Home / Not Just Nipples On A Bikini: How The TaTa Top Got Us Thinking About Boobs
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First you laugh. Then you rub your eyes and do a double-take. Then you start thinking.

That’s the intention of, and the nearly universal reaction to, the TaTa Top, which has been turning heads across North America all summer.

The flesh-toned, nipple-printed bikini tops (available in three skin shades) have been showing up on beaches and city streets, offering a comical commentary on censorship and a graphic political message about gender equality.

Those wearing the TaTa Top invariably provoke laughter, are asked to pose for photos, and frequently get drawn into debates about the meaning of the slightly subversive outfit.

And that’s exactly what Robyn Graves and Michelle Lytle, a Chicago-area couple, were hoping for when they came up with the idea two years ago.

The TaTa Top was born after Robyn hosted a pair of Dutch couchsurfers, who naively tried to go swimming topless at a nearby beach. A lifeguard told them it wasn’t allowed in America, and chased them off the beach.

“They were so confused,” Robyn said in an interview with Lingerie Talk. “They said, ‘We didn’t know you had to wear tops on the beach here.’ People forget there are a lot of countries where it’s allowed.”

The pair — Michelle is a wedding photographer, Robyn works in marketing and sales — decided to do something to expose the hypocrisy in America’s public decency laws.

“What are they trying to protect people from?” Michelle said. “Is it the sight of someone who appears to be topless, or is it the breast itself? It’s a stupid law.”

When the first manufacturer’s samples arrived on Memorial Day this year, Michelle wore one of the prototypes to the beach.

“It was awesome. People responded so well to it,” she said. “I had my sunglasses on and could see a ton of people do double-takes. Everyone laughed and lots wanted to take photos.”

The first shipment of 700 TaTa Tops arrived in mid-June and sold out immediately — hand-shipped by the two women in three days “with three hours sleep.” Since then they’ve expanded the size range and colors available, and have sold thousands.

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Michelle (left) and Robyn

They knew there was a risk in creating the gimmicky top, that people might only see it as a sexist novelty or gag item.

“We were worried people would buy it as a joke, but people are buying this for the message,” Michelle said. “They think it’s funny but understand there’s a message about equality behind it.”

The project also has detractors, and the TaTa twosome have endured plenty of criticism.

“We’ve heard it all,” Michelle said. “Someone said we were promoting rape culture, that we’re anti-feminists. We were called effing sluts.”

More importantly, though, the tops got people talking. About censorship. About breastfeeding in public. About the jumbled patchwork of public decency laws that tell people what they can and can’t wear. About the stigmatization of women’s breasts. And mostly, about the basic inequality in personal freedoms between men and women.

“The TaTa Top is far more than pictures of nipples on a bikini,” Robyn said. “These are heavy issues and people tend to tune out. The TaTa Top is a good introduction to those issues. People are drawn into the conversation through humor.”

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The topless freedom movement has been around for decades in North America, driven by a variety of loosely connected activist groups, and it has succeeded in forcing legislatures and courts in many jurisdictions to amend laws concerning public dress. But there are still many states where the laws are ambiguous or toplessness (by women) is strictly banned.

Since its debut this summer, the TaTa Top has partnered with the like-minded Free The Nipple movement, which started as an indie film documentary about censorship and breastfeeding rights and has attracted widespread support from celebrities and the general public. (The TaTa Top gives people a chance to make a $5 donation to FTN when purchasing bikinis through their webshop.)

It’s also put the two women on the front lines in the growing battle against Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms that police the Internet with corporate “guidelines” that prohibit various expressions of nudity. The TaTa Top has triggered repeated warnings or suspensions from Facebook and just last week had one of its photos removed from its Instagram account. Many fans of the TaTa Top have likewise seen their social media accounts scrubbed after posting selfies wearing a nipple-printed bikini.

But Robyn and Michelle are careful to point out that the TaTa Top is not meant to encourage women to flout laws. Their $28 bikini top, they say, is no more illegal or offensive than the “truck nutz” accessory that some men attach to the bumpers of their pickup trucks.

Most women, they know, don’t have a personal desire to strip in public — but they do see the issue as a lingering symbol of sexism and patriarchal control over women’s bodies, human sexuality and individual liberty.

“We’re not asking everyone to want to (go topless),” Michelle said. “But the second you tell me I can’t, then I want to do that.”

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On a broader level, the TaTa Top encourages people to think about the sexualization and fetishization of women’s breasts in Western culture, and the far-reaching impact of that reality on how women are perceived and how they view their own bodies.

“Some people say that a woman should be modest, that (exposing breasts) is for the bedroom,” Michelle said. “But it should be my decision if showing my breasts is sexual or not.”

“The only excitement that comes from seeing breasts is that you are conditioned to think they are something special,” she writes in the company blog. “When a pair of breasts no longer garner the desire and reaction from an interested party, they may have to find something else to be attracted to. Dare I say a woman’s personality or even her achievements?”

The TaTa Top is focused on changing cultural norms and societal expectations, and standing up to inequality in whatever form it takes. And its founders see a clear link between topless rights and the battle over marriage equality and other civil rights issues in America.

“When something is decriminalized, it’s a good start,” Michelle said. “If it’s legal for women to be topless, that’s the first step. It opens the door for more people. And with that comes cultural change.

“The more people see images of the TaTa Top, the more it will desensitize them. These issues are not going to be issues eventually. We do definitely feel that change is going to start happening soon.”

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The TaTa Top‘s viral impact isn’t likely to end when bikini season starts winding down.

In fact, Michelle and Robyn are already developing new products to keep people thinking and talking, including one-piece swimsuit styles and — is the world ready for this? — men’s swim shorts with a gender-appropriate graphic image.

From the beginning, the pair have contributed a share of their profits to the youth-focused breast cancer awareness group The Keep A Breast Foundation, and earlier this month sent a first donation of $11,000 to the organization.

“When I cut that cheque,” Michelle said, “I was like ‘Wow, I’m so proud of this.’ So we’re going to keep going with this, with everything we’ve got.”

[NOTE: August 26 is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. To mark the occasion, the activist group Go Topless is sponsoring topless marches in cities across North America on Sunday, Aug. 22. The TaTa Top team will be attending the L.A. event on Sunday, selling tops to participants who don’t want to risk being fined but want to support the movement. Learn more here.]

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