When teachers step out of the classroom and into their private lives, their actions should be largely outside the control of principals and school districts. Of course there are times when teachers’ private behavior is so egregious that it may become impossible for them to do their jobs — if they commit a serious crime, for instance, or engage in a racist tirade that could frighten students or make them feel they wouldn’t be treated fairly.
But sending a topless selfie to one’s boyfriend is not in that category, even if the photo somehow finds its way to a student, which is what happened to a New York teacher recently. Indeed, if our society — and our laws — weren’t so outlandishly squeamish about women’s breasts, this probably wouldn’t have become an issue in the first place.
Lauren Miranda, a math teacher at a middle school on Long Island, is now suing the school district that fired her after school officials found a student with a topless photo of her. It’s unclear exactly how it happened; Miranda said the only person she had sent it to was a male teacher she was dating. A letter from the district, obtained by the New York Times, leaves it unclear how the student got the photo, saying Miranda had “caused, allowed, or otherwise made it possible” for the photo to fall into the student’s hands, and that she “failed to take adequate precautionary measures” to keep that from happening.
Unless the school has evidence that Miranda sent the picture to a student, its action is unfair and inappropriate. Miranda also might be blameworthy if she took the photo at school or sent it to her colleague on a school computer, which would be misuse of an employer’s computer equipment for personal use.
Middle school students surely know that breasts exist, and though they’re at an age where a fair amount of sniggering sometimes accompanies that fact, Miranda shouldn’t have much trouble continuing to teach them math. Whatever hubbub ripples through the school would blow over relatively quickly.
Yet it’s that very hubbub, that whiff of shame and scandal, that needs to be addressed in a larger way. It is obvious that a topless photo of a male teacher would never have been the subject of so much scrutiny or cause for dismissal. Men’s bare chests are considered perfectly appropriate for public display, while women’s chests are considered both by society — and far too often, by the law — to be indecent.
Amazingly, it is only recently that women’s right to breastfeed their babies in public has been recognized; until a few years ago women were still being harassed in shopping malls and elsewhere if they dared feed their infants. Now, finally, every state has a law protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, although it took Idaho until 2018 to get there. Facebook decided last year that photos of breastfeeding, post-mastectomy scars and topless women protesting were fine for posting, but not other topless photos of women.
What’s wrong with our society that female breasts must serve a nutritional, political or health-education function in order not to be salacious?
The covering of female breasts has a long history in Western civilization, though it’s unclear exactly why. Women’s breasts are larger than men’s, though not all the time. They’re sexualized, of course, in a way men’s are not. But the fact is that both women and men now bare parts of their body in normal everyday dress in ways that would have been seen as scandalous some decades ago. The need to protect children from the dangerous sight of women’s naked breasts seems anachronistic.
As we learn to shed societal norms that serve no function except to put one group at a continual disadvantage — think of same-sex marriage bans — anti-topless laws should be among those ready for extinction.
That’s not to say that female semi-nudity must be allowed everywhere. Just in the same places where it’s allowed for men. If a stadium wants to ban women from ripping off their T-shirts, fine — as long as it invokes the same rule for men.
Right now, the laws on female toplessness are such a mishmash that even police don’t always know what’s allowed and what isn’t. Court rulings, generally favoring women’s rights in this matter, have added a layer of complication.