meet the 17 year old behind free the nipple la

With Free the Nipple L.A.’s topless protest kicking off this weekend at Venice Beach, we meet Ali Marsh, the 17-year-old student behind it.

by Tish Weinstock and i-D Staff
02 June 2015, 5:05pm

Ali Marsh is the 17-year-old student who's been a victim of patriarchal bullshit ever since she first put on a bra. Teased for having breasts, bullied for trying to hide them, and then slut-shamed when she tried to show them off, growing up hasn't always easy for Ali. But after years of intense self-loathing, Ali found feminism and got inspired to stand up for what she believed in. Today, Ali is working to redefine what it means to be a woman, and, ultimately, regain control over her own body.

Through some research, she discovered actress, filmmaker, and #freethenipple founder Lina Esco, who promptly took Ali under her wing. Fresh from staging her very own topless protest with the newly founded Free the Nipple LA, we catch up with the young activist to talk tits, trolls, and why it's so important to free the female nip.

Why is Free the Nipple such an important cause?
It's to get people talking about equality. We have a long way to go, but everyone needs a place to start. I choose to free my nipples to show I am not ashamed. I am proud of who I am, and I truly believe my body is of the same value as the next. Who is to tell us one nipple is legal but another isn't?

What is the story behind Free the Nipple L.A. and what inspired you to found it?
I started leading a group in Los Angeles around six months ago and it took off from there. Growing up is hard enough as it is, but Los Angeles added even more pressure. I couldn't walk down the street without seeing photos of the "ideal woman." In elementary school, I was always dressing in boys clothes, but I developed breasts very early on and it became uncomfortable for me to play sports in a baggy shirt. My mom bought me a sports bra and the first day I wore it, I was relentlessly teased. People made fun of me because I had boobs! I started a new middle school a few years later and everyone started to brag about their bras. It was then considered cool to push your boobs up as high as you could and wear the brightest bra possible. I started to wear normal bras and shirts that were a little less baggy. People started calling me a slut. I felt very confused. It was wrong for me to have boobs so I hid them, but then it was wrong to hide them. Finally I started to show them and that wasn't okay either. I went on a downward spiral of body loathing that often led me to feeling really depressed and alone. But in spite of all that, I have become a much more confident and happy person.

How did you overcome it all?
The first step to learning to love myself was learning about feminism. People are often afraid of the word for silly reasons. A feminist is someone who believes in gender equality. When I found Free The Nipple, I wanted to join it right away. I feel that women's sexualities are taken at a young age and then sold directly back to us. We are not allowed to show our bodies yet every poster, ad, and movie has naked women trying to sell us something. The problem is our bodies are being portrayed as objects. Boobs, specifically, have been something women have been shamed for. Our bodies are made for living, not selling. Breasts are meant to feed babies, not to sell perfume bottles. No one can expect sexualization to end all at once. I guarantee if everyone started being open about his or her body, soon enough it would be the norm. I do this because I want people to grow up not thinking twice about what they are wearing or doing. It is time bodies became bodies. Equal, beautiful, fucking magical bodies.

How did you get involved with Lina Esco?
I reached out to her last year and once she found out how old I was, she said she had to have me! She thinks it is important to have the younger generation working with her and I am honored to be the representative for people my age. Lina took me under her wing and has become such a role model to me.

You're about to stage a Free The Nipple event; can you explain a bit about it?
Venice Beach just passed a law where women can be shirtless, so we are having a little celebration. It will be the first step in a direction of change. It is going to take a lot more than one event to make a significant change, but you have to start somewhere. Ultimately, I want to bring attention to people in my community. I want our voices to be heard. And in a time like this, you have to be loud.

Why do you think female nipples are seen as so illicit?
In my opinion, this is because of the media and society. Society tells people what to think, do, act, and say. For some reason or another, society told people nipples, although strictly female ones, are prohibited. Sadly people don't always question things like this, and we let them become our norm.

Realistically, do you see female nipples being desexualized and women actually feeling comfortable enough to go topless in the street in our lifetime?
Hopefully. I think for older generations, it is too late. It is hard for people to change their way of thinking after 50-plus years of a culturally ingrained belief. I do think there is hope with my generation. If we start desexualizing women now, future generations won't question it or even know what life was like before. When you see kids playing, both boys and girls run around naked and are comfortable with themselves. Somewhere along the road, this confidence and equality gets demolished. It is our job to fix this.

Which do you think is more powerful, staging real life events or spreading the word online?
Online activism and activism in real life can be equally powerful. I think online activism can get ideas across quickly and easily and to a lot of people. But I think the beauty of activism in real life is the connection you make with people. You get to see the effect you have instead of seeing how many views through a computer screen. I do a little of both, so it is hard for me to say. But I do think you need both to be effective.

What's next?
We plan on taking this fight till the end. If you want to join us, there are going to be plenty opportunities to. If you want to oppose us, get ready. I may be small but I don't go down without a fight, and my fight is just beginning.



Text Tish Weinstock

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