If you’re a woman, it’s, well, complicated.
In late August, B.C journalist Lori Welbourne made local (and later, global) headlines by taking her top off mid-interview with Kelowna mayor Walter Gray. She bared her breasts while discussing topless bylaws—the mayor asked what she was doing, to which she replied, “It’s hot in here.” The mayor gamely pointed out that Kelowna bylaws preventing toplessness had been repealed (although the public may not be aware of it, and might even go so far as to contact the police), while trying to keep his eyes above the self-proclaimed distraction of a woman’s chest. As it turns out, it’s precisely this misinformation surrounding bylaws, mixed with lingering communal prejudice, that causes all the trouble. But more on that later.
Several days later, a parade of topless women took to Vancouver streets to celebrate GoTopless Day in support of GoTopless, a U.S.-based organization that pushes for greater gender equality. The parade of topless women prompted a gaggle of amateur shutterbugs, male spectators, and even 30 men wearing bras in support, to trail behind. GoTopless spokeswoman Denise Belisle told the CBC that in “Too many cities it is illegal to be topless and we are here to say that equality is for all. Men and women.” The march, which was held in 45 cities around the world, prompted Pittsburgh police to threaten participants with arrest, according to Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA).
Well, as it turns out, toplessness (or topfreedom, as it’s otherwise known) remains a hot-button issue both at home and abroad. The Supreme Court of Canada hasn’t laid down the law on a country-wide basis, so each province can generate its own bylaws, but only a few have come around.
The biggest obstacle to topfreedom has been the law of public decency. That all changed in 1991, when 19-year-old University of Guelph student Gwen Jacob took her top off on a scorching July day and was charged with indecency, found guilty, and charged $75. Sure, the fine wasn’t astronomical, but Jacob pointed out that men were free to bare their chests—nipples and all. The judge countered that breasts are a “part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch.” In 1996, the case was revisited and the Ontario Court of Appeal acquitted Jacob, stating that “there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her.” Score one for Ontarian topfreedom. B.C. reached a similar consensus in 2000.
Here’s where it gets gnarly. Jacob’s case was certainly a landmark, and not only successfully convinced the courts that toplessness isn’t in and of itself an indecent act, but also laid an important precedent for similar cases. However, people will still call the cops, and GoTopless warns that even in areas where topfreedom is in effect, you can still be charged “under the pretense of ‘disorderly conduct’.” That’s because Jacob’s case didn’t fulfill her other intent: to make female toplessness a constitutional right. And why not? After all, men freely take their tops off (and sometimes even their bottoms), with nary an eyebrow raised.
So, despite the fact that toplessness is technically legal in Ontario, you’re still unlikely to score a permit that will allow it in a public park. When GoTopless tried for a permit to bare breasts at Ashbridges Bay, they were shut down. The National Post clarified that parks bylaws require you to be fully dressed, and they apparently persist simply because nobody has really challenged them.
Then, there’s the trickier societal element. If you’re wondering who called the fuzz on Jacob, well, it was a woman outraged that her child had seen Jacob’s breasts. Children are frequently levied as reasons to prohibit bare breasts in public, never mind the fact that said breasts were once (in the not-too-distant past for many) sustenance. In fact, a 1992 poll showed that 62% of Canadians were opposed to women being allowed to bare their breasts in public, with the majority of the naysayers being women themselves.
Interestingly, women are legally allowed to breastfeed in public, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but INFACT Canada points out that widespread discrimination still exists, as with a Fredericton mother who earlier this year was asked to stop breastfeeding in a public pool.
Maybe it’s because we’re conditioned to compartmentalize the sight of bare female breasts within a sexual framework. Psychotherapist Mark O’Connell writes in Psychology Today that society is, on some level, “brainwashed to fear female sexuality,” and adds that “when we operate from a place of bias, rather than curiosity, we may unnecessarily, even egregiously, take “police work” into our own hands.” It seems that in the absence of hard and fast rules, our community standards are still muddying the issue.
While you’re allowed to bare breasts on Ontario “clothing optional” beaches, you might get hassled if you take off your top on other beaches. A Saskatoon woman found herself having to deal with the police after taking her top off at the beach: as with Jacob, an outraged mother called it in. In August, Rebecca Anne Clarke was told to cover up after going topless on a Montreal beach, and has since filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. She told the CBC that “When we say this is not family-appropriate we typically think of violence or drug use, and it’s a little bit demonizing to be told that your body is in the same category.”
Photo by Paul Arps