A year ago, when Fort Wayne native Liz Turkette was in Maryland with her boyfriend Chris, they saw a woman walking her dog while topless.
The woman was simply exercising her right, at least in 36 states, to expose her breasts in public. But it made Liz feel uncomfortable.
Liz said it made her think about why she was uncomfortable, and she realized it was because of how society has portrayed women and how it has sexualized female breasts.
“It’s so obvious that women are treated as pieces of meat,” Turkette said. “You see it in advertising, and men throw dollars at us because we’re taking our tops off.”
Liz said she now recognizes that people feel uncomfortable because of how female breasts are portrayed and is working to bring awareness to it.
“A male’s chest can look sexy, just like my chest,” Turkette said. “And I can be turned on by a male’s chest, just like they can be turned on by mine. But I have to control my mind and they don’t? That’s not okay.”
In Indiana and 13 other states, only men are allowed to go topless in public.
But things weren’t always this way. According to the Go Topless organization website, men were not legally allowed to be topless until 1936 in America.
Women were not allowed to sport bare breasts in any state until 1992, when a law was passed in New York, and 35 other states followed.
Fourteen other states have more ambiguous laws. In three, Indiana, Utah and Tennessee, it is completely illegal for a woman to expose their nipples in public. If she is topless, her nipples must be covered.
But local women are working to change that, by bringing the Free The Nipple movement to Fort Wayne.
Lauren Conklin, a 23-year-old Fort Wayne native, helped organize her first Free The Nipple rally on Aug. 14, along with Turkette.
They held the protests in front of the Fort Wayne Courthouse holding signs and going topless, while wearing pasties or covering their nipples as Indiana law dictates they must.
“What better way to bring on awareness and have people actually start asking you questions about why these women are doing this than doing something a little edgier?” Conklin said.
Conklin said there were only about 20 people at the first rally. But with the help of Facebook, they were able to raise more awareness for the next one.
120 people showed up to the second Free The Nipple rally on Sept. 12.
“We had this turn out of really excited and really ambitious women,” Conklin said. “And even men were showing up and saying ‘How can I support you guys?’”
The Free The Nipple Facebook page said that men were encouraged to come wearing bras or bikini tops to highlight gender inequality.
Both Conklin and Turkette said that Indiana passing the law for women to go topless legally would be a step toward gender equality.
Fort Wayne activist Vijaya Birkes-Adams said she works alongside Conklin and Turkette to fight for their right to make the same choices men do.
“In order for us to fully embody equality, we really need to be able to do be viewed in the same way as a man, and just being human in a human body,” Birkes-Adams said. “A big part of this is combatting the notion that women’s bodies are for men’s pleasure.”
Birkes-Adams said she likes to go topless sometimes, like when it’s hot and she’s working in the garden. Her fiancé takes his shirt off.
“For me to make myself uncomfortable just because someone thinks my body is inappropriate is not fair,” Birkes-Adams said. “It just needs to change.”
Birkes-Adams and Conklin said this anxiety is perpetuated by the negative comments that the women involved with this movement receive.
They said much of the criticism they receive is from comments online, mostly on their Free The Nipple Facebook page.
“When you’re not face to face, people feel more comfortable saying horrible things about us,” Birkes-Adams said. “Like calling us sluts or saying that we’re just out there for attention.”
But the rude comments aren’t stopping these women.
A third rally was held on Oct. 10, and Turkette said they are planning to have a fourth rally on April 10.
Conklin said they plan on holding these rallies until women can go topless legally in Indiana.
“You’ve got to plant the seeds,” Conklin said. “And you may not sit in the shade of that tree, but you have to plant it.”
McKayla Atkinson (front row, far left) and Lauren Sanderson (front row, second from left) participated in Fort Wayne’s Free the Nipple Rally on September 12. Photo by Liz Turkette.