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Free the Nipple isn’t as easy as Freeing the Nipple

Free the Nipple isn’t as easy as Freeing the Nipple: Organizer Melissa Diner, Bridget "Free the Nipple" Phetasy and director Lina Esco. Photo by Matt Misisco.

Organizer Melissa Diner, Bridget "Free the Nipple" Phetasy and director Lina Esco. Photo by Matt Misisco.

I was raised in a very European household where nudity was no big deal. A body was a body. It’s the meat suit we’re loaned for our time on Earth. I never understood America’s prudish perception of nudity, but then again, in the scheme of things, we are a very young country. Relative to other nations, we’re basically in our Terrible Twos. Europe, on the other hand, has been around for thousands of years. Europe is like, “We’ve seen some titties. What’s the big deal?”

Exactly. Long before social media and trendy hashtag revolutions, I freed the nipple online and off. Many labeled me an exhibitionist or a nudist or a feminist. The truth is I wouldn’t label myself any of those things even though I embody all of them. I am just being me.

I realize I push the boundaries of social norms. I’m not willfully ignorant of that fact, but I am not quite able to articulate my defiance. I merely find the reaction to boobs amusing (exhibitionism) and the Puritanical double-standard annoying (feminism) and, in general, I hate clothes, and I find them suffocating (nudism).

I didn’t know I was fighting The Patriarchy. Hashtag EQUALITY never occurred to me. I just wanted to be taken seriously as a writer/comic/intellectual AND be naked. This seems impossible in our culture, and I buck against it every day.

So when someone made me aware of the “Free the Nipple” movement I discovered it was an idea I could easily get behind—or in front of, I guess. Free the Nipple gave my frustration a voice; my seemingly pointless nudity suddenly had purpose.


When I told my editor I wanted to cover the recent Free the Nipple rally on Venice Beach, he told me Playboy has two rules: 1) Make sure everyone you photograph is over 18. 2) No nipples. (I realize this second point is ironic and an entirely separate essay, but for purposes of this article and keeping my good standing as a Playboy freelancer, let’s just say it has something to do with advertising and move on.)

The second rule could be easily fixed with Photoshop, pasties, or in my case, FREE THE NIPPLE stickers. It didn’t occur to me that the first rule – over-18 – would be an issue. When I imagined what the rally looks like, I envisioned a bunch of free-spirited, gorgeous L.A. hippie chicks, letting their nipples see the light, vaping and lazily lounging in the sand.

The only thing I accurately predicted was the vaping.

Some background: Free the Nipple is a movie that turned into a movement and is now an organization promoting gender equality. It sprouted up after enigmatic director Lina Esco found it nearly impossible to distribute and promote her 2012 indie film. The movement gained popularity after Rumer Willis, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and other celebrities joined the cause.

This Venice Beach event was organized by Esco and Melissa Diner, a self-proclaimed “volunteer politician” who recently proposed to legalize toplessness in Venice. VICE and LA Weekly have done a good job covering the local angle, if you want to know more about the history of the nude ban and the implications of the Venice vote.

The long and short is that even though the measure passed 12-2, it didn’t matter legally. The vote was basically a publicity stunt to bring awareness to city law. The beach is technically under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, and until the Los Angeles City Council amends the ban, TECHNICALLY it’s still a misdemeanor for a woman to show her nipples in public.

I realize all this legalese is all riveting, but pay attention; it’s important for later in the story when the cops show up.


Photo by Matt Misisco

Photo by Matt Misisco

Samantha (my friend), Matt (a photographer) and me arrived promptly at noon. I saw some girls in pasties giggling and posting a handmade sign on a wall with an arrow pointing towards the beach. I say “girls” because it was immediately clear to me that not a single person in this group was over the age of 18.

Uh-oh.

I found out there was a third person involved in this beach day and, in fact, she’s the one who organized the whole thing. Her name is Ali Marsh, and she’s 17, just one month shy of 18. She’s more self-aware than most 30-something women I know. She’s also a badass. Her parents were present, proudly supporting her efforts to fight The Patriarchy, and they gave me permission to interview her.

We followed the girls to where two umbrellas were set up down by the water. At this point the rally was comprised of six teenage girls. Other than us, there were only two other people who were over 18: the woman who has the “beach concierge” business (she brought water and umbrellas) and a random man who gave off the vibe that he wasn’t legally allowed within 200 feet of a school.

We set our blanket nearby, but far enough to let the girls have their space. Just the fact that it was only teens makes it slightly uncomfortable, but creepo’s presence made it even more uncomfortable. He highlighted their teen-ness. Made it super-present. I tried reserving judgment, but my spidey-sense for predators is pretty well developed at this point; every red flag and bell was waving and dinging. Creepo settled down right in between our blanket and the girls.

My “mama bear” instinct was triggered. I was surprised at this because I was a precocious 17-year old, and this is exactly the kind of thing I would have spent a Saturday doing. I was immediately torn between deeply understanding their desire to fight The Man and a strong urge to cover them up and yell, “Do your parents know where you are?! Shouldn’t you be home reading Animal Farm or something? There are perverts everywhere!” Suddenly I felt like an old lady.

My photographer had the completely appropriate reaction to the situation. “I don’t even want to look at them,” he said under his breath as he sat with his back to the group of teens. “I didn’t realize I was going to get arrested for child pornography today, Bridget.”

As a 27-year old male he was uncomfortable taking pictures of half-naked teens, in ANY context.

Fuuuuuuuuuck. I thought. I suddenly realized that what I originally thought was going to be a relatively easy “WOO-HOO FREE THE NIPPLES!” piece about feminism, equality and double standards, had suddenly become far more complex with the addition of minors and a potential sex offender.


We had arrived “early” (in LA being on time for anything is early), so I settled in to see how this whole thing would play out and waited until the organizers showed up. My friend Samantha volunteered to take any photos, and I relieved photographer Matt of his awkward duty.

About 45 minutes later the movie director Esco showed up (clothed) with some of her friends. She moved our rag-tag group closer to the boardwalk so we’d be more “visible.” The group of girls expanded, and there were about 15 young adults in total, not all of them under 18, but most of them.

Creeper was still amongst us, happily volunteering to take pictures and arrange the girls. Again, I was trying not to judge, but there was just something inherently wrong; his presence made me uncomfortable. He was too excited. My suspicions were confirmed when I overheard this exchange:

“Can I ask you what these pictures are for? Where are they going to be seen?” one of the girls rightfully asked the creeper.

“Oh, they’re just for my personal collection,” he responded.

I got chills. I knew something was wrong when he had one of those old, crappy, digital cameras. No one has those things anymore. Professional photographers have professional cameras. The rest of us have smartphones. Only murderers and pedophiles have digital cameras.

Finally, Esco stepped in. She’s got balls; I’ll give her that.

“You need to leave, sir,” she said, sternly.

“But why, I’m not doing anything,” he responded.

“Just please leave.” She was polite but firm.

“I don’t understand. It’s not like I’m doing anything.” He wouldn’t budge from his towel.

Esco stopped being polite. “I don’t care, just get the fuck out of here.”

They went back and forth for a while, with her repeating, “Just get the fuck out of here” and him resisting while gathering his things and starting to make moves.

“Can you tell me what I did? Did I do something to offend any of you?” He was speaking to the girls now.

“A man your age, all alone, taking pictures of these young girls, you’ve got fucking problems.” Esco said. “Please get the fuck out of here. NOW.”

He collected his things and left. Esco and I chatted about it briefly.

“I thought he was someone’s father, “ she said, shaking her head.

Fair enough. I give her credit for protecting her little protégés. That’s exactly the kind of leadership you absolutely must have when you are responsible for a movement.

One of the girls chimed in, “He seemed into it. He did know a lot about the indecent exposure laws.”

Yeah, I bet he did.

001 free-the-nipple-event

I’ve shared this tale not to give this one bad character from an otherwise perfectly lovely day any attention but rather because it raised some serious conflicts for me: If you legalize toplessness, should there be an age limit? Is it the age of consent? In this digital age, how do you balance protecting your teenage girl from ending up fodder for pedophiles (online AND off) while at the same time encouraging them to fight for equality? Where is the line?

We aren’t just up against a law put in place in the 1970s. We are trying to shake off hundreds, if not THOUSANDS of years of shame and repression, often served to us in the guise of religion. You can’t just undo that overnight; you need to actually change the consciousness.

Repression is easy. Undoing the long-term psychological effect of repression is very difficult. Oftentimes you need to baby-step your way to liberation. How do you write laws that balance equality and, in this instance, protect minors in the brave new world of drones and online porn and live digital video streaming?


Just as things started to relax a little the police showed up. Two cops on horseback (this seemed a bit excessive to me) idled at a distance, staring at us from down the beach. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do. They approached, hesitant. Esco perked up. So did the 17-year-old budding activist Marsh. This is the stuff that gives the activists their juice, their fire.

“Ladies, we’ve had some complaints about your toplessness,” one of the cops said. “It’s considered a lewd act if your nipples are showing.”

This sent the girls through the roof.

“A lewd act! What does that even mean? What about the law that was passed that allows us to go topless?”

“Our supervisor is on the way,” they tell us, punting the resolution of our situation from one authority to another.

Everyone recorded the interaction with their handheld devices. The cops looked unsure of themselves and uncomfortable as 20 topless teens surround their horses.

A supervisor did arrive and explained to Esco that regardless of what law Venice passed, the police still had to uphold the city ordinance that clearly stated that female nipples are not allowed to be exposed. If we didn’t cover up we risked a citation or arrest. We could wear pasties or stickers or thick tape. We could not show our nipples.

Marsh, being the ballsy little activist that she is, pushed back. “Well, does that even apply to children?” she asked.

“Use your common sense,” a policeman I shall now refer to as Officer Meathead replied.

“What does that even mean? So at what age does a female child have to legally stop showing her nipples?” Marsh asked.

“It’s common sense; come on now.” Officer Meathead was getting angry.

Director Lina Esco gets the lowdown from Officer Meathead. Photo by Samantha Shahi.

Director Lina Esco gets the lowdown from Officer Meathead. Photo by Samantha Shahi.

What Meathead didn’t seem to know was that there was, in fact, an age limit defined in the ordinance at which little girls must cover up their nipples. It’s 10. This isn’t common sense at all. Some girls go through puberty at 9.

As the mounted police waited for the OK to leave, they noticed a guy who had been there all day supporting us. He began covering up in solidarity. The cops, without any hint of irony, said to him, “Sir, you don’t have to cover your nipples.”

Without missing a beat Ail Marsh fired back, “Yeah that’s exactly the point!”

The girls finally agreed to cover up. They moved on to petting the horses and taking selfies in front of the police.

“PIZZA!!!” they yelled in unison as the delivery arrived on the beach.

They might be activists, but they were still teens.


Things were much more chill after that. The girls played some music and sang along. Other than the fact that they were partially topless, it felt like a completely normal day at the beach. I talked to some of them, get some pictures with everyone over 18 and asked them why the movement was important to them.

These young women were impressive. They weren’t there to piss off daddy. They truly believed this is a matter of equality. They were tired of the double standard that sexuality is shameful, unless you’re using it to sell a product. American Apparel can run billboards of what looks like a teenage girl who is being photographed naked on a mattress in a basement holding-cell, but Instagram will suspend your account for breastfeeding.

I’m relieved to know not all Millennials are lazy, entitled and apathetic. These were some of the most open-minded, progressive kids I’ve ever met, and they’re part of a generation that’s more tolerant than any before it maybe in the history of humanity. They’re self-aware; composed, polite, politically-savvy activists. In fact, Marsh stunned me when she apologized for not looking me directly in the eye because of the sun while I interviewed her.


I attended a media Q&A later in the day. I was eager to talk to the director, but she wasn’t feeling well, so she bailed.

I’m still left with some nagging questions: Where were all the women my age? Why didn’t Free the Nipple wait a month until Marsh was 18 to avoid her age conflict altogether? Why risk undermining an already divisive movement using people who aren’t old enough to even give an interview about it without parental consent? When talking to many of them, it was clear their parents had no idea what they were doing that day. Some of the girls present were FIFTEEN.

On the other hand, listening to the teens interviewed by some of the other news outlets was inspiring. At one point Marsh said, “Home is your body in its most raw form.” It gave me chills.

I’m proud to have met these young women and even more proud to have been able to spend a day damning The Man with them, even if our nipples still aren’t free. They make me want to work even harder to help usher along the shift of consciousness.

The very discussion is what matters. The fact that these internal conflicts arose is important. Wrestling with them means that progress is occurring this very moment. Someday – I hope – my kids or my grandkids can be nude and have it be just that: meaningless nudity. When it doesn’t have to be labeled feminism or nudism or exhibitionism in order to justify it, I’ll know that as a nation, we’ve finally grown up.


Bridget Phetasy is a writer and comic in Los Angeles.

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