Topless Beach Proposal Makes Waves in Traditional Nantucket: We’re Not the Vineyard Where People Have Been Known to Sunbathe Nude

From a Wall Street Journal story  by Rory Satran headlined “Topless Beach Proposal Makes Waves in Traditional Nantucket”:

At this year’s annual Nantucket Town Meeting in May, islanders debated humdrum topics such as fertilizer, solar panels, short-term rentals and the right to carry small plastic containers of alcohol, or “nips.” On Day 2, nips were banned by an overwhelming majority, and the group moved on to a spicier topic: a citizen article proposing topless beaches. “Zipping right along from nips to nipples,” wisecracked the meeting’s moderator, attorney Sarah F. Alger.

Dorothy Stover, a sex educator and seventh-generation Nantucketer, pitched her citizen article to the community: “In order to promote equality for all persons, any person shall be allowed to be topless on any public or private beach within the town of Nantucket.” After an uproarious deliberation that pitted traditionalists against progressive townspeople both young and old, the article passed 327 to 242.

While the article must be approved by the Massachusetts attorney general before it can be enacted, some on the island are already blushing a shade brighter than the Nantucket Red of their rumpled chinos at the prospect.

On an island with a historic district that carefully patrols its fence heights and paint colors (Quaker Gray and Hamilton Blue are among the 12 preferred shades), topless beaches are unimaginable for many year-rounders and weekenders who gather to picnic with their extended families at spots like Jetties Beach and Sconset Beach.

Matt Tara, an investor based in Boston and Nantucket, spoke out against the proposal at the meeting, citing architectural parallels. He said, “We talk about preservation, we talk about making sure that the shingles are the right gray, we talk about the right colors on our doors, yet we’re going to pass something that would cause undue attraction to this island for the wrong reasons.”

Eve D. Messing, one of the article’s proponents, retorted, “I don’t like to be compared to a shingle. My breasts are not shingles.”

Ms. Messing was one of multiple people spanning several generations who defended the article at the meeting. Another was Bee Gonnella, who said, “Nantucket women have always practiced equality.” It might be time, she said, to “go out and buy some stock in Banana Boat [sunscreen].”

Linda Williams, a land-use consultant who has been active in Nantucket’s town government for decades and has attended almost every annual town meeting since 1974, said she was outraged by the citizen article. Ms. Williams, who said that she had been the first female gas pumper on the island, asked, “Why do I need to run around topless to prove that I’m just as good or better than a male?”

The Bard of Nantucket herself, bestselling novelist Elin Hilderbrand, said that while she loves that residents are open-minded enough to push the article through the town meeting, as the mother of a teen girl she didn’t think it was safe for young women to be topless and then potentially photographed. She also didn’t think it was right for the island.

“We’re not the Vineyard,” she said, referring to neighboring Martha’s Vineyard, where people have been known to sunbathe nude in some spots. There, she said, “it’s more freewheeling, hippie, crunchy granola…they’re a little bit more free love over there and Nantucket is a little bit more buttoned-up.” (One Nantucket beach has long tacitly allowed topless sunbathing.)

Even though she doesn’t see it working on Nantucket, Ms. Hilderbrand does see the narrative potential in the issue. “I love ‘The Nude Beach’ as the title of one of my future Nantucket novels,” she said, playing with the idea that it could be set in the 1970s and involve spouse swapping.

Fully nude beaches aren’t on the table, however. Ms. Stover was careful to delineate between full nudity and the toplessness her article proposes. She first had the idea for her proposal when she saw a comic that showed a man and a woman, both topless with similar bodies, with the man telling the woman she was “indecent.” That felt unfair to her.

In this sense, the citizen article is in line with the Topfreedom movement, which aims for women to be able to be topless in the same places that men are. In the U.S., laws on toplessness are currently patchy and being challenged in different regions. A 2019 federal court ruling essentially made it legal for women to go topless in the same places as men in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Massachusetts’ attorney general has 90 days to rule on Nantucket’s bylaw. Ms. Stover said that she has received more support for it than she expected, and embraced the dissent as a healthy part of democracy.

“I definitely had a few people even close to me that said that they didn’t agree with it, which is beautiful, right?” she said. “That’s democracy, that’s being humans together, and knowing that we’re not going to agree.”

Rory Satran is the Fashion Director at The Wall Street Journal. She writes the “Off Brand” style column.

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