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Why Is It Legal To Go Topless In Austin?

Black bars cover the chests of topless people carrying a paddle board by the lake.
Hazel O'Neil for KUT

This piece was originally produced for ATXplained Live in January 2020.

Marie Catrett was sitting at Garrison Pool in South Austin a few years ago, trying to cool off on a hot summer day. She had just had a baby, and she and other new moms were breastfeeding their children.

But the moms weren’t the only ones with visible breasts.

“That particular day there was someone going topless at Garrison," Catrett said.

She said she considered topless women the backdrop of Barton Springs, but it stuck out to her at the smaller neighborhood pool. And she wasn't alone.

“As I’m leaving the pool, there’s a man in front of me ... [who] just kind of makes this comment about [how] he enjoys getting to see stuff, but don’t we think that’s kind of inappropriate to have around kids?” she said.

Well, the breastfeeding moms did not agree with this guy.

“The woman next to me, without missing a beat, just looks at him and says, ‘I think most kids are pretty familiar with breasts because they have moms, right?’” Catrett said. “And then we all just kept walking, and it was an awesome little moment. I just felt so connected to her and validated.”

The incident had Catrett thinking a lot about public nudity. She wrote in to ATXplained asking KUT to investigate why it's legal to sunbathe topless in the first place, and how it became such a regular part of Austin's culture.

Marie Catrett Breastfeeding
Julia Reihs
Marie Catrett feeds her son at the Austin Public Library in 2019.

Embracing The Counterculture

The answer to this question is simple: The law doesn't address it.

State law says you cannot show your genitals or your anus in public. It says nothing about breasts. So, technically, people can be topless anywhere in Texas. It just became something people in Austin, more than other cities, embraced and accepted.

One summer day in 2019, a woman showed up at the Greenbelt in a Buc-ee’s bikini, but almost immediately threw the beaver top to the side and got in the water.

“I love being topless,” she said. “I actually dance every morning in the mirror naked, because it’s your body and you want to get in touch with it.”

While she is a proponent of celebrating her body, she said she is aware not everyone has the same mindset. Any discomfort she’s felt has come from one group of people: men.

“It’s not women,” she said. “If this was a women’s only swimming hole, that’d be amazing!”

Being Topless Is 'Just For Me'

It’s the same feeling Catrett and the other moms felt that day at Garrison pool. They kept to themselves, but a man made them uncomfortable by sexualizing and shaming them.

That’s the challenge here: Just because women can go topless, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Embracing public nudity goes against the grain of what women have always been taught. Starting in childhood, girls are told to not walk alone at night, stay in pairs, be aware of the men around them.

So, for the women, the comment at the pool wasn't just a comment. It has layers: Is this harmless? Could this escalate or is he just trying to shame me?

A sign warns nude swimming or sunbathing may be occurring beyond a certain point.
Martin do Nascimento
A sign warns visitors to Hippie Hollow that people may be nude on the Lake Travis beach.

Kelly Dugan actively tries to counter that shame. She’s the founder and editor in chief of Peach Fuzz, an Austin-based nude magazine. She started the magazine after noticing how dated the photography in Playboy was.

“There are a lot of things that should be reclaimed by women," Dugan said, "and I thought a nudie mag was certainly one of them."

So, she started photographing women of all body sizes. People with tattoos and body hair. People of various races and gender identities. Her goal is to celebrate the bodies we see and live in every day.

“Instead of looking at a photo and feeling bad you won’t ever look like that, you’re like, 'Oh, not only is that beautiful, but I look like that and I'm beautiful,” Dugan said.

"Instead of looking at a photo and feeling bad you won’t ever look like that, you’re like, 'Oh, not only is that beautiful, but I look like that and I'm beautiful.'"
Kelly Dugan, founder of Peach Fuzz magazine

She’s also a proponent of celebrating the beauty of all bodies outside the pages of her magazine. She said she loves the topless culture here, but has noticed the reactions are not aways equal.

While some people have a problem with any woman going topless, Dugan said, women with larger breasts, more curvy bodies or who aren’t white get more criticism. They're treated like their nudity is vulgar.

“Definitely when I was younger, when I was topless, I was a size 6 with these tiny little B boobs,” she said. “No one’s really mad about seeing that. That’s what’s interesting, I think people only get mad about nudity or women being topless in Austin when it’s not the body they want to see."

Through Peach Fuzz, she’s saying it’s OK for all bodies to be here, to be naked or topless.

Dugan is one of the women who loves to take her top off at Barton Springs. For her, it's a way to love on herself after years of being critical of her body.

“It’s just for me,” she said. “I’m not doing it for you, and I’m not doing it to make you mad. I’m just trying to own my body and own the space I'm in.”

And that's a great reminder during this heatwave. As the area sees a resurgence in COVID cases, one of the safest social things to do may be outside at a pool or swimming hole — where you might encounter a topless person.

It’s not a show. The person isn’t inviting anyone to comment on their body.

Let’s just let the boobies be.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at claire@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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