BARING WITNESS

Written By: Rebecca Nimerfroh | Photography By: Kit Noble

Uncovering Dorothy Stover’s campaign to allow island beaches to go topless.

Seventh-generation Nantucketer and self-described love and sex educator Dorothy Stover was sunbathing on the beach last summer when she felt the urge to take off her bikini top. As she looked around the beach and saw men with exposed chests in all shapes and sizes, she wondered why women weren’t allowed the same freedom. She went home and researched it. “And that’s when I saw this discrepancy in equality,” Stover explained. “I realized that the current law is antiquated.”

As Stover discovered, nearly a hundred years ago, men fought for the right to be topless on America’s public beaches. At the time, bathing suits were commonly made of wool and were worn to cover both men’s and women’s bodies. The men’s version even included a ruffled skirt for modesty. However, the discomfort and swimming hazard that the wool imposed eventually caused men to revolt against such decency standards, and after much protest, they won the right to go topless in the 1930s.

Recognizing this historic inequality in the law, Dorothy launched a petition this winter to make female toplessness legal on all of Nantucket’s beaches. Before her citizen’s warrant could be added to the ballot to be voted on during Town Meeting in May, she needed to defend her case in front of the town’s Financial Committee. “I was super nervous,” Stover said. “I thought my best possible outcome would be that they simply would hear what I had to say.” Yet to her surprise—and to the surprise of many other islanders—the committee endorsed her warrant. “It certainly wasn’t a feeling on the Finance Committee that people should be topless on all beaches on Nantucket,” explained Joanna Roche, the executive director of the Maria Mitchell Association who has served on the Finance Committee board for the last seven years. “The feeling was that this is an outdated law that’s not equitable, and to let the voters decide.”

Since then, Stover’s so-called nipple equality campaign has grabbed national attention, with splashy headlines in everything from the New York Post to Yahoo News. Her hashtag #nantucketnippleequality has been trending on social media, and the response has been, according to Stover, surprisingly massive. “I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people who feel empowered and free by taking their top off on the beach,” she said. “I feel like Nantucket could now be a destination for these people.”

The most vocal response has come from Nantucketers themselves, with strong arguments for and against. “I love being in the water naked,” said Hana Schuster, a thirty-three-year-old construction project manager and Nantucket year-round resident. “Nudity is natural—it doesn’t always have to be sexual. It’s only taboo because we have made it that way.” However, seventy-two-year old island resident Alyce Moore isn’t about to cast her vote to cast off bikini tops. “It reminds me of the hippie days when people burned their bra,” she said. “This equality business is foolish; women are different from men. We’ve lost our true sense of self-respect, dignity and true femininity.”

As conservative as Nantucket is often known to be, the island already lays claim to a single nude beach, albeit not legally recognized. Located roughly between Miacomet Pond and the Surfside sewer beds, this beach is not found in guide books. A similar stretch of coastline exists on Martha’s Vineyard where Lucy Vincent Beach has permitted nudity since the mid-1960s. Legally speaking, nudity on these beaches is, in fact, against the law, specifically under one currently upheld by the state on lewdness and lascivious behavior, carrying with it a penalty of up to three years in prison or up to a $300 fine. The vote at Town Meeting on May 4th could change that.

“I think a lot of people are envisioning a sea of breasts,” Stover joked. “But I think it’ll look more like it does now, with only a few people that may decide to lay out topless. This law doesn’t require everyone to be topless; it only allows you to do so.” The founder of the Nantucket Love School, Stover teaches women to feel connected with their bodies. “I was never taught that my body was shameful,” said Stover, who credits her late mother and former longtime Town Clerk, Catherine Stover, for encouraging her to stand up for what she believes in. “As a child, I’d be running down Pocomo Beach totally naked, not a care in the world.”

Stover cites that societies and cultures where nudity is permitted also tend to have the lowest occurrences of sexual assault and other similar sex crimes. Biologically speaking, Stover argues, there is not much evidence to differentiate between male and female breasts. Both (yes, men, too) contain mammary glands and milk ducts. In fact, men can theoretically breast-feed children.

Nantucket has long been on the forefront of gender equality, stemming back to the whaling-era days when, in the absence of their husbands, women ran a majority of the businesses along Petticoat Row. Several centuries later, Stover hopes the island can again be trendsetters in gender equality, allowing all nipples to be bared, regardless of their owner’s sexual identity.

“Whether someone wants to be topless or not is entirely up to them,” Stover explained. “This is not necessarily about what we will do at the beach, but it’s about righting that wrong.”

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