'Free the Nipple' movement: Women can now legally go topless in 6 states

Women in six U.S. states are now effectively allowed to be topless in public, according to a new ruling by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The decision stems from a multiyear legal battle in Fort Collins, Colo., where a city ordinance forbidding women from going shirtless in public has now officially been ruled unconstitutional.

It's an outcome that affects more than just one town. Since the 10th Circuit encompasses six states — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma — the decision means it is now illegal for any town in those states to create a law forbidding public toplessness.

What started as a small-scale fight has turned into a major win for the 'Free the Nipple' movement, a global gender equality campaign that emphasizes women's rights to choose how they display their bodies.

The Fort Collins law received its first blow in February, when the 10th Circuit originally deemed its anti-topless law unconstitutional. The court's ruling determined the law was based on "negative stereotypes depicting women's breasts, but not men's breasts, as sex objects."

In its decision, the court also pointed to nearby cities such as Denver and Boulder, both of which allow women to be topless in public. Neither of those towns had women "parading in front of elementary schools or swimming topless in the public pool," as Fort Collins officials had argued was a risk.

After that defeat, however, the city still had the option to appeal the law or take its issue to the Supreme Court. Fort Collins finally decided against that earlier this month, though, stating it had given up on fighting the law it spent more than $300,000 trying to protect.

"We made a huge impact way beyond Fort Collins, and we were just trying to start a conversation," Brit Hoagland, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, said of the victory. "And that conversation reached to so many more people. It’s a miraculous achievement I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime let alone so soon."

Andy McNulty, the attorney who argued on Hoagland's behalf, said it was obvious to him that laws like the one in Fort Collins should be considered unconstitutional.

"Any law that says, 'Women are prohibited from...' is unconstitutional and really just intolerable in a society that should treat women as equal to men," McNulty told KGUN-TV.

However, not every case has gone in favor of 'Free the Nipple.' A court in New Hampshire voted to uphold a similar law earlier this year, meaning women in that state could be charged for having their shirts off in public.

The 10th Circuit acknowledged its potentially controversial ruling, noting its opinion in the Fort Collins case was "the minority viewpoint." Still, Hoagland remains hopeful that this victory can change the national conversation.

"Our win can show that even in other places that there's still hope, and that things can change maybe from a different angle," she said.