CHICAGO — For the last two years, Michelle and Robyn Lytle have been on a mission: "Free the nipple."
It's The TaTa Top's campaign slogan, their online business that sells three shades of bikini tops featuring images of nipples as a way to promote body positivity, while also drawing attention to nudity laws that ban women from going topless.
After launching in 2014, the top went viral.
Now, two years later, the Lytles said they've sold about 8,000 tops in every state in the U.S., and have shipped tops to at least 50 other countries around the world — including Australia, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and beyond.
Though typical buyers largely include feminist women, men and even moms, the women said they've been surprised at the other connections they've forged through the tops: cancer survivors, breastfeeding advocates and people challenging traditional notions of gender.
"It's just been really touching to hear our customers' personal stories about overcoming body discrimination and gender discrimination," Michelle Lytle said. "We also have close ties with many breast cancer survivors and women who have battled cancer, had double mastectomies, and survived to tell their stories and inspire others.
It means a lot to us to hear these women's stories and why they support our product and our mission to use humor to shed light on women's issues."
In order to get away with being able to wear the product in public, it's billed as depicting men's nipples, which are legally allowed to be exposed. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
It's not just women grabbing them up either, the couple said.
Husbands and boyfriends have ordered them to support their girlfriends and wives "in the fight for gender equality," Robyn Lytle said.
Chicago municipal code bans women from showing "any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola," an indecent exposure law that can carry fines of $100 to $500 for each offense.
Because the law allows for men to publicly expose their nipples, the TaTa Top is billed as a bikini top that depicts male nipples.
"It's funny when you think about it because if you look at a nipple alone, you can't tell whether it's male or female," Michelle Lytle said. "It's only when the nipple is on a woman that it becomes obscene."
Though the women admit the product is fun, the business has also made significant contributions to women's health organizations, more than $30,000 they say. In the future, the Lytles said they want to see that number soar to $50,000.
Two items from The TaTa Top's current product line. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
They've partnered with the Pink Ink Fund, an organization that helps fund reconstructive tattoos for women who have had mastectomies, and the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, a photography project that documents and celebrates womens' bodies throughout and after pregnancy.
At Chicago's Pride Parade in June, the TaTa Top kept that celebration going with a huge float — a tradition the women said they want to continue.
Their product has even had a few celebrity shout-outs on E! and VH1 television channels.
The duo said one day they'd like to see someone like comedian Chelsea Handler, who has advocated for women to be able to be topless, representing the TaTa Tops.
Michelle (r.) and Robyn (l.) Lyle, are partners in life and business, and said they want to continue to expand their product line and keep raising money for charitable organizations. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
The most rewarding and humbling aspect of the business so far, however, has been building relationships and hearing the stories of people affected by the tops around the world, the Lytles said.
They've also been inspired to keep up with legislation regulating women's bodies in the U.S., including a recent bill in New Hampshire that sought to ban women from going topless.
At the end of the day, the Lytles said they've received surprisingly little blow-back from the tops, though the mindset that encourages nudity laws for women remain problematic.
In August, a Belmont University student in Tennessee resigned from her sorority after refusing to take down an Instagram of herself wearing one of the tops.
The women said they're not discouraged.
"We've found that a lot of the people who argue against women being topless, put female nipples in the exact same [category] as sexual organs. No joke," Michelle said. "We did have a customer who wore it to a private pool and they made her wear a white T-shirt over it ... in the pool. Hopefully everyone reading this picks up on what an epic fail that became."
Since launching in 2014, The TaTa Top has given over $30,000 to women's health organizations, the company says. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
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