Going bare-breasted, woman makes statement about women's bodies

An unidentified male walks past Moira Johnston of suburban Philadelphia as she stands bared breasted along Walnut St. and 18th St in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia on June 4, 2013. She says she is making a statement about the sexualization of the female body. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
An unidentified male walks past Moira Johnston of suburban Philadelphia as she stands bared breasted along Walnut St. and 18th St in the Rittenhouse section of Philadelphia on June 4, 2013. She says she is making a statement about the sexualization of the female body. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Posted: June 06, 2013

I WANTED TO WRITE something snarky about Moira Johnston because what she's doing kind of begs for snarkiness.

But after hanging with her in Rittenhouse Square - where her bare breasts caught the morning sun, elicited picture-taking and drew a blasting honk from a Roadway Express truck - Johnston won me over to her cause.

Which is this: Women should be allowed to go topless anywhere that men are allowed to.

Maybe it was the flowered pasties that covered Johnston's nipples. Or the glorious breeze. Or the guy who grinned at Johnston's chest and said, "God bless ya, babe!"

Mostly, though, it was Johnston's demeanor that made her exposed boobs seem like no big deal.

She wore paisley-patterned harem pants and flats, carried a big old shoulder bag and yoga mat and had the teeniest bit of pudge on her hips. With her no-fuss hair and big sunglasses, she came across as the cute girl next door, not the aggressive sexual tease that naysayers presume her toplessness telegraphs.

She looked more wholesome, while wearing less, than some women do while wearing more.

A suburban Philly native, Johnston, 30, became an advocate for mammarian freedom last summer after getting booted from a New York City yoga class for removing her shirt. All she wanted was to be as comfortable as the bare-chested men on the mats. And besides, New York law doesn't require women to cover their breasts.

Peeved by society's ignorance of the law, Johnston spent the next few months educating the public by wandering New York sans coverage - shopping in Whole Foods, reading in Union Square, swaying on the subway. She got arrested, once, when a mom complained to cops that Johnston's nude boobs endangered the children who saw them. But the charges were dropped, and Johnston stayed half-naked until the leaves turned.

She's now exposing her ta-tas in Philly in between her gigs as a private yoga instructor. So I figured it was time for Johnston, a/k/a "Topless Moira," to answer a few questions:

Q: First things first: Is it OK for me to look at your breasts? Or is this one of those, "Yo, my eyes are up here!" situations?

A: I don't mind if people look. I know this is out of the ordinary.

Q: How has Philly reacted?

A: Philly has been really supportive. More so than New York.

Q: But New York is home of the Naked Cowboy, who plays guitar in his underpants in Times Square. I'd have thought your bare chest would be "meh."

A: New York has so many foreigners from other cultures, and they can be hostile about women's bodies. They also didn't know that New York law supports toplessness. They assumed I was doing something illegal.

Q: What's your routine? Do you wake up and say, "I think I'll air out the girls today?"

A: I go topless in my free time, when it feels comfortable outdoors, sometimes inside. Last night, I was allowed to be topless at a yoga studio, because the men were allowed to be.

Q: And?

A: People seemed surprised. But no one said anything to me.

Q: Have you inspired any women to bare [almost] all?

A: Last week, a lady in Rittenhouse Square said she'd totally do it if she had pasties. So I gave her an extra pair of mine. I feel a little more covered up and protected when I wear them.

Q: Where does one buy pasties?

A: At E-Zone on South Street, or in sex shops. They're disposables.

Q: Are there any places you won't go topless?

A: I'll pretty much go topless any place where it's legal for a man to be topless. I carry Mace, but generally I feel safe. If anything, people act a little scared of me. I think any potential predator thinks, whoa, that's a little too obvious. I'm almost too visible.

Q: You've said that breasts have been so sexualized and commercialized, it's skewed how society looks at boobs.

A: It has. Some people think even breast-feeding a child is sexual.

Q: But you used to dance topless. That was sexual and commercial, wasn't it?

A: Yeah. But context is everything. It's up to the woman to decide when her breasts are sexual and for what reason, whether private or commercial. Just because we can't control society's reaction doesn't mean we should adjust our behavior.

Q: But how would someone who meets you topless in the park know your context?

A: Perhaps they wouldn't. But I define it, not them. I only have so much control over someone's interpretation of my ideas and the way I express myself.

Q: Any reaction from women who wear burkas?

A: Yes! I get the most support from them! They even take pictures with me. We really respect each other's choices.

Q: Maybe it's because it's obvious that you've both thought a lot about how to present yourself, physically, to the world. Your thought process unites you.

A: Exactly.

Q: What does your family make of your activism?

A: My mother is a breast-cancer survivor, and she generally supports my decision. My younger sister worries a little that someone will try to hurt me. But my other sister approves.

Q: How long will you keep this up?

A: Whenever I have free time and am in a location that allows me to exercise my rights to the fullest extent.

Q: Weather permitting?

A: Weather permitting.


Today on PhillyDailyNews.com:See a photo slide show of Johnston roaming around Center City topless.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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