Jennifer Brooks
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A woman and a police officer stood on the Duluth shore, debating whether one of them was legally required to put on a shirt.

“I’m not half-naked,” Duluth photographer Michelle Bennett tried to explain to the officer who approached her on Park Point beach last month. “I’m topless.”

She and her friends had been swimming topless in Lake Superior for years. They saw no reason to cover up while men — regardless of bust size — were allowed to jump in Lake Superior wearing nothing but a Speedo.

“Men are allowed to do it, so I feel entitled to it as well,” she said.

No top, no sitting around waiting for the clammy spandex on your chest to dry. No top, no tan lines.

No top, no troubles — at least, not until last month, when a mother, visiting the beach with her children, called police after Bennett refused to cover up.

What followed was a 45-minute discussion of Minnesota’s vaguely worded indecent exposure law, the sexualization of women’s bodies in public places and several phone calls back to police headquarters to debate terms like “private parts” and “lewd behavior.”

In the end, Bennett did not receive a citation, but she did pull on a shirt — at least until she can find someone in state government who can explain whether a woman’s chest legally constitutes a “private area” when men get to let it all hang out.

Different communities have different tolerance for letting it all hang out. As anyone who’s encountered Minneapolis’ annual “Freedom From Pants” bike ride can attest.

But the fact that someone called the cops on a pair of exposed breasts — rather than, say, moving down the beach out of eyeshot — should come as no surprise to anyone who’s met anyone.

Remember last year, when somebody called the cops on two young mothers breast-feeding their babies in a Kanabec County kiddie pool? Even though public breast-feeding is not only legal, there’s an explicit breast-feeding-is-just-fine subsection in Minnesota’s indecent exposure statute.

“I wasn’t flashing them around, nobody saw any nipple, there were other moms there nursing their babies, and LOTS of other women showing more skin than me,” one of the mothers posted on Facebook after she, her sister-in-law and their babies were invited to leave the Mora Aquatic Center in July 2018. “[B]ut because one woman saw me and complained, this establishment called the police.”

A few days later, a dozen nursing mothers descended on the Aquatic Center to breast-feed their babies in a show of solidarity.

That’s something everyone should have learned by now.

The harder you try to cover the breasts, the more breasts rise up to take their place.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was so flustered by the exposed breast on the Spirit of Justice statue at the Justice Department, he ordered $8,000 worth of draperies to cover her up. But not before photographers took enough pictures of his face framed by statuesque bosoms to last the rest of his term in office.

So in Duluth, there’s talk of a community topless day at the beach in the works.

Whether anyone organizes a protest or not, Bennett sees no reason to change the way she enjoys the shore.

“I’ve had multiple conversations with people who weren’t even fazed by the fact my chest was out,” she said. “Just, ‘Oh, you look like you’re having a nice day. Are you finding any agates?’ ”

But she worries that all the headlines about her last encounter with the law will make some people more eager to call the cops on her next time. Or on someone else. Would they force a woman who’s had a total mastectomy to cover up? It’s happened. Topless babies or little girls? What about people who are gender nonconforming or transitioning?

The next time someone calls the fashion police, Bennett hopes the dispatchers have all the answers. And she hopes the answer will be: Stop sexualizing other people’s bodies and leave them alone.

“I have a beautiful life and I know my truth,” she said. “And I don’t like being told what to do, so I will be back.”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks