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Live Topless Or Die: Bare-Breasted Activists Hit N.H. Beach

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On Sunday, female activists in nearly 50 locations around the world went topless. Their goal - encourage women to go topless anywhere men do. New Hampshire Public Radio's Emily Corwin was at Hampton Beach on the New Hampshire coast for what turned out to be a pretty strange day at that beach.

EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: It is so rainy out - some people on the beach - not very many. But I did just see a woman walk by with a sweatshirt on but unzipped and nothing on underneath, so I guess this is really happening here. I find 20 or so women on a pavilion stage letting it all hang out. They're chatting, laughing, posing for TV news. It's crowded.

Excuse me. Excuse me.

CORWIN: Twenty-five-year-old Samantha Durrette is standing off to the side next to her husband. She says she's here topless so their daughter can grow up in a world where she knows...

SAMANTHA DURRETTE: That her body's OK, that it's not about the body. It's about who she is.

CORWIN: New Hampshire is famous for its live-free-or-die mentality, and nobody's getting in the way of these women chilling with their shirts off. But a few passersby - one from Massachusetts, another from Montreal - tell me they are not impressed. It's families like these who started threatening to cancel their vacations here when they heard women would be topless at the beach. Republican state rep Fred Rice says he can sympathize.

FRED RICE: People always say, well, if you don't like it, you don't have to look. No, you can't un-ring a bell, and you can't un-look what you've seen.

CORWIN: Rice tried to find a way to stop it, but New Hampshire is one of 32 states were the law allows women to go topless. Still, he calls the movement ridiculous.

RICE: This beach, for its entire existence, has tried to foster being a family beach.

HEIDI LILLEY: Oh, my word - family, family, family. What about the family?

CORWIN: Back in the pavilion, 54-year-old Heidi Lilley seems at ease without a shirt on. She says it wasn't until the 1930s that men began to go topless in public, and it's that arbitrary inequality that perpetuates harassment and crimes against women.

LILLEY: Society sexualizes the female breast, and it's in America only, or primarily in America.

CORWIN: Lilley was just telling me this when the day got weirder and louder.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Shouting, unintelligible).

CORWIN: Gawking men had climbed on the stage and were taking photos of the topless women with their smart phones. John Roy told me he thought this was a nipple contest.

JOHN ROY: It's not a contest, then. I guess it's just a showing, a viewing.

CORWIN: That's when I finally spotted the organizer of GoTopless Day at Hampton Beach, Kia Sinclair. Only, she wasn't topless. She was holding a towel tightly around her.

CORWIN: What do you make of all of this spectacle?

KIA SINCLAIR: I don't like it, honestly. It gets to a point where all of a sudden, these people all surround me to take pictures. Not everyone was asking.

CORWIN: Sinclair says if it weren't raining, there'd be hundreds of women sunbathing instead of just a handful on this stage like some kind of show.

SINCLAIR: It proves my point about the sexualization, the obsession with breasts, that people feel the need to, like, just stand here and stare at us.

CORWIN: Sinclair was heading home, but relative old-timer Heidi Lilley says the more women go topless, the less anyone will notice.

LILLEY: This is a new thing. This is totally brand new.

CORWIN: But even in libertarian New Hampshire, Hampton's Republican state senator Nancy Stiles says baby steps. She's planning to propose a new law. It would let beach towns designate special areas for topless women or for families only. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.