Madison's nipples got free, and the challenges began

The Madison edition of International Go Topless Day is about to explode.

Illustrations by Rachal Duggan.

Illustrations by Rachal Duggan.

"I want to normalize it."

Lili Luxe has never been particularly shy about her body. The longtime performer, producer, and host appears topless at club nights and burlesque performances across Madison. It is legal for women to appear topless in public in Madison, after all, but few people take advantage.

The disparity didn't go unnoticed. Four years ago, Luxe decided to do something more organized about it.

"In talking with people and realizing there's a lot of fear from women, they're not comfortable with it, in a little way they just need that push in a safe environment," Luxe explains. "All of my events are around a safe-space, consent-based concept. It wasn't really a formal thing, but I thought, hey let's go around to bars in a group [topless]. I contacted the bars ahead of time, and there was no issue."

The idea particularly took root when Luxe became aware of the International Go Topless Day movement, which happens annually the Sunday before International Women's Day. This year, Go Topless Day falls on August 26. The campaign began in the U.S. in 2007 as a way to make it more socially acceptable for women to go bare-chested in public, and to fight against laws in places that bar it.

In 2014, the first year of Luxe’s event in Madison, about 25 women joined in on a bar crawl that worked its way up State Street. Luxe says that had no serious incidents. "There's always gonna be some gawkers, unfortunately," Luxe says. "But I could go out in leggings and a parka and still get catcalled." And though one of the number-one concerns cited by women for not participating in such events is police intervention, Luxe says it's never happened.

"The sad pushback that I find is not from men, but from women," she notes. "On last year's crawl we were walking along the bike path from the beach and a woman was like, 'Oh that's so shameful.' I felt so bad that, if I were some dude out there with my top off, she wouldn't have had an issue. And yet she's been raised to think that our bodies are shameful."

Fighting back against that internal and external stigma is a major part of the mission of the events. It's had life-changing effects on many of the participants, including local performer Claire Moon.

Moon grew up on a hobby farm in rural Minnesota where, she says, she was able to sunbathe topless. After moving to Madison in 2009, however, she was never able to find that same comfort, even after discovering it was legal to be topless in the city.

"Before I found the Nipple Equality events, I went to a local park off of Willy Street ...hid behind a bush and read a book topless, with my chest and stomach firmly planted into the ground," she recalls. "I felt so free! And absolutely terrified that someone would call the police on me anyway!"

More and more, Moon says, she was learning about feminist ideals and events, and becoming angry that she didn't have the same ability as men to go shirtless. "Because I have more adipose tissue on my chest, due to my hormones, which I didn't choose, I could never feel the wind and sun on the top half of my body. It's irrational and unfair."

The first time Moon joined a nipple-equality brunch event in Madison, she says, she was so nervous she wore pasties under a cardigan. Once she sat down and everyone began to remove their tops, however, "all of my doubts disappeared!" she enthuses. "It just felt like really genuine acceptance. We talked about a variety of topics over brunch like any group of people would, and it was one of the most refreshing experiences of my life."

Luxe emphasizes that sense of camaraderie in helping any femme-identified person become more comfortable with their body in a public setting. "It's such a body-empowering experience to just be like, yeah, this is my body, it's the same as yours," she says. "I should be confident and free to walk about this way at any time because it is legal in our city to do this. Every single lady that has come and participated has, you know, it's just changed their lives. Their total viewpoint on the world, how they see themselves, the excitement and the freedom that they should have every day, but they don't, because some people can't handle boobs."

The movement and Luxe's events have drawn the attention of those self-same people. When she went to create the Facebook listing for this year's event, a discrepancy between the mobile and website-based versions of the application caused the event to be listed publicly.

"Within four hours I was over 100 shares," she says. "By 18 hours I was 500 shares and over 1,000 people interested. The thing basically went viral. Which was great. I'm taking the positive side of what happened in that I've now reached thousands of women across the state and even over state lines who didn't even known this was a thing."

Of course, it would be impossible to accommodate even half that number if everyone showed up to the bar crawl. Between that and the influx of creepy, invasive commentary from a number of men who found their way to the page, Luxe made the decision to cancel the main event and do a smaller, invite-only brunch. She posted the explanation and, even then, she says men sent messages demanding to be invited or berating her for making the change.

"There was a lot of douchebaggery in the comments, too, from these guys saying, 'Yeah! Free titty show!' And I'm like, did you read the description of this event, that it's an empowering experience for equality?" Luxe says, head shaking. "I ended up going through and deleting all of the commentary. It's not about you or what you're interested in, dude."

Luxe emphasizes that none of this is to say that men can't or shouldn't play a role in advocating for equality or supporting events like hers. Quite the opposite. "I do not want, and I have never in any of my endeavors in empowering women, to be exclusionary of my feminist allies," she says. "I think men are fantastic. But just because it's not about you doesn't mean that I have a problem with you or that I don't appreciate the support of your feminism and the support of what we're doing. But you need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask why you're interested in this. Are you interested in supporting equality, or are you interested in seeing tits? It is not that I have anything against dudes, dudes are awesome. I believe in the true definition of feminism, which is equality of the sexes.'"

"Feminism," she adds, "is not a flip of roles, it's about equality across the board."

Another silver lining of this year's event going viral is that it inspired Luxe to go all-out for next year's fifth anniversary. She's already booked the Majestic for a show that will include live music, a rally, and speakers, with all proceeds going to the Rape Crisis Center.

"Every woman deserves to experience release from their shame or from what society expects of them, even if just for an afternoon," Moon says. "None of us asked to be raised in a culture that teaches us that any part of our body is wrong. The status quo of nipple inequality reinforces sexism in our culture. It silently tells everyone that it is normal for women to be more restricted than men."

Luxe adds to that, noting that part of the greater push needs to happen not just with acceptance of toplessness out and about, but in how it is (or isn't) regulated in online forums like Facebook. A photo of the Nipple Equality group standing proudly bare-breasted on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol was initially flagged as inappropriate and removed from her Facebook page. Luxe managed to successfully challenge the removal and have the photo restored. It represents a rare win against censorship on the platform, but an important one.

"We need to stop the perception within social media that one version [male chests] is acceptable and one [female chests] is inherently sexual," Luxe says. "It's not just about on the streets but how you should be able to feel comfortable expressing yourself the same way anyone is throughout all aspects of society."

Another point Luxe is keen to make is that the events, and the movement generally, are trans-inclusive, and that anyone who identifies under the "femme" umbrella and "feel the need to be empowered by something like this" are welcome.

One event at a time, the Nipple Equality movement is clearly helping many women and femme-identified people reclaim their body confidence.

"You get to ride your bike, mow your lawn, go kayaking, lay out, take your shirt off on a hot day just because you want to," Luxe says. "I want that right. I have that right, actually, but society shames me out of doing it."