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Wednesday, May 12,2010

Much ado about Melons

By Wayne Laugesen

The little sign on the front door tells me I’m in the right place. It warns me that if I knock, I should be prepared for the fact that the people who live here are naturalists who more often than not go nude inside their home. It’s their naturalist lifestyle — or more specifically, some people’s reaction to it — that brings me here.

Bob and Catharine Pierce are in the midst of a media maelstrom because Catharine likes to garden and take out the trash while topless. The two weren’t enthusiastic about talking with me. They feel the media have been unfair to them from the first articles that ran in local papers to farright pundit Bill O’Reilly’s calling Catharine “a pinhead” on television last month. With headlines in newspapers as far away as Singapore and widespread commentary in the blogosphere, they’re understandably leery of reporters.

“Are you willing to take off your shirt and sit outside with me?” Catharine asked when I approached her about the possibility of an interview more than a week ago.

She was asking me to put my money where my mouth was. I had just finished telling her about the editorials I’d written in favor of women’s right to go topless. But sitting outside wearing little more than a pad ofpaper and a pencil was not what I had in mind.

“I won’t sit outside, but I will do the interview topless in your living room,” I offered.

And that’s what I’m prepared to do as I stand on the Pierces’ front porch on a chilly spring day.

Bob Pierce opens the door. He’s wearing clothes. He invites me inside. When Catharine appears, she’s also fully dressed—white slacks, white sweater, pretty crystal earrings. And it immediately becomes clear that demanding I go topless for the interview was just a test.

We settle down in the living room, which, apart from the ceramic mug with a penis for a handle, is no different from the average living room. I say this as someone who has done a lot of interviews in a lot of living rooms over the years, from that of poor CU students with cinderblock furniture to that of a well-known local attorney who unabashedly keeps hardcore BDSM porn on his coffee table.

I ask Catharine what she thinks about the media’s coverage of her topless gardening.

“Most of it is untrue,” she says. Some papers, including one in Singapore, gave her credit for the fact that female nipples weren’t banned when City Council recently passed the city’s new nudity ordinance.

“I don’t take the credit. I give credit to City Council for having the courage to have equality between men and women when it comes to baring their breasts,” she says.

Catharine has lived in Boulder since 1976 and remembers a time when bare-breasted women could occasionally be seen walking down Pearl Street, when nude sunbathers were common at Coot Lake and Gross Reservoir, and when women hiked while topless.

Born in 1957 and raised in Ohio in a Catholic household, Catharine was introduced to the naturalist lifestyle when she met Bob. It’s a lifestyle she embraced, gardening topless for years without complaints while living in Boulder Meadows.

She and her husband, both disabled, moved to public housing operated by Boulder Housing Authority (BHA) in 2001. At the time, Catharine was recovering from surgery that fused together vertebrae in her cervical spine and was too incapacitated to garden. But her husband immediately began working in the yard wearing only thong bathing trunks. And no one complained.

Sometimes he worked out nude in the back of their home within view of the window, and although they periodically caught women watching him, still no one complained.

Then three summers ago, Catharine felt strong enough to get back to gardening. And that meant gardening without a top on.

“At first I was reluctant to do it,” she says. “I started out being very discrete about it.”

That meant gardening in the middle of the day when kids were at school and people were at work.

“Then it developed to the point where, hey, this is natural,” she says.

At that point, she quit worrying about being seen and just went about her business, gardening and taking out the trash or the recycling wearing as little as a thong bikini bottom.

But Catharine’s neighbors, who’d been silent for years about Bob’s gardening in a thong — and his working out in front of a window in the nude — called the police to complain.

“Bob was doing it for a long time before I was doing it,” she says. “But when I do it, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’”

What’s the difference?

Catharine takes me outside and shows me the small space she plants with flowers, tomatoes and cantaloupes each year. And it is small, indeed. Right now, the space is home mostly to small weeds, just sprouting. Tiny tomato plants, sheltered by cellophane, sit in pots on her front porch, waiting for warmer days.

“I’ve always enjoyed getting out in the yard and weeding and gardening and beautifying the earth that God gave us,” she says.

She is happy to share the small amount of vegetables and fruit that she grows each year with neighbors or homeless passersby. It is her way of saying thank you and giving back to the community, she says.

She shows me where she typically works when she gardens — a retaining wall that runs along the sidewalk and around the corner to the front of her house. Her perch places her across the street from a park and parking lot. Diagonally to the east within line of sight is a school. It is, in short, a very visible spot.

But that’s not the issue, Catharine says.

“What’s the difference between a man’s chest and a woman’s chest?” she asks. “A woman’s sticks out more in some cases. I’ve seen men with big beer guts and breasts as large as women’s walking around with their shirts off.”

In fact, the public park across the street, which some people cite as a reason why Catharine should not be permitted to go topless, is a place where topless men can often be seen on sunny days. And no one is worried about how their bare chests will impact the neighborhood. It is, she says, “very unfair.”

“If a guy can go out here without a shirt while kids are out playing, then I should be able to, too,” she says. “It’s men who’ve made women’s breasts into sexual organs because they obsess over them.”

More has been made of Catharine’s proximity to the school. But she says that seeing breasts cannot possibly hurt a child — or anyone else for that matter.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone who is being hurt by it,” she says. “In fact, I believe you should be honest with your children [and tell them], ‘It’s natural. It’s beautiful. And have respect for women.’” She doesn’t necessarily believe that people are sincerely concerned about her exposed breasts because children might see her.

“If you don’t like what I’m doing, please don’t use your children as an excuse,” she says. “Don’t teach your children that women have to be entirely covered, but teach them respect. If more people had respect and tolerance all over the country, we’d have a better society.”

She finds it strange that religion and morality are used as justification to restrict women’s ability to go topless.

“The churches teach people that when the body is uncovered it is sinful,” she says. “It’s like putting down God for creating them in his image.”

And don’t tell her that going barebreasted in her 50s is somehow offensive due to her age or appearance.

“I may not have the most perfect body in the world, but I thank the good Lord that I have the body that I have today,” she says. “Young girls may see my body and say, ‘Oh, yuck,’ but one day they’re going to be this way. Instead of turning to a plastic surgeon, they should be proud of what they have.”

What’s wrong and unhealthy, she says, is the way breasts are exploited in advertising, with images of surgically altered cleavage used to sell everything from cars to music. She worries that this cultural obsession with big boobs will lead young women to have surgery, risking their health for a bigger cup size.

“To me that is just taking away from how your body was created just so you can attract a man,” she says. “A man should be attracted to you for who you are.”

Use the right — or lose it

“I’m not out to embarrass other people, but this is part of our beliefs and our lifestyle,” Catharine says.

The reaction of some passersby and neighbors indicate that not everyone agrees with that lifestyle — or intends to tolerate it.

“A woman pulled up at the stop sign and yelled, ‘Put your clothes on!’” Catharine says. “To me that was rude. She could have pulled up next to me, and she and I could have had a oneon-one conversation.”

Children have made comments, too.

“Yeah, there’s been some comments from kids passing by, but that’s just kids being kids,” she says.

At other times, people have pulled up to the stop sign — and stayed there snapping photos.

But what galls her is the fact that those who object to what she’s doing won’t come over and talk with her about it, instead complaining to BHA or the police. They didn’t even speak at the City Council hearings, she says.

“[BHA] policy says you should work things out with each other before going through mediation,” she says, showing me the manual.

In this case, complaints were made to BHA and the police, and they weren’t approached personally. If they would approach her politely and discuss their concerns, she might be willing to put on a shirt, she says.

Catharine and Bob believe their lifestyle has left them subject to harassment and even vandalism. Last summer, someone destroyed her tomato harvest, picking all the green tomatoes off the vines and leaving them in a bag on her porch. Someone also smashed some of Catharine’s cantaloupes, as well.

“To me it’s just mind-boggling,” she says.

Now that the new city ordinance has put the question of female breasts to rest for the foreseeable future — the ordinance requires the covering of genitalia only — Catharine would like to move on. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.

BHA, which has allowed her to garden for years, is now requiring that all residents who wish to garden receive permission first. And although she asked for permission more than two weeks ago, she hasn’t heard back. She believes the new policy is BHA’s way of trying to get her out of the garden and keep her indoors. (Boulder Weekly placed a call to BHA, which did not respond by press time.)

But it’s not just BHA, Catharine says.

These days it’s not uncommon to find a police squad car parked directly across from the house, its windshield pointed straight at the house, she says.

I suggest that they’re trying to catch speeders in a school zone. She shakes her head.

“I’ve never seen them ticket a speeder [on this street],” she says. “It’s like they’re sitting there waiting for me to come out. It’s just plain harassment.”

In recent letters to the editor, some of her neighbors have accused her and her husband of being exhibitionists, rather than naturalists. It’s an allegation that she dismisses outright.

“If I’m taking out the garbage and I’m wearing only a thong and it needs to go out, I take it out,” she says. “I don’t look out my back window to see who’s outside so that I can go out topless. I just take the garbage out.

“It’s just like with the recycling. If there happen to be people out there, oh, well. It’s not like they haven’t seen it all before. It’s not like I’m standing up and shaking my jugs all over the place, saying, ‘Hey, look at me because I’m topless.’” But she isn’t about to quit going topless any time soon.

For Catharine it comes down to the issue of equality — and protecting one’s rights.

“I think anywhere a man can go topless, a woman should be able to also. If you don’t use the law to your advantage, then you’re going to lose that right that the law gives you,” she says. “To have people telling you [you can’t go topless] because they don’t know what the law is — they’re just ignorant. But ignorance of the law is no excuse. If you’re arrested for something, you can’t plead that you didn’t know it was illegal. You should be aware of your rights.”

Catharine now carries the city ordinance so that she can prove that what she’s doing is legal.

In the meantime, she’s astonished when she searches for her own name on Google — and finds 89,400 hits.

“I’m bewildered to say the least.

Singapore?” she says, shaking her head. “I never in my life expected for it to go this far.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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