Ontario women can legally go topless. So why aren’t they?

By Iman Sheikh - Published on August 13, 2015
woman hiding chest with arms
Ontario's women won the right to go topless in 1996, but many of them feel unsafe baring their breasts.

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Nudity isn’t sexual.

Or so says a sign held by a topless protestor at the Aug. 1 "Bare With Us" rally at Waterloo Town Square. The demonstration, attended by hundreds of bare-chested women, was organized by three sisters who were stopped by police in Kitchener, Ont., for cycling topless. Far from covering up, the women demanded a formal apology from the officer who approached them. They assumed he didn’t know that after a court ruling in 1996, Ontario’s women won the right to be publicly nude from the waist up.

If it’s legal and it’s not sexual, why don’t we see more topless women?

One reason is that culturally, most women in North America are aware that exposing breasts in public means going against the norm. Many feel that going topless would invite unwanted attention — especially from males — and also invite judgments and accusations of loose morals according to Aimée Morrison, Associate Chair of Graduate Studies at the University of Waterloo.

“We are a culture that feels we have a right to look at heavily sexualized breasts in a variety of media,” she says. “We‘re allowed to stare but at the same time we’re very judgmental about the women to whom those breasts are attached. Their moral status is somehow associated with their breasts.”

There are instances where police feel justified in arresting topless women despite the legality of their actions. Context is key, according to Const. Victor Kwong of the Toronto Police Service.

“Usually it comes down to being lewd,” he explains. “Being lewd is when you’re adding the sexual nature behind being topless.”

But the complicated task is defining lewdness. Police have no guidelines and rely on the subjective view of the officer on duty.

“There is no standard,” says Morrison. “Let’s say I’m topless and one of my breasts is itching so I scratch it. When does a scratch become a suggestive self-caress?”

The very idea of what constitutes indecency has also evolved in the past few decades. Morrison points out that in 1991, when University of Guelph student Gwen Jacob was arrested for indecency while walking topless on a hot summer day, the arresting officers were of the opinion that just to have breasts exposed was indecent.

Veteran Canadian journalist and feminist Antonia Zerbisias says it’s the onlookers around topless women who are lewd and indecent, not the other way around. Zerbisias once went with a companion to a pub on Church Street to watch the Dyke March during Toronto’s pride celebrations, a mostly female parade. Even though she got there early, she couldn’t get near the window.

“There were two to three rows of men who had come with cameras and binoculars,” she says. “My friend and I were totally disgusted by their behaviour and comments. They said, ‘Oh look at that one, she’s ugly, oh those are nice ones, those are saggy ones.’ It was horrible. They were the ones behaving rudely and crudely. Not the women who chose to march down Yonge Street topless.”

Yet even when breasts aren’t sexualized, says Morrison, many people are still uncomfortable.

“There has been a great deal of conflict around breastfeeding in public,” she says. “People will actually say it’s disgusting. Women have been kicked out of stores and asked to go feed in the bathroom's stall even though there’s very little that you can see. We tend to condemn breasts that don’t conform to a very limited type of visual imagery as inappropriate.”

And when social networking site Facebook recently banned pictures of breastfeeding, it only underlined ongoing public discomfort with exposed breasts.

“If Facebook, one of the most pervasive forces in our lives, still deems breasts being used for the purpose nature designed them as too sexual for its website, I’m in despair,” says Zerbisias.

However, the main reason most women won’t go topless is for fear of their own safety, according to Morrison.

“Many women are afraid of the way men will look at them if they have their breasts exposed,” she says. “They think they’ll get leers or jeers. It has a great deal more to do with feelings of potential danger rather than perceptions of their own bodies. I am probably never going to go topless in public. I would not feel safe.”

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