide face-down all day.

So I sat up. My hand instinctively grasped my breasts for modesty, my bosom spilling over my fingertips. I didn’t want to let go. "I'm gonna do it. I'm just gonna remove my hand," I said to no one in particular.

And then I did.

There they were — in the sunlight, the eyes of God and New York Penal Law 245.01 — my boobs out, nipples blazing. The girls sitting on the blanket next to us giggled. Some passersby glanced over, smiles on a couple of the guys' faces. My nipple ring glinted in the sun. Amazingly, I felt relatively calm. Warm. Neither lightning nor cops had struck me down. Furtively looking around, I noticed some guys attempting to be respectful. Maybe they were just thinking be cool or she'll put her top back on, but gentlemen would glance over and grin, but rarely stare. No one cat-called or made lewd comments. So many people were showing skin, and it was so hot, my toplessness didn't feel like a big deal.

Five minutes in, however, my skin was sizzling. The Irish were not made to be a topless people. Rubbing SPF 15 onto my nipples made me feel a little dirty — and a little silly for bringing only SPF 15. I tried to chat with my friends, but I found it hard to concentrate. More and more people were looking over at me, and when everyone's staring at you, you can't look anywhere for fear of making awkward eye contact. I may have been topless, but I was still shy. It's not common for me to make eye contact with strangers. It's even less likely if they're staring at my tits or taking pictures with their iPhones.

Three sunscreen applications later, my girlfriend Megan pointed out, "The trouble with sun bathing is I'm already bored. I want to get a hot dog or something." A quick scan revealed a hot-dog stand at the corner of the Sheep's Meadow, just outside the fence marking the lawn's border. I didn't know what would happen if we left the sanctuary. But for hungry, topless women everywhere, I would find out.

Sunbathing topless was one thing, but walking through the masses with my nips out was a new kind of topless entirely: moving topless. The closer we got to the edge of the field, the more agitated I became. I was attracting significantly more attention now that I was in motion, and I became overwhelmed with the idea that crossing onto asphalt would induce some sort of mini-apocalypse. The hot dog cart, however, was only feet outside the meadow. And the law was on my side.

Barreling on, tunnel vision guided me to the stand. I didn't breathe as I stepped off the grass onto the concrete. I let my eyes unfocus; if I couldn't see them, they couldn't see me.

Waiting in line, the couple behind me discussed public exposure: "Oh yeah, it's legal. There was that court case in '92. If guys can do it, so can women." Just knowing that a couple random people on the street knew the legality of my actions eased my anxiety. However, these were only two people. Joggers, dog walkers and couples on dates all glanced my way, and now it was my turn to order a phallic symbol — with just ketchup, please.

The guy behind the stand started yelling at his coworker in a language I couldn't speak. His coworker came over and gave him some change, but I knew that was just a ruse to check out the boobs ordering a hot dog. He thanked me as he handed me my change and thanked me even more when I left him a tip. I guess it doesn't get any better than a topless chick giving you a couple of singles for your trouble.

Topless hot-dog consumption felt only slightly less pervy than massaging sunscreen into my breasts. Megan put on her sunglasses and whispered, "I keep worrying that people are staring at us, but then I realize they're just staring at you." I was turning pink, both from the sun and the stares, so Megan and I decided to use the facilities and call it a day. Unfortunately the bathroom, like the hot dog stand, was outside the sweet confines of the lawn. As I strode towards the restrooms, a Frisbee hit me in the ankle. I picked it up and handed it to a man who made very steady eye contact and did not glance down for a second. He smiled at me and said, "Be careful." I gave him a genuine smile back.

The smile faded as soon as we saw the comically long wait for the ladies' room. I asked the woman at the end if it was the line for the bathroom; she looked at my breasts through her sunglasses, but didn't respond. I asked another girl, and she said yes, also staring at my boobs.

I would have thought that women, used to having men stare at their cleavage, would be more subtle when they checked out a woman's chest. But the ladies in line weren't subtle, nor were they polite. I heard murmurs about breasts and "that girl." If I turned toward the whispering and offered a nervous smile, all I got in return was the lady in question looking away or continuing to whisper to her friend. I hid behind my bag as much as possible.

I was almost to the front of the line when a cop walked past. His back was to me, but my mind was racing. I was suddenly paranoid that what was legal in the meadow was a crime at public restrooms. The cop was almost past us, but I was terrified that one of the whispering women would tattle on me. I was only three ladies away from getting into a stall and peeing in peace, then two more steps, then one…

Just inside the door, I heard, "Ma'am, I'm sorry but you need to put a top on. If an officer sees you, that's a summons." A cool and collected park employee stood in the women's restroom with a mop and bucket. "Oh!" I fumbled in my bag for my top, "Thank you!" I was flustered. I was blushing. I felt like a scolded child, even though my bare chest pretty blatantly indicated I was a grown woman. "It's fine if you're sunbathing," she explained without scorn, "but if you're walking around, you have to wear a top."

I breathed another "Thank you!" and pulled my tank on as my heart beat in my throat. The women around me were validated, and their whispering returned in full-force. I couldn't get in or out of the bathroom fast enough. Back outside, I waited for Megan awkwardly while the line of women continued to stare, some even bolder now that my nipples were tucked away.

When Megan finally made it out, it was time to take my titties home. It wasn't until I was hopping down the stairs of the subway that I realized my mistake: I'd never put my bra back on. As I rode the train home, I rested my breasts on my tote and willed my nipples not to get hard.


Being carefree and topless was incredibly stressful. Perhaps with every right comes responsibility, but between sunburns and smack-talk, I found toplessness exhausting.

Other women's scorn was by far the most disconcerting thing I experienced that day. I went into the experiment naively thinking that since female toplessness is legal, it would be akin to smoking a cigarette in public: offensive to some, but as long as I didn’t blow smoke in anyone’s face (or ask anyone to motorboat me), no big deal. I was just looking to take advantage of all New York City has to offer, like twenty-four-hour subways or the tram to Roosevelt Island. I wasn't flirting with anyone, I wasn't doing anything to draw attention to myself — except dressing like a guy on a hot summer day. But it was certain ladies who couldn't handle it.

On one hand I'm glad I moved beyond my fears. (Public speaking will be cake from now on.) But I don't foresee any further topless sunbathing in my future, at least not if I go it alone. Perhaps I'll try once more on National GoTopless Day. It might be an enjoyable experience if I were surrounded by hundreds of other casually topless women. In fact, it might just be the relaxing, bare-chested summer day my male counterparts take for granted.

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