Sarah Starks was about 5 the first time she realized she was expected to be concerned about other people’s reactions to her body. It’s one of her earliest memories.
Starks, who lives in Charleston, remembers she was swimming in a pool. Her mom said it was time to go, so she started changing out of her bathing suit and into her clothes.
“No!” her brother told her as he put a towel over her — “being a protective older brother, like brothers do,” she said.
“I was just like, ‘What’s going on?” I’m changing my clothes,’” Starks said. “I had no idea that was wrong.”
Saturday, Starks and her friend Kearston Jackson, of Cross Lanes, plan to march through downtown Charleston, with dozens of others, in protest of the expectation that women and girls must wear bras and shirts, lest other people become aroused or offended.
More than 80 people have RSVPed to the “Free the Nip Top Freedom Rally in WV” on Facebook. Supporters may go topless, braless, and/or use body paint, while others may show up fully clothed. Organizers are asking men to come topless to show solidarity.
West Virginia’s “indecent exposure” law does not prohibit women from exposing their breasts. The law states that a “person is guilty of indecent exposure when such person intentionally exposes his or her sex organs or anus or the sex organs or anus of another person, or intentionally causes such exposure by another or engages in any overt act of sexual gratification.”
The law also states that “it is not considered indecent exposure for a mother to breast feed a child in any location, public or private.”
Jackson, who decided to hold the event, was inspired by videos of similar protests in other states.
“Seeing everybody so free and then watching all the hate pour in was what got me,” she said. “I was like I can’t deal with all this hate and all this judgment and everybody being mean.”
Neither have always supported the cause. Starks said her view evolved, in part, because when she was breastfeeding, nursing in public was inevitable.
It also evolved, she said, because she realized how much thought she’d given over the years to what other people thought of her, instead of how she wanted to present herself.
“I don’t want my daughter to grow up that same way,” she said. “I want her to be comfortable to be herself.”
Organizers are still finalizing the route. They said they tentatively plan to march down Summers Street or Court Street at 5 p.m. and end at Haddad Riverfront Park.
“We’ll work with them,” said Charleston City Attorney Paul Ellis.
They know some will be shocked. But they noted that in 1934, eight men were reportedly fined $1 each for topless swimming at Coney Island. A year later, 42 topless men were arrested in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and eventually, local ordinances were revised.
“Hey,” Jackson said. “It’s our turn.”
“I’m attracted to men and women, and I see a man topless just as sexual as a woman topless,” Starks added.
Leslie Tower, a WVU professor of social work who focuses on women’s equality, said that “if other people are made uncomfortable by it, that’s cultural and that’s social and that’s what’s going on at this particular time in history.
“It’s sexual because people say it is,” she added. “Legs are something that can be considered sexual, but they get us around if we’re able-bodied.”
Tower, who researches work equity issues, noted that efforts to pass a “symbolic bill,” explicitly protecting public breastfeeding, have failed in the West Virginia Legislature.
“Walk around Morgantown at midnight on a Friday or Saturday, you’re going to see a whole lot more breast than you are at a mothers’ group,” she said.
The organizers know there may be some who are offended, too.
“Don’t look at me,” Jackson responds.
Some of the people who’ve expressed support, they say, plan to march in protest of rape culture. “Rape culture” refers to the theory that sexual assault is prevalent because people enable it by blaming victims and failing to hold offenders accountable.
Some were supporters of the Slutwalk movement, which was a response to rape culture. During Slutwalks, women typically wear revealing clothing to send the message that women should not be ashamed of their sexuality, and that women don’t ask for sexual assault by being desirable.
“[Sexual assault is] about overpowering someone, and that has nothing to do with what people are wearing,” Starks said. “Someone could be completely clothed. It has nothing to do with clothing, and yes, this movement does have a lot to do with addressing rape culture. ... Nothing like this will ever end the fact that rape occurs, but it will address how we talk about it.”
Slutwalks send the message that it’s OK for women to be sexual. This event, they say, sends the message that’s it’s OK for women not to be.
“People really don’t see the big picture around it, and that it’s about female identity and how it’s almost like our breasts aren’t part of us,” Starks said. “They’re like this separate, sexual part of us, and if you want to be taken seriously as a woman, cover them up.”
But they also know there may be some who are aroused by it.
Jackson said, “you can still be attracted to it while I do my thing. Stay attracted over there.”
“You see people who you’re attracted to all the time in your life,” Starks said. “That’s just a natural part of life and there’s an appropriate and an inappropriate way to react to that. It’s not about the person who you’re attracted to and how they’re presenting themselves. It’s about how you deal with that attraction.”
The event, they say, is also not about the people who are offended, or shocked, or otherwise disagree.
“For me, it’s a big comfort thing,” Jackson said. “I get heat rash in the heat, and so for me, it’s just simply to take it off and let it fly and be comfortable.”
“I would hope someone would get from this that their bodies are awesome and perfect, as they are,” Starks added.
Reach Erin Beck at