Chelsea Covington Topless / Topfreedom Activist Across the Northeastern USA
Interview With Chelsea, Topfreedom Activist & Author of the “Breasts Are Healthy” Blog
Update 2018: Since this interview was published, I have joined Chelsea and three other women in filing a civil rights complaint against Ocean City, Maryland for their discriminatory topfree ordinance that went into effect last year. I will continue to post major updates to this site as the case progresses. To learn more about Chelsea and her activism, read on to our interview below!
Topfreedom is technically legal for women in most U.S. states and in many big cities. This is often due to the absence of any written law against it. That said, it has yet to become socially acceptable or commonplace for women to be topfree in public. As a result, topfree women often run of the risk of arrest and / or harassment regardless of the legality.
This is why I was delighted to come across a new topfree equality blog called Breasts Are Healthy. It was started by a young activist named Chelsea, or “Gingerbread” which is the name she writes under.
Chelsea has been writing about her experiences going topfree in public in various U.S. cities. But she wasn’t just taking courageous topless walks through the streets. She was actually contacting and educating police departments about topfreedom and local laws. This has directly led to police chiefs training their officers on the law (which basically means that officers were instructed not to bother bare-chested women).
Chelsea’s experiences have been interesting to say the least. I reached out to interview her about her activism, what inspired her to do this and how other women can follow in her footsteps!
Below is my Q&A Interview with Chelsea of the Breasts Are Healthy Blog
Q. Where are you from? How old are you? When / why did you begin going topfree in public?
I am 27 and live in Maryland. I have always preferred to be nude or bare-chested, since I was a kid, though I had some serious body image issues for a long time that kept me from feeling comfortable in my skin, so I would mostly take my clothes off when I was alone.
I began walking bare-chested publicly in 2014. I had been to Ocean City, Maryland, several times already and had gone bare-chested there for a couple hours at a time, and I got some looks, and some questions about legality and such, but I didn’t have any real negative interactions and the world didn’t end, and no police either.
So I grew in confidence and decided to give Washington D.C. a try. I knew female bare-chestedness was legal there and had an email confirmation that fact from the D.C. Metro police. But I also knew it was probably very unusual or just not happening at all (also I really wanted to see what it felt like).
Within four minutes (we timed it, lol) of me stepping out of the car on that first walk, the first police officers arrived. They were angry and hostile and only spoke to the man standing next to me for the first ten minutes.
They told him to tell me that it may be legal, but if “she doesn’t cover those up, she’s getting arrested.” I find it hard to express the feeling that passed through me as they spoke to him… as if I were his possession. I still haven’t found a way to express the resolve that settled in me during this episode. I knew I had found a calling.
The cops held me for 45 minutes before letting me go. I was livid. I still am, when I think about it. But by the time they did let me go, we were also laughing and joking back and forth with the same police officers (one even posed for a photo with me) and I finished my hour and a half walk through the heart of Georgetown.
I felt so incredibly empowered after that. I realized I was on to something, personally I mean. When the cops left the car, I thought they were going to throw us to the ground. I really did. But eventually they had de-escalated to the point where we could at least talk to each other.
I also ended up in some high level conversations. I spoke to the police chief the following day, a district commander several more times that week, and, as a result, D.C. ended up training their officers in roll calls and such, and now, two years later, I walk D.C. in peace and I feel like I’ve done something meaningful when I do.
I’ve also had the beautiful privilege of accompanying two women for their first bare-chested walks in public. Both in D.C., both in very crowded places and in both walks we had literally no negative interactions. Not one. I know the work that went into creating those peaceful walks and I feel very proud of what we’ve accomplished.
I feel the burden of history, regarding the topfree women activists who have made public bare-chested appearances before me. I thank you (Felicity) for posting that article about the women of NY who have been arrested over the years. You’re a very strong writer. Your intelligence and care represent females and female bare-chestedness (and nudity) very well. We are establishing our credibility and showing the world that intelligent women have valid reasons for going bare-chested.
It helps me feel motivated to push the cause forward. I feel an obligation to these women, including you, who sacrificed and put themselves out there. I really feel like there has been a significant change in policing topfree women since 2013, at least in some places.
Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Vermont, Maine, New York of course, are all coming around. It feels slow, but sometimes it feels quick.
Q. Thank you for the compliments on my writing and work! So what were your body image issues about if I may ask? (If you don’t want to talk about it, it’s totally fine.)
I believe it is incredibly important to talk about. If we don’t acknowledge the issues and pressures women face, how can we address and move past them?
From an early age I had a very difficult time finding anything attractive about myself. I was never very girly. I hated the color pink, dresses and loved to be active and get dirty. Therefore I felt like I stuck out.
Girls were supposed to be everything that I felt I wasn’t. So I was uneasy with how I measured up (or didn’t) to what I perceived and was taught (through how family members acted and spoke of themselves and women in general, the depiction of females in any media from books, TV, movies, commercials, and so on) what being female meant.
For many years I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I had acne, I felt that I was chubby (I wasn’t, really) and not pretty. I was “too independent” and liked the “wrong” things. I thought that no one would really ever find me enough; attractive enough, pleasant enough, good enough… I was giving the outside world the power to dictate how I felt about and saw myself.
Hindsight and perspective have allowed me to see that I was repeating the insecurities spoon-fed to my mother and her sisters and their mother and women around the world and throughout the ages.
Q. As I’m sure you’ve realized, the laws on topfreedom can be really confusing and on top of that it’s hard to know how law enforcement will react to a topfree woman. How did you come up with this strategy of contacting local police departments before going on a public topfree outing? Did it just seem like a logical step given the above? Do you start by trying to research state and then local laws for wherever you’re going to be?
You are absolutely correct. Most regular police officers aren’t going to know. They will simply assume it is illegal and tell a woman to cover up.
I didn’t contact police beforehand when I initially began my bare-chested outings. Basically, I decided I would deal with whatever happened if and when something did. My fiancé Jeff and I would role play conversations with police to prepare a little, but other than that, I was relying on logic and reasoned discourse to deal with any problems.
The first D.C. interaction with police was… less than what I had hoped for. But it proved to me that even in a place where it has been legal for almost 30 years, it definitely helps to be prepared. I contacted Chief Lannier and spoke with Commander Gresham. Both agreed the incident should not have happened as it did and it resulted in training on the subject.
Jeff and I thought and talked about the situation a lot. It seemed a better use of time and energy to try and forestall the problems rather than try to clean up after they already happen. That’s when I started calling or emailing (or sometimes both) or going in person to the police department in the area I was planning to be.
Before we go to a new place, we always do research. We look up the state and local laws and also search for any cases or instances of other bare-chestedness. Being prepared and knowledgeable allows me to be relaxed. It also helps other people relax, which is integral to having an enjoyable outing.
Q. It looks like this strategy has so far been successful for you, right? Not only do you confirm the legality, but you get an idea of local law enforcement’s knowledge on the subject, their attitude towards it, whether they’ve dealt with questions about topfree women before, etc.
Yes! It allows the police to actually look at the legal language and not have to make a decision under pressure. They can have whatever their personal reaction might be and then look at it professionally and discuss with their legal departments and / or a supervisor.
It also gives them the opportunity to instruct on duty officers how to react. Officers out on the street don’t make decisions about laws, they are simply endeavoring to do their jobs. Throwing something totally unknown at them, or most people really, can make them react in a different fashion than they do when they have understanding.
Q. Though, as your story about D.C. demonstrates, for a big city, you still don’t know how police officers on the scene might react… How they responded to you is gross, though it doesn’t surprise me. Here in NY there’s been just as much of a problem in police training (with a lack thereof).
I have been to D.C. numerous times since then. The training seems to be working, though not everyone has gotten the memo. Sometimes it takes repetition for a thing to sink in. Luckily for them (ha), I love D.C.!
Q. It must feel awesome to know you are paving the way for other women to do this! Since in D.C. and other places (based on your blog) it has resulted in police departments informing their officers, training them, etc.
It does feel wonderful. Many women I have spoken with say that they would love to go bare-chested, but are very concerned. Many are worried about the reaction from police and the public or are unsure of how to go about it. This is why the Breasts Are Healthy blog exists.
One of my motivating factors for going bare-chested now (it wasn’t part of my initial thought process) is that I know that I can handle myself if a situation gets stressful or doesn’t go particularly well. I can take it, and not let it deter me or have a negative impact on me, and often turn it into something good.
If my doing this allows other women the opportunity to go bare-chested with less likelihood of any issues, well, I can think of few things that would make me happier!
Q. What advice do you have for women who want to go on their first topfree outing in D.C., Pittsburgh or any of these cities that you’ve successfully established topfree legality in? Like if they get stopped by police? Or how they might deal with others telling them to cover up, or with any sort of harassment?
In cities clearly established as legal, if a woman is concerned about a police confrontation, I would simply say be familiar with the law. If it will help that woman feel comfortable, a simple phone call, email or personal visit to the police station to confirm and to give the police a heads up can’t hurt.
But I also think that type of thing should not be necessary. Men don’t have to call the police to tell them they are taking their shirts off at the pool. But realistically, since this is all still new in places, I’d rather have a mature quiet conversation in advance then a tense conversation on the street.
Also before I go out, I always hydrate and eat. I make sure I feel relaxed and strong. If I am hungry, stressed or feeling anxious, I will project that and my experience won’t feel light and free.
Women can always write to me to get the current situation on a given city or state. I would love that in fact!
Q. In other cities, do you encourage other women to follow in your footsteps and research local laws, and contact police departments in order to get official permission to go topfree in public?
Yes. I believe in this little system I’m using. I don’t like “protests” or “demonstrations.” I think they are ineffective for topfreedom purposes. At least, they should be used as a last resort. Yelling at people and making them afraid is not going to ever normalize female bare-chestedness.
Also, I don’t like to call it “permission.” I think of it as confirming what already exists in law. I don’t really ask them if what I’m doing is okay…
I tell them what I’m doing so they can prepare for it. 🙂
Q. You have posted quite a few photos and videos of yourself topfree in public. How do you respond to those who say that you’re just providing men with masturbatory fodder?
I actually think I am / we are undermining the pornography / masturbation model by decoupling the female breast and body from obligatory sexuality and commercialization.
My favorite hater comments on YouTube are the ones where someone, intending to insult me, says my video is “boring.” That’s the whole point! To make the sight of female breasts feel unremarkable.
I don’t, for the record, seek to make the breast unattractive to people. But we find calves, backs, necks, lips, hair, all attractive and we don’t make them illegal to show. We also don’t typically shame women for showing them. We can find people attractive without reducing them to the parts of their body we find attractive.
But to the specific point of masturbation, in particular – chronic masturbation, in all genders… I think we are beginning to have a meaningful conversation about the dangers of chronic masturbation to sexual health.
Ultimately, it boils down to an individual’s decision on how to treat his / her sexual health. People can masturbate to anything, and will. It’s just another form of high to some people. Just another way of medicating anxiety and depression and social isolation.
When we collectively address the factors that lead people to drugs and pornography, those behaviors will diminish. If we don’t address the underlying causes, nothing we do will bring about change.
When breasts become boring, people will masturbate to something else. I just firmly believe that the fact that some people masturbate to something should not be used as justification for treating genders unequally.
Q. Do you ever get accused of going topfree because you “just want attention” ? You know, the old sexist insult that’s constantly getting hurled at women.
Yes. I occasionally get accused of being an attention whore, or an exhibitionist. This mostly comes from critics on my YouTube comment section.
Men and women have said this to me. But not as often as one might expect. My simple response is always to ask, quietly, gently, confidently, is a bare-chested man an exhibitionist?
In general, and this is very important to me to get out there, the vast majority of my experiences are neutral or positive. I receive far more support than criticism. All in all, my bare-chested outings are among my most sublimely enjoyable experiences.
It’s also important to note that I only share some of my bare-chested outings on my blog. Most of my bare-chested time is for my own enjoyment. For the feeling of freedom it creates in me.
I started the Breasts Are Healthy blog at the request of friends and family. I was hesitant at first. Not because I feared the attention (clearly, I don’t), but because I didn’t want to change my own relationship with my bare-chested outings.
I didn’t want to feel like I was always blogging, or always in activist mode. I’ve managed to find a balance. My biggest hope is that female bare-chestedness becomes as unremarkable as male bare-chestedness, so other women can feel that lightness that I feel.
I have certainly had some negative experiences. I’ve also heard of other women having negative experiences. So I don’t want to create the false illusion that nothing negative can happen, but I don’t want to create the impression that going bare-chested is some super intense experience either.
It can be, the first few times, for a number of reasons, but that normalizes too. I’ve found and I’ve watched other women find that the things we were so afraid of conceptually didn’t actually occur. Or, if they did occur, they weren’t nearly as bad as we feared they would be.
That concludes our interview! I encourage everyone to check out Chelsea’s blog, Breasts Are Healthy, where she writes about her activism and addresses many social and feminist issues related to topfree equality. She also offers guidance to women who want to go topfree, in posts such as “How to go bare-chested without getting arrested.”