New York's Bizarre Topless Controversy

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s been a hot, desultory summer here in New York City, so, quite naturally, the dominant political controversy of the season has been topless women—in particular the handful, referred to as desnudas, who walk around Times Square clad in thong underwear, high heels, body paint, and nothing else.

Until recently, few paid much attention to the women, who comprise a small part of the carnival-esque atmosphere of the square. But in recent weeks the desnudas have aroused the ire of both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio, two politicians who haven’t been able to agree on basically anything else. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s perfectly legal for women to go topless in New York. But deBlasio, a self-styled “progressive,” has made no secret of his desire to boot the desnudas out—even if it means uprooting the square’s pedestrian zone and replacing it with regular thoroughfares.

So, in an old-fashioned exercise in participatory journalism, the New York Post reporter Amber Jamieson, went undercover as a desnuda for a day.

Arriving at Times Square early in the day, the Australian-born journalist encountered Chris, a man who paints and keeps watch over the women in exchange for 30 percent of their tips.

Chris told me how it works: first the girls (Saira and Chris’ girlfriend, Amanda, 23) go into Sephora to use the free samples to do their makeup. Then, in the middle of Times Square, they throw on a robe and strip underneath it. Chris would paint our bodies ­using brushes, nipples first so they’re not exposed too long. His cousin, David, would mind my bag, take photos and be ready to pounce if anyone tried to touch me inappropriately.

How did it go? Aside from dealing with a handful of creeps, Jamieson seemed to enjoy the experience. In the end, she concluded that the city’s complaints about the topless women were “deeply sexist”:

The Naked Cowboy strolls around Times Square wearing only his ­Y-fronts, placing the hands of female tourists on his butt for a photo (I took one myself on my first trip to the city nine years ago), and he’s regarded as a charming, quintessential New York experience.

But women exercising their ­legal right to be topless and hustle for money in the world’s center of capitalism—surrounded by advertisements of sexy, half-dressed women—are apparently shameful and inappropriate.

Not everyone is pleased with Jamieson’s stunt. In Gothamist, Ben Yakas criticized the Post for eliding the experiences of the desnudas for whom the practice is a livelihood:

The big problem with the well-intentioned piece is that it's all about personalizing the desnudas experience for a Post readership who apparently aren't interested in the perspectives of the actual women who have been doing this for the last couple years. There are no interviews or quotes in this piece from the women who Jamieson walks around with all day, just as there have been almost no Post pieces featuring their voices at all during this controversy. There aren't even any real photos of the other women.

Whatever the ethics of the Post’s gambit, it seems likely to accomplish its primary goal: extending the life of this summer’s most bizarre controversies.

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