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On Nantucket, Town Meeting considers topless bathing

A majority of kids aren’t pointing and saying, ‘Look at that!’

Dorothy Stover of Nantucket, a seventh-generation Nantucketer, wants everyone who so pleases to be able to sunbathe topless.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

NANTUCKET — She grew up on this island, a seventh-generation Nantucketer, whose mother was the town clerk with an effortless ability to take the pulse of a small town.

So, Dorothy Stover knows precisely what it’s like when your name lands loudly on the local gossip circuit, when the talk in the bookstore, the chatter at the lunch counter, and the sidewalk conversations turn to you.

And to that upcoming Town Meeting debate about topless beaches.

“The seed was planted years ago when I saw a cartoon,’’ Stover told me over a late-morning hot chocolate at a sidewalk cafe. “I saw a cartoon that showed a man and a woman, where they have the exact same body.

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“And she’s topless and he’s topless at the beach. And the man says, ‘You’re so indecent!’ And she’s like: ‘Me! Look at you!’ And then last summer I was at the beach and I was like, ‘Oh, I’d just like to be topless. I want to lay out topless.’ ‘’

Her fellow citizens will gather at Town Meeting on Monday to, among other things, decide whether she can do so with impunity.

As you might imagine, it is the talk of the town — even before the town becomes fully alive with the advent of another summer season ushered in by the warming sun and lengthening days.

“I think it’s going to pass,’’ said Johnny Arena, 55, a local real estate broker. “I mean there have been parts of the island that have been fully naked and no one says anything. It’s kind of a basic freedom, that’s all. Most of the Western world is pretty lax about it.’’

David Worth, 71, a local newspaper executive, is preparing for front-page news.

“I think it’s harmless,’’ he told me when I intercepted him recently outside the local post office. “My wife and female friends seem to support it. In many ways it’s moot because we do have our beaches where clothing is optional.

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“I haven’t made up my mind yet. It’s not that I have a Puritan ethic. It’s more: What is the message sent to our visitors? Are we a destination for families and kids?’’

Even before the Town Meeting is gaveled into session, the debate has already begun.

And it’s a rich and lively one, a discussion shaped by old New England traditions and modern-day mores that 40-year-old Dorothy Stover is ready, even eager, to have.

She attended Catholic school in Rockland, the fifth of seven children and a member of a large extended family. College life carried her to Fitchburg and then to online courses at a college in Georgia that awarded her a master’s degree in psychology and marketing.

Eventually, the magnetic pull of Nantucket Sound brought her back.

Her life was not always the stuff of fairy tales and gauzy afternoon TV movies.

“I lost my boyfriend. I lost my job,’’ she said. “Everything went topsy-turvy and that’s when I started to really focus on my own wellness. Really focus on loving myself.

“I got different certifications. Got teacher training. I finished up training certification for sex education. So that’s where the Nantucket Love School came in.’’

The Nantucket Love School is an on-line enterprise that bills itself as a community for Nantucket women “to bring together love, spirit, and pleasure for empowerment and embodiment in a judgment-free zone.’’

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She’s working there while setting her sights on the Town Meeting floor, where she said she expects lively debate and plenty of support.

“I started looking around on the beach,’' she said. “And I’m like: Wait a second. Men have the same chest makeup. Why am I not allowed to be topless?

“So, I started to do some research and I was looking into the history and the law. And finally, I’m just like: ‘I’m going to do an article.’ ‘’

She followed the public process, collected the required signatures, and got her first real taste of small-town democracy.

“As I was going through the process, there were women who said, ‘Thank you for this. I still feel ashamed and people yell at me for breast-feeding in public.’

“And I had people who didn’t want to sign because they feel like breasts are sexual. So, for some people it reminds them that they’re sexualized.’’

And she has encountered arguments from voters who are worried about what little kids should and shouldn’t see while riding the waves or building castles in the sand.

“A lot of people say they went to Europe or some places in Asia where you can be topless and the kids just don’t notice,’’ Stover said.

But voters on Nantucket have taken notice.

They’re ready for Dorothy Stover to make her case.

They’re ready for another chapter of the kind of democracy that Norman Rockwell enshrined in his paintings about small-town civics lessons where neighbors gather and listen to one another make a case, to forge an argument.

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Ready for an exchange like this one between Dorothy Stover and Christy Kickham, 53, who has lived on Nantucket or nearly 25 years.

“There is a component sometimes of some uncomfortableness with certain people coming to the beach just to leer and ogle,’’ Kickham said. “Some people are out here and you certainly don’t want to spread that to other beaches, that component of creepiness. I don’t know how else to put it.

“It’s going to be a challenge for you. I’m always open to a good argument. Is it fully nude or just topless?’’

Topless, Stover told him.

“Topless,’’ Kickham repeated. “OK. Yup. Topless. Probably a little easier.’’

When the gavel falls, we’ll all find out.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.