You can probably get away with being topless in public in Montana, it turns out.
Missoula artist Sarah Clark checked with a police officer a few years ago before hosting a "Dare to Go Bare" topless event. Missoula doesn't have specific city ordinances against nudity, and state law on public indecency says it's only a crime if one's genitals are offending someone.
"He said as long as you're not bothering anybody, it's okay," Clark says.
The topless rally turned into her and a friend floating the river and having a picnic at a downtown park. Her husband joined them and took off his shirt in solidarity.
Clark, a University of Montana resource conservation student, is passionate about breasts. That is, she's passionate about advocating that our society start to chill out about them. She's creating art pieces for First Friday celebrating women's breasts for their beauty and purpose.
On a recent cold day in Missoula, Clark arrives at a coffee shop wearing a long, brightly-printed skirt and an oversized breast cancer fundraiser T-shirt. On the table she sets a copy of Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding—a 1995 analysis by pediatrics professor Naomi Baumslag and science writer Dia L. Michels of the medical, historical, social, economic and political issues surrounding nursing.
Clark says for a few years now, she's been frustrated with society's expectations of beauty.
"I got very fed up with that, considering I'm small-breasted," she says. "I have a nice little beer belly going on, I got my great-grandmother's butt. It's important to realize we don't have to change ourselves."
The upcoming Feb. 1 show, Empowering Women and Honoring Their Spirits, showcases several artists with pieces based on the broad theme of empowering women. Not all of Clark's art is breast-oriented, but for the main pieces, Clark took photos of topless women, post-mastectomy chests and breastfeeding mothers. She framed some of the photos, and used others to create composite paintings. One painting of a nursing mother will be colored purple, blue and green. By using colors not found in natural skin tones, Clark says she hopes women of all races can identify with the art.
Since starting the project several months ago, she's met social workers, cancer survivors and nursing advocates. "I'm so grateful to all the women who came and helped out," she says.
One of the women featured in Clark's art is Linsey Wiesemann, director of the nonprofit Mother's Milk Bank of Montana and mother of five. Wiesemann says the breastfeeding photo shoot was a positive experience. "She had women take off their shirts and nurse freely and naturally as it would be at home," Wiesemann says, who brought her 21-month-old son to the shoot.
Wiesemann believes breastfeeding for the first few years is one of the best things a mother can do for a kid's long-term health.
"We're always told to cover up, or go into the bathroom to nurse your baby, it's almost like shunning or shaming," she says. "But then we can go down to the mall and Victoria's Secret has half-naked models in the window."
Wiesemann's oldest child is 16. "I was a teen mom, and nursing was even less supported then than it is now," she says. She remembers hiding in corners of Target, trying to nurse her baby without attracting attention.
When adopting one of her children from an orphanage in Ethiopia, Wiesemann tried to force herself to lactate before meeting him. She went on birth control first, to trick her body into thinking it was pregnant, and then went off birth control, took certain herbs and used a breast pump every two hours each day for about a month until colostrum started.
"So then I was able to nurse my little guy when I first picked him up," she says. "He was 5 months old, he really needed that bonding, that skin-to-skin contact. He weighed four pounds."
Even then, forcing lactation didn't produce much milk. She mostly fed her baby, Abdisa, with another woman's donated breast milk. The boy is now a small but healthy 4-year-old. "He's a little firecracker," she says.
Wiesemann divides her time between mothering and working at the milk bank, which takes donated milk and distributes it to babies in need, like adopted children or NICU premature infants.
In the years since Wiesemann had her first child, advocates nationwide have helped make the United States more breastfeeding-friendly. Montana is one of many states with laws specifically allowing women to nurse in public. Maybe boundary-pushing art shows and topless events will help advance the idea that breasts are, while fun and often sexy, also a useful and sometimes life-giving part of women's bodies.
Sarah Clark shows her work, along with several other artists, for the First Friday show Empowering Women and Honoring Their Spirits at the Loft, 119 W. Main St., Fri., Feb. 1, from 5 to 8 PM. Free.