How American Men Won the Right to Go Topless

Cristen Conger

Saucy lifeguards flash rebellious nipples. (Courtesy: The Gaily Grind)

On social media and in public spaces, there's a fight afoot for the female nipple. #FreetheNipple has become a viral hashtag protesting the inherent sexualization of breasts and bans on images of areola that happen to be attached to female breast tissue. There's even a documentary about it in the works; it's battling an NC-17 rating, case in point.

So what's the point of all this Twitter-fied titillation? There are utilitarian objectives, such as freedom for moms who need to breastfeed on the go and au naturel air conditioning on a hot day. But chest thumping for equality is at its core: why can men reveal the same anatomy without censure or possible fines and arrest? Nearly all states don't explicitly outlaw female nipples in public, local municipalities can enforce their own community standards that classify naked lady nips as indecent exposure or even a felonious endangerment to minors depending on who sees them.

Men's brief fight to free their own nipples also highlights the disparity in how we perceive these highly gendered bumpy flesh dots. See, most Internet histories and timelines of American toplessness note how it used to be illegal for men to reveal their nipples in public, which was true in certain public spaces. But aside from a brief flurry of press attention in the late 1930s, the issue quickly transitioned from hot button to ho-hum.

Saucy lifeguards flash rebellious nipples. (Courtesy: The Gaily Grind)

In Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker describe how by the late 1910s many public swimming pools mandated men not wear suits that conformed too closely to their physique, some even requiring short skirts worn over trunks. Swimsuit fabric and style quickly evolved in 1920s, introducing tighter two pieces as well as belted and elastic waist briefs, which some men like Hollywood dreamboat Rudolph Valentino wore sans shirt or tank.

Then in the 1930s, male nipples had their heyday. On the silver screen, Olympian Johnny Weissmuller wore nothing but a loincloth in 1932's Tarzan and the Apes.

Some pecs.
Courtesy: Pinterest

Two years later, Clark Gable impressively sidestepped the Hays Codes with his famous undressing monologue to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Men's undershirt sales even fell after the film's release, though it's unclear whether Gable's inspirational nipples were the cause.

Clark Gable dared to go bare (Courtesy: Daveland).

Off screen, male swimmers began intentionally flouting Coney Island's coverup rule by going barechested to the beach. After a series of fines, a judge overturned New York state's male shirtless bans in 1937. The incident attracted press attention, as Atlantic City and other waterfronts similarly mandated against man-nips. With that legal domino tipped, along with help from Hollywood's hunks, men's barechestedness was here to stay by the late 1940s, save one homophobic exception.

Don't forget the sunscreen, fellas.
Courtesy: Pinterest

Even after New York state lifted its male nipple ban, publicly shirtless men still risked arrest if they were perceived gay. In 1947, for instance, Harvey Milk was among a group of shirtless men arrested for indecent exposure in Central Park, yet the barechested married men in the park weren't harassed.

But on the whole, men's shirtlessness was a freedom swiftly won, thanks in no small part to male law enforcement officials and judges who could personally emphasize with male body politics. Meanwhile, many male lawmakers continually deemed female nipples prurient outside of the home or strip club. In other words, the major takeaway from how men freed their nipples is that the issue isn't about nipples at all, but about how flesh is rendered gendered and moralized accordingly.

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