NANTUCKET — It’s a Friday morning and Jody Bachman, 70, sits on a bench outside a souvenir shop watching vacationers go by. There’s plenty to see on these cobblestone streets. Visitors pose for selfies in front of quaint storefronts. Vintage Land Rovers and polished Jeep Wranglers zip through town. Business owners set up for the busy summer season.
Soon there may be quite a bit more to see on this scenic slip of an island. Residents last month voted to approve topless sunbathing on all public and private beaches, a move that promises to bring a dash of European abandon to an enclave better known for preppies and privet hedges.
The measure, approved by a vote of 327 to 242, must still be okayed by the state attorney general before it becomes law. The latest that could happen is Aug. 31, unless the town agrees to an extension.
Meanwhile, debate over the bylaw has continued to ripple across the island. Some shrug it off, but others, like Bachman, a native Nantucketer, think topless beaches will clash with the island’s small-town character and charm.
“It’s a little much for a popular resort [community] that’s basically family-oriented,” said Bachman, looking up from under his blue baseball cap. “I’m getting older, so maybe I’m more conservative. Younger people think it’s fine, but I don’t share that point of view. I think it’s better for everyone to wear appropriate attire at the beach.”
A few doors away, Emmet Clarke, 21, mixed mudslides behind the bar at the Gazebo at Harbor Square. He, too, was born and raised on Nantucket but feels the controversy has ballooned out of proportion.
“I’d be surprised if it got through [the state],” Clarke said of the bylaw, “but even if it does, I don’t think it’s a big deal. I don’t think families at Children’s Beach need to worry about women being topless.”
Clarke hit on a specific concern among some residents. Many are fine with the idea of topless beaches but think there should be a couple of exceptions: Children’s Beach and Jetties Beach, two particularly popular stretches on the island’s northern shore. During Town Meeting, an amendment to exempt those beaches was floated. But ultimately it was withdrawn: the language could have been interpreted to mean that men couldn’t go topless there, either.
Over at the Sand Bar at Jetties Beach, visitors fleshed out the many sides of the debate.
Ava Urkevic, 24, who works at the bar, was indifferent to it all. “It won’t harm anyone, and it won’t change how I go to the beach,” she said. “These are busy beaches. People won’t be whipping their tops off.”
“I think it’s fine — except for at Jetties and Children’s Beach,” opined Bill VanArsdale, a seasonal resident of 30 years, over drinks with friends at the beachfront spot.
“Children have seen more boobs than anyone,” countered Vinny Pizzi, a year-round resident. “Once it’s the norm, people won’t think twice.”
Many on the island echoed this notion of “the norm,” comparing what’s acceptable in the United States to what might be customary elsewhere. In Europe, some residents argue, the naked body isn’t as taboo as it is in American culture.
“A lot of times the only female breasts someone sees is their own, their partner’s, or pornography,” said Marjory Trott during Town Meeting. “If you allow female bodies to become normalized in all shapes and sizes ... everyone becomes safer.”
But Matt Tara, 40, doesn’t see it that way. He believes topless bathing could bring about a host of safety issues and fears it could turn Nantucket into the Daytona Beach of New England.
“If being topless wasn’t a big deal, then why don’t we have strip clubs?” said Tara, who has two kids. ”The same way I wouldn’t have a topless movie playing in my living room, I don’t want my kids going to a topless beach.
“If you really want to be topless,” he added, “there’s other beaches for that.”
In fact, people have been bathing in the buff on Nantucket’s more remote stretches for years. Miacomet, on the island’s more private south shore, is known as an unofficial nude beach, residents say.
Nantucket police Lieutenant Angus MacVicar, who has been with the department since 1988, said he’s never heard of a charge or even an arrest being made over indecent exposure at town beaches.
“I wouldn’t say there’s never been a call related to that, but I’ve never heard of a charge,” he said.
“People are pretty open-minded on Nantucket,” said Mark Hogan, 65, behind the wheel of an Uber. “A lot of us moved here in the ‘70s as artists, hippies, and musicians. ... People moving here now are hippy-ish, too. We already have nude beaches. ... I really don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Under Massachusetts law, it is illegal for women to go topless on beaches. Anyone who intentionally exposes their genitals, buttocks, or female breasts in such a way that produces “alarm or shock” can be charged with open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior. The proposed Nantucket bylaw is an amendment to the current state law, and is specific to beaches, which would be topless, not fully nude.
“This is a citizens petition not initially put forward by the town; however, since it was approved by voters, the town is required to interpret it and enforce it, if is approved by the attorney general,” according to the town website.
“In my opinion we have to normalize these things,” said Christina Peterson, 30, general manager at the downtown restaurant Via Mare. “Especially in this climate of women’s rights and everything being taken away.”
Titled “Gender Equality on Beaches,” the new bylaw was drafted by seventh-generation islander Dorothy Stover ”in order to promote equality for all persons.”
During Town Meeting, Stover gave residents a brief history of “top freedom” in the United States. In the 1920s and ‘30s, federal laws were written that both men and women needed to cover their chests in public. In the late 1930s, however, men began fighting for the right to go topless at beaches, and the summer of 1936 saw the rise of the men’s no-shirt movement. In 1937, New York state was the first to allow men to go topless at beaches.
Now, some women are fighting for the same right. Nantucket has until early June — about 30 days from when the measure was passed by voters — to file the proposed bylaw packet to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which a spokesperson for the city clerk’s office said they plan to do.
Healey’s office then has 90 days to review the motion and make a determination as to whether it’s consistent with the Constitution and laws of the Commonwealth.
Until then, the women of the island wait. Tops on.