WARNING: POST CONTAINS BOOBS.
[a link to the full gallery of photos is at the bottom of the post]
[Update: Mountain Xpress and BlogAsheville picked up the post. Since then my traffic has increased by an order of magnitude, some prominent figures have congratulated my work, and some others have told me I should be ashamed of myself. To the former, my humble thanks; to the later . . . you don't know the half of it.
To the rest of you, I've got some really awesome photos here. You should stick around for awhile.]
The Asheville Citizen-Times reported that local women would be observing National Go Topless Day (pronounced "boobfest") downtown this afternoon. Go Topless Day illuminates the grinding injustice that is the unequal privilege of men to bare their upper torsos in public. Except that it's actually completely legal for women to do so as well, at least in NC. But, as a journalist, my purpose is not to question motivations, but to always reward attention-seeking behavior.
What the ACT failed to report is that the protest was organized by the Raelians. Oh, yes. So, basically, the female members of an alien-worshiping cult protested gender inequality by baring their breasts today in Pack Square. Welcome to Asheville.
As you might imagine, the event drew a diverse, progressive crowd whose sole concern was gender equality.
Now let's get a few things straight. I have no problem with boobs, their public display, or the appreciation of them by other members of the public. Having said that, this was the most disturbing event I've ever attended in Asheville.
To begin with, the crowd was ornery. It was 70% male, and most of the females were obviously wives who'd been dragged along. Lots of tourists. I showed up and fought my way to the front of the crowd, where the attention of the hundreds of people gathered was centered on the only spectacle available:
That's right. Not a single pair of female breasts on display. Just this guy. Suddenly there's a tap on my shoulder, and I turn around to face a small, out-of-town guy in fancy clothes and wrap-around sunglasses with his wife in tow.
"Why'd you have to stand right in front of me?"
I turned back to the redneck in the bikini, then back to Mr. Short Tourist.
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah, you're blocking my view."
"It's a public space, man."
"Yeah, but why'd you have to stand in front of me?"
"Everybody is in front of somebody else, you can move around, too."
"You reporters think you're God."
Right. Exactly right. My press pass reads "As God, I shall be granted exclusive access at events . . . also, I shall always occlude your view of any member of the Sons of Confederate Drag Queens." So I turned around and started shooting. Suddenly there was a dyed-blond head in the way. Mrs. Short Tourist had been dispatched to block my shot. I leaned back and forth and watched as her thinning hair weaved in an out of the frame.
Now, I had had a long day already, and this was a lot of trouble to go through just for some boobs. On the other hand, if there's one thing DarkTopo lacks, it's boobs. The few instances of boobery that are present on the blog make the difference between "completely unknown" and "Max who?" So I was determined to stick this one out.
But everywhere I went, the men were jostling for space. I've been in a lot of intense crowds, but the spirit here was very different. Despite the preponderance of wedding rings, the fact that the internet is full of porn, and that women walk around Asheville wearing next to nothing most any day of the week, these dudes seemed to feel that the boobs about to be displayed were the only ones they'd ever see. They'd end up in the old folks home, saying "Creamed corn, creamed corn, almost saw a boob but the photographer got in the way, creamed corn."
Then a hush fell over the crowd when, out of nowhere, a real live female began untying her wrap. "OMG," I thought, "there might be boobs under there!" The wrap came off and there they were. Boobs. Two of em.
The crowd went nuts.
Now, before we go any further, I need to warn you again that there are boobs in this post. If you don't like boobs, this is not the post for you. If you think I'm kidding about there being actual, nipples-exposed boob shots, rest assured that I take boobs very seriously. So having said that, scroll on down for the goods.
This photo was just a warning. I'm really serious here. Keep scrolling, and the next thing you see will be boobs. Don't doubt me.
Alright, enough fooling around. I think this is what you're here for:
One by one, women began exposing their breasts to good-natured applause from the crowd. It was an all-out, feel-good, feminist blowout. You know what I'm talking about. Dove commercials, self-esteem seminars, and every "women of all shapes and sizes" platitude you've ever heard could not prepare you for the wallowing we were doing in our own sacred femininity.
But then something happened. A girl took her shirt off like all the rest, except that this girl was actually drop-dead gorgeous.
The crowd dispensed with the "be proud of yourself no matter what" applause and went straight to a raucous "hell yeah." In that single moment, the entire character of the event changed. What had been a kind of silly, harmless protest became a very creepy affair.
Because no one could see, the women climbed up onto to the giant, circular fountain. Tattoo Girl immediately seemed to realize that she'd gotten more than she bargained for, clutching her shirt at her breasts and turning inward to the other women. The men in the crowd began pushing for a better view.
At the same time, the presence of this young lady seemed to bring out the full contingent of Asheville crazies. They got louder and closer to the fountain. The topless women on "stage" worked hard to maintain their grace as men began fumbling up onto the fountain as well.
Though I was lucky to be on Tattoo Girl's side of the fountain, the men around me were very disappointed that she had turned away from us. They began vocalizing that disappointment. The crazies got even weirder and louder. Someone yelled out that all the women should circle around the fountain so we "could see all the tits."
Now, men were encouraged to attend the protest, so long as they wore a bra or bikini top to show their solidarity with the oppressed women. Tattoo Girl's boyfriend jumped up with her, which seemed to ease her a bit, but then the fountain started getting crowded with men who clearly just wanted VIP access to the boobs.
It was a feeding frenzy. The prettier the girl, the more men yelled at her. Pleas to bring the boobs closer. Suggestions for what to do with the boobs. Leers and gestures.
It was the most unsettling mix of beauty, ugliness, ego, naïveté, and animal drive. This was why Mr. Short Tourist had been so rude. This was what some of the women were protesting for, and exactly what others were protesting against.
There were reports that a church group was going to stage a counter-protest. I only found one member, named Bart, who was peaceful and polite. We talked for awhile. "God doesn't want these people showing their bodies."
Bart seemed to think that this spectacle was an example of decaying culture. But what I felt in the crowd is not some new sickness--this was ancient human nature. It doesn't come across well in the photos, because everyone is smiling. Or maybe it wasn't there at all. Perhaps I'm too old fashioned.
But the next photo marks the moment I turned to leave.
A second later, that particular Asheville crazy looked up and caught my eye. I shook my head. He pretended not to notice. Long ago, I was advised not to take pictures of anyone that I couldn't love or respect. I didn't take any more pictures of that man.
I decided the moral of the story was this: If you allow yourself, for one moment, to celebrate your own vulnerability--whether as an object of beauty or one over whom that beauty has power--there will be people waiting to condemn you or exploit you. The illusion of civility keeps you from seeing that they are already circling you like wolves.
But as I made my way back out of the crowd, I heard someone say, "Oh my God, she's pregnant." A very pretty young woman climbed very carefully onto the fountain, and looked back down at us without a trace of the self-consciousness shared by everyone there. She did not circle. Among all those people protesting, she seemed to be the only one celebrating.
A full gallery of my photos from Go Topless day is here.