Over the course of our conversations, Anni Ma has made it very clear that she “just exists.” It is through her very existence that her art, her protest and her passions come into being. To her, the self is not beholden to those that seek to dictate its actions; it exists for its own accord, acts on its own accord, and changes by its own accord. The self cannot help but be itself, for it never has been, and never can be, anything else. This is Anni Ma: no matter what happens, she will continue to be uniquely and unequivocally herself.
The Start of a Movement
Ma rose to notoriety on a sunny day in May of 2015 when she strolled down Library Walk, promptly found a shady tree, and began to quietly read a book… all while completely topless. The slogan “Free the Nipple” was sharpied on her back.
While toplessness is a form of shock protest, the ultimate goal of the movement is to help normalize women’s bodies while promoting equality and body positivity.
Free the Nipple is a topfreedom movement that advocates for the decriminalization of public female nudity and the normalization of female breasts. Citing that public male toplessness (particularly on beaches) was criminalized until the statutes were overturned, starting with New York in 1937, advocates argue that the same can and should be done for women.
The portrayal of women’s bodies in society and pop culture, particularly the breasts, has caused a sort of “hypersexualization,” a condition activists argue is a purely social construct and holds no scientific basis. While toplessness is a form of shock protest, the ultimate goal of the movement is to help normalize women’s bodies while promoting equality and body positivity. “It’s not that we want to be shirtless all the time or that we want our nips out all the time,” argued UCSD senior and Free the Nipple supporter Ivy Ouyang. “It’s more about the idea that we’re not even allowed to do that if we wanted to.”
While California Penal Code 314 defines indecent exposure as the intentional flaunting of “private parts” so as to offend, arouse, or self-gratify, which would not specifically pertain to female breasts or nipples, San Diego municipal code §56.53 further defines public nudity as “any portion of the breast at or below the areola thereof of any female person.” Though Ma was quickly approached by police officers following her appearance on Library Walk, she was not cited for the incident.
“You build yourself up without criminalizing anyone else for their ideas and values.”
Following her run in with the law and the subsequent release of a video commenting on her actions, Ma quickly became the center of social media debate. This conversation lead over 100 UCSD students of all genders to rally around Ma, resulting in a topless sit-in on campus the following week.
Though many praised the event and Ma’s actions as progressive and forward thinking, others were less receptive to their message. One female UCSD senior who wished to remain anonymous noted, “You always try and make the woman’s body less sexualized, but you can see that the porn industry is running so rampant that this won’t change overnight. I just don’t know if being topless is helping us move in the right steps.”
Ma personally believes that modesty is simply a tool to keep women suppressed, however, she welcomes dissenting opinion on the subject and encourages both sides of the argument to exist together, sharing their opinions with one another rather than demonizing one another. “You learn so much more that way,” she said. “You build yourself up without criminalizing anyone else for their ideas and values.”
From Art to Action
Now living in Los Angeles, Ma continues to advocate on behalf of Free the Nipple and other social justice causes. Most notably, she appeared topless this March at a Bernie Sanders rally in Phoenix, AZ while sporting the message “STOP FASCISM” on her back. Her message, which was in condemnation of the Republican front runner Donald Trump, brought her national attention.
“People just thought that I was a leader… and then I started becoming one.”
Though Ma is now a well-known figure on the UCSD campus, she initially had no intentions of being a leader for the movement. Shortly before her first topless debut, she had begun setting personal challenges for herself in an attempt to improve her self-esteem and sense of body positivity. “I had resolved to start loving my body more, being accepting of my natural state: no makeup, no shaving, looking at me as beautiful,” she said.
Mixing her desire to promote body positivity with her passion for performance art, Ma asked a friend if he would record her walking down Library Walk topless. Very matter of factly, she noted, “I woke up one day and went, ‘I feel really good about myself. Let me see if I can walk out topless.’ That was [just] another challenge.” Her art, her passion and now her protest – they had begun to take shape.
What had initially been a personal project, grew into something much larger, rocketing Ma into the public arena. “I wasn’t really out to do anything but to challenge myself and to challenge the world around me,” she said.
“People just thought that I was a leader… and then I started becoming one.” For someone who had been struggling with deep depression and a desire to commit suicide just months before, this was a huge step. Ma was not only on the road towards recovery; she was on the road towards thriving.
Beyond a Movement
Born to Chinese immigrants, Ma spent a majority of her life living in San Francisco. While her parents worked multiple jobs to support the family, Ma struggled to acclimate to American culture on her own. Because she never learned to speak Chinese, the relationship between her and the rest of her family was strained. The very people who were supposed to guide her through her youth struggled to even communicate with her properly. Because of her difficulty assimilating, never feeling fully Asian nor American, this crisis of identity would set the stage for Ma’s depression.
As a transfer student at UCSD, Ma’s depression only seemed to worsen. Though she would eventually graduate with a degree in psychology in 2014 with the hope of bettering lives of others, it quickly became apparent that she was the one in need of support.
Nothing felt substantial. From the courses she took to her own sense of self worth, it all felt disingenuous. Yet, in spite of all these frustrations, Ma made no moves to address her frustrations. All the pressures from home that were telling her to succeed kept her in line, kept her acting her part in the immigrant “success story.” Work hard, go to college, get a job, get married, be happy; this is the epitome of success for so many Asian Americans. This is what it means to be successful; this is what it means to honor your parents; this is how you find your meaning in life.
So despite her struggle to make friends and get good grades, Ma kept her head down, pushing onward towards the hope of graduation and a better future beyond it. Then, finally, graduation came… and then graduation went… and no jobs were found. Nothing that was promised had been fulfilled and everything seemed empty.
Working odd jobs, waitressing amongst other things, Ma felt absolutely lost. She had failed to live up to the expectations of success that she had so desperately clamored after. “It wasn’t filling my spirit, my soul. I was conforming to what I thought I needed to be in order to be successful,” she said. Though Ma had always wanted to be an actress, the seeming impracticality of such a feat kept her dream at bay. Instead, she was determined to keep looking for a “real job,” searching for the path that had always promised success and meaning. But finally, after a year of trying to keep her head above water, Ma found herself jobless, floundering, and ready to give up.
Her crisis of identity had reached a breaking point when, in an attempt to try something out of her comfort zone, Ma found herself showing some friends around Las Vegas. As she tried to get inside a nightclub, she was stopped at the door by the bouncer; she didn’t look like her ID. Because she had gotten dressed up and put on makeup, she, in the eyes of this man, no longer looked like the girl on her California ID card. To Ma, it was as if she had lost her very identity.
She had rejected the narrative set before her and had, instead, begun to pave her own.
Suddenly, all of the fears that she had worked so hard to keep locked away, those fears of not belonging, not being good enough, not being known, all came crashing down. To Ma, this man had validated all her fears when he firmly declared: you are not who you say you are. With the last pieces of her self-esteem and self-identity gone, it was in this moment, at her very lowest, that Anni Ma decided she wanted to end things.
“I didn’t know who I was,” she said, looking back on that time. “I put all my value into other people and not myself.” All of the hopes that she had stored up, desperately trying to appease others, had fallen away and her sense of identity went with them. Yet, as all of her old reasons for living began to fade away, Ma started to find new ones. “I realized that if I had the power to end my entire life, then I had the power to create the life I wanted,” she would later write. With all of the expectations and all of the constructions that had held her in place now gone, she found that they had left a vacuum within herself. It was a vacuum that she could fill with anything she wanted.
“I realized what was real about life and what was false,” she reflected. The things that had been holding her back from pesuing acting and from following her dreams only existed in her mind. They weren’t real. “All the things people are scared of are not really there. They’re only constructed in their minds,” she said triumphantly.
As a woman, existing and exposing her breasts, for equality, is a powerful thing. And I realized that anyone being themselves is a powerful image.”
So, very slowly, Anni began to piece her life back together. No longer existing for the sake of others, she had resolved to exist and survive for her own sake. She started looking at all the questions that she had – questions of identity and self-worth and social norms – and began to find the answers on her own. She had rejected the narrative set before her and had, instead, begun to pave her own.
Being Anni Ma
Several months after her breakdown, Ma had begun to take charge of her own life. She was working towards being a performer and an activist. Letting go of all assumptions she had previously accepted, Ma began asking questions, questions about racism, gender equality, and social justice. For Ma, one of the social constructs that she saw was female toplessness. Her involvement with Free the Nipple had begun.
“Getting arrested, going to jail, that is really easy-peasy now. I’m not scared of things now,” she proclaimed. “I realized that me existing was a powerful thing. As a woman, existing and exposing her breasts, for equality, is a powerful thing. And I realized that anyone being themselves is a powerful image.”
Now Ma is on a quest to help others express themselves and learn to be comfortable with who they are. “I’m going on a journey with everyone,” she said. She had found her reason to live inside of herself. For Ma, her sheer existence is a cause for celebration and she hopes to spend every moment of her existence making sure that it is worthwhile.
“Every experience is a learning experience that helped me grow. That… was very different from my depression where I was so afraid of doing anything: I was afraid of failure; I was afraid of judgement; I was afraid of what people would think; and now… I don’t give a fuck what people think and my life is so much better!”
Anni Ma now lives in Inglewood, CA where she works as a performance artist. She is still active with the Free the Nipple movement and was recently arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles this past March. She was released on a $10,000 bail and is currently fighting various charges in court.
Curtis Yee is Student Life Editor of The Triton.