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Ray Duckler: When you free the nipple, you're not always free to go

  • Heidi Lilley stands for a portrait near the spot where she was arrested last Monday by Laconia police. Lilley was cuffed by a Laconia police officer for taking off her top at Weirs Beach. She was escorted into the back of a police cruiser and had her mug shot taken at headquarters. She’s now facing a $250 fine. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Heidi Lilley wonders, all the fuss about the human nipple? A nipple, after all, is just a nipple. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, June 04, 2016

As Heidi Lilley sees it, I have more freedom than she does, and the 55-year-old Gilford resident doesn’t like it one bit.

I can take my shirt off on a hot day. I can take it off at the beach, on the street, at the ice cream stand, because society views my nipples differently than hers.

Lilley, a driving force behind the Free the Nipple movement, was cuffed by Laconia police earlier this week for taking her top off at Weirs Beach. She was escorted into the back of a police cruiser, treated like a criminal, her mug shot taken at headquarters. She’s facing a $250 fine and due in court next month.

Why, Lilley wonders, all the fuss about the human nipple? A nipple, after all, is just a nipple, and my nipples can roam free outdoors this summer, while it’s highly recommended that female nipples remain under wraps.

And with Bike Week starting next Saturday, and Laconia police Chief Chris Adams telling me that nipples running wild are on his department’s radar, news on this subject might continue to grow.

In fact, it probably will.

“I don’t want to shake things up,” Lilley told me, sitting about 100 yards from the spot where she was arrested. “But I do want the same things as you. I want to be treated the same way as you are, damn it.”

It’s enough to make our forefathers turn over in their graves. Or maybe not, and therein lies the problem.

What does American stand for if not equality under the law? What happened to our constitutional rights? Isn’t this a classic example of discrimination?

And how about the women’s movement, how it sought to erase the objectification of women, a goal it continues to strive for today, one we all agree is a good idea?

Last summer, Lilley and others opened our eyes by citing discrimination in state law, then exposing their breasts in public. As Lilley’s attorney, Dan Hynes of Merrimack, told me by phone this week, “It’s not going away, and it’s not just (Lilley). It’s the entire Free the Nipple movement, as well as anyone in New Hampshire who sees this as a gender equality issue.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that there is no state law on the books addressing female toplessness. Lawmakers tried recently to change that during the last legislative session, and it failed in both chambers, despite silly comments posted on Facebook by some of our fearless leaders.

We heard this pearl of wisdom from Rep. Josh Moore: “If it’s a woman’s natural inclination to pull her nipple out in public and you support that, then you should have no problem with a man’s inclination to stare at it and grab it.”

That’s hardly the sort of adult conversation women like Lilley are looking for. She’s part of society’s evolutionary process, forcing our culture to grow up. Lilley and others want to break free from these chains.

Or at least from their bathing suit tops, if they so choose.

“Fantastic women have fought to wear pants through the years,” Lilley said. “Fantastic women have fought for the right to vote.”

You can criticize Lilley all you want about what she’s fighting for, how it’s immoral, it runs counter to mainstream religions, it’s dirty, it’s a bad influence on children, it will cause traffic accidents, etc.

But do you really have a leg to stand on? She wants what I have. Nothing more, nothing less. Isn’t that what makes America great?

She’s been in trouble twice for going topless, receiving a $25 citation last summer and, this week, getting arrested at Weirs Beach. She says she’s never been part of mainstream thought, dating back to her days at Newfound Regional High School, where she sang in the chorus and skied.

“I was not one of the “in” kids,” Lilley said. “I was picked on. I was not a top student, and I was not into sports. I had my own small select circle of friends.”

One of them now is a 24-year-old woman named Kia Sinclair, a friend of Lilley’s son who also lives in Gilford.

Sinclair was the brains behind this operation, the person whose Facebook post trying to galvanize a movement caught Lilley’s eye. She was unavailable to meet us at the beach this week. Instead, Sinclair relayed a note to me through Lilley. She had a lot to say.

“It connects with so many other issues and symbolizes freedom and ending censorship,” wrote Sinclair, a college graduate who chose to be a stay-at-home mom. “It’s about allowing women to have control over their own bodies and if and when they sexualize them. It’s about moving away from this notion that the human body is disgusting and wrong and sexual in all contexts.”

Last summer Lilley was ticketed for exposing her breasts at a beach in Gilford. But if you were looking for clarity from our justice system, something to help you better understand the world around us, forget it.

Sure, the $25 ticket was dismissed, since no provision within the state law existed. Then Judge James Carroll expanded on his ruling, essentially tossing aside what Sinclair and Lilley had wanted all along.

Their constitutional rights.

The judge wrote: “The court does not find that the prohibition violates any constitutionally protected right. The movement does not have a right to impose one’s lifestyle on others who have an equal right to be left alone.”

In other words, back to the drawing board. “He found it more on grounds of legislative authority,” said Hynes, Lilley’s attorney. “We were hopeful he would have decided in favor of constitutional grounds.”

Carroll will get a second shot when he presides over this latest case involving Lilley, who was joined by two other women recently, including Sinclair. All three were cuffed and booked within a three-day period for sunbathing topless at Weirs Beach.

Laconia has an ordinance against this, created to deter male bikers from pushing woman to bare their breasts during the annual Bike Week parties.

In her case, Sinclair saw no revelance.

“I was arrested this past Tuesday for being a woman,” Sinclair wrote to me. “It has nothing to do with nipples, because if it did then people of all genders would be cited or arrested for exposing their chests.”

Then she addressed the original intent of the statute: “I was not coerced or harassed into taking off my shirt, so if this ordinance was about protecting women all along, then why was I arrested and fined?”

Laconia police Chief Chris Adams’s hands were tied last weekend. After all, there is a local law on the books. If someone complains a woman is topless, his people must respond, and that’s what happened a few days ago.

Adams said he’s not “worried” about the exposure of female nipples during Bike Week, once considered a problem. But he’s preparing, just in case.

“It has been the topic of conversation,” Adams told me. “Over the last five years we’ve issued very, very few tickets, if any. Now with this movement, that may change, but we’ll use common sense for Bike Week. We don’t want to arrest people if we don’t have to.”

And the Monitor certainly did not mean to offend readers by running today’s front-page photo, shot by photo editor Geoff Forester.

The media reflect society, and the editors and writers who saw the picture before we published it had varied reactions, from a shocked, visceral response, to nodding approvingly.

We talked about it, then we talked about it some more, wondering where to run it and how big to run it. Or, we wondered, should we run it at all?

Even Lilley, who’s cast aside embarrassment and societal pressure since last summer and gotten arrested for her trouble, had second thoughts about partially exposing her breasts for my column.

In the end, though, the newsroom agreed that the photo of Lilley told the story we all wanted to tell, the one about fair play and justice and equal rights.

And in the end, Lilley decided to slip out of her pink sweater and bra, enough to show us how far women have come, while reminding us that a few inches still remain.

“I finally said screw it,” Lilley said, referring to her choice to go topless. “I just want to normalize it. My breasts don’t shoot flames, and there are no bullets coming out of them, either.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)