A study published in the journal Sexuality & Culture examined U.S. residents’ attitudes toward women going topless in public places. The findings suggest that for some, female toplessness is intertwined with sexuality and represents a moral issue. In line with objectification theory, women were more critical of female toplessness compared to men.
Western societies tend to be far more disapproving of women going topless in public compared to men. The rationale seems to be that female breasts are inherently sexual and thus inappropriate for display in family areas like public beaches. This view fits within objectification theory, which suggests that a woman’s value is based on her appearance, as perceived through the heterosexual male gaze.
Researchers Colin R. Harbke and Dana F. Lindemann conducted a study to investigate Americans’ attitudes toward female toplessness in public. While past studies have focused on the public’s perceptions of the legality of female toplessness, the current study aimed to target people’s reactions to female toplessness itself. The researchers also wanted to explore whether attitudes toward female toplessness vary by geographic region, a phenomenon that has been previously reported in Canadian samples.
“We were interested in attitudes toward breastfeeding and disparate reactions to being topless in public, without nursing, came to the forefront as an potential contributing factor,” explained Harbke, a professor of psychology at Western Illinois University – Quad Cities.
“We began thinking of both of these behaviors as relatively simple and innocuous on the surface, but that each are quite complicated when women’s objectification, morality, and sexism are added to the mix. Also, around that time there were some legal decisions that highlighted differences in the legality of public toplessness between not only men and women, but also between one region or state and the next.”
“Most all the prior research on attitudes toward public toplessness focused on this legality issue (e.g., do people think that it should be legal for women to be topless while in public?) and we wanted to expand on this by getting a sense of how people are likely to react if they were to see someone who was topless while out in public.”
The study participants were 326 U.S. residents, most of whom (78%) were women. The participants were shown a series of 60 images as part of a larger study. Interspersed within these images were six photos of topless women in one of three public settings — a beach, a park, or a city street. The photos were selected from Internet image searches and consisted of unedited photos of women who were not celebrities or models. To control for implicit biases related to body shape, skin tone, and other factors, the researchers selected only young adult White women with similar appearances.
For each photo, participants rated their “impression or feelings when seeing the images” on an 11-point scale from very positive to very negative. The participants then completed demographic questionnaires and measures of disgust sensitivity, child protectiveness beliefs, and sexual attitudes and awareness.
According to the findings, 80% of the variance in participants’ ratings was driven by individual differences, rather than differences in the photos. Geographic region was not related to participants’ attitudes.
“It was really clear that the driving force in how someone is likely to respond to seeing a topless woman in public is not the setting, region, or the legality of where the toplessness occurs, but rather the characteristics, traits, and opinions of the person who is doing the reacting in the first place,” Harbke told PsyPost. “Even though prior surveys have shown that many people feel that being able to go topless in public should be within women’s legal rights, these findings suggest that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will react favorably to seeing it around them.”
Living in a state where female toplessness is prohibited was associated with less favorable attitudes toward the topless photos, while living in a state with ambiguous policies was related to more favorable attitudes toward the photos. These findings highlight how laws and social norms can influence people’s attitudes toward particular issues.
“Much of the prior legality-based research had identified that attitudes toward public female toplessness differed based on the setting (or context) where the toplessness occurred (e.g., on a beach or at a pool, in a public park, or if one were to be walking around the city),” Harbke told PsyPost. “We expected to see differences in reactions to the pictures across settings also, and we did, but they were much smaller in magnitude than in prior legality-based studies.”
“The differences in reactions for participants from states where public female toplessness was explicitly legal, explicitly illegal, or where the legality of topless was ambiguous, albeit still present, were also smaller than we anticipated.”