Michelle Lytle turned some heads at Hollywood Beach on Memorial Day this year.
"You would see people from far away do double takes and start walking towards her," said Lytle's fiancee, Robyn Graves, 30.
"People were taking photos and stuff like that," Lytle said. "Everyone lit up when they saw it."
Lytle, 28, was wearing the first prototype of her brainchild, the TaTa Top: a string bikini top the color of her skin with pink nipples printed on it.
"I was like, this would be so funny," said Lytle, who lives with Graves in Andersonville. "What if there was a bikini top and it was flesh-colored and it had nipples on it, so it looked like you were topless but you weren't actually topless? … So is this legal? It's still legal. So what exactly are we trying to protect people from to begin with?"
As of Thursday, Lytle and Graves have sold all 700 of their original run of TaTa Tops at $28 apiece—and sparked a lot of conversation. Some of the response has been positive, including support from breastfeeding advocates and women who have had mastectomies.
"We've had mothers and daughters buying them together, entire teams because they're going to do a breast cancer walk," Graves said.
The product also has drawn the attention of activists who see the right to bare breasts as an issue of equality.
"The nipple is just a Trojan horse," said filmmaker and activist Lina Esco, who hopes to release her film "Free the Nipple" this year. "The core message is equality. That's it. If a man is able to go topless, a woman should be able to go topless."
It is illegal in Chicago to expose "any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola thereof of any female person," according to city code. Violation can lead to a fine of up to $500. Only two women have been arrested for indecent exposure in Chicago from 2012 through June of this year, according to police spokesman Martin Maloney.
Esco said the TaTa Top could get people used to the idea of female nudity without requiring them to commit to full toplessness.
"The women that can't support by making a statement or showing a nipple or whatever, they're still able to wear the top and support equality," she said.
The TaTa Top also has drawn vocal opposition. One comment, from an Internet user calling him- or herself "Men Everywhere," read simply "[Bleeping] sluts." Lytle and Graves posted to Facebook a screengrab of one submission to their website that read, in part, "No wonder so many women are raped. Not all rapes are provoked but if you're walking around wearing this disgusting bikini top or something that is only appropriate for the bedroom, you're asking for it."
"You can't convince everyone," Lytle said. "But the fact that there's a discussion and debate going on, that is exciting and that is awesome, whether you never buy a TaTa Top or not. People are thinking about it, people are aware of the issue."
Social media has been a double-edged sword for the TaTa Top. Word can spread quickly, but some social networks have flagged photos for showing nudity. The TaTa Top Facebook page has been put in "time out" three times, according to Lytle, though Instagram has been somewhat more understanding.
"It is a cartoon representation of a nipple," she said. "When you are flagging this and taking this down, you are flagging the cartoon of a nipple. … We're going to start saying, 'Oh, it's not a woman's nipple, it's a man's nipple.' "
And posting hate mail, like the comment regarding rape, has actually mobilized support for the TaTa Top.
"It stirs people up even more," Lytle said.
Lytle and Graves have pledged to give $5 to the Lynn Sage Foundation, a local breast cancer charity, for every TaTa Top sold. Later on, they may give buyers the option of donating to Free the Nipple.
Up next will be two darker shades of the TaTa Top, along with an expanded range of sizes. After that, the TaTa Top team hope to expand to one-pieces, tops with pierced nipples, tankinis, bottoms with printed pubic hair—and maybe even a men's swimsuit to benefit testicular cancer charities.
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