I was a teenager when Ontario passed a law allowing women to doff their tops in public the way men do. My male classmates in high school were glued to the news story.
I remember walking into a math class the morning after the provincial court of Ontario announced the decision. One boy was loudly recounting his morning dogwalk. “This woman was walking her dog too, and she was topless. But she was, like, fifty!” The class started snickering. “I mean, come on! Ew! That’s not what this law is about!”
While you can’t really fault a teenage boy for looking at this law from a T&A point of view, attitudes like these are likely preventing women from acting on their rights. Legally, women have been allowed “topfreedom” in Ontario for the past fifteen years, and can remove their tops publically the same way men do. (At the park? Yes. At Red Lobster? No) In practice, though? I’m an Ontarian, and have seen a woman go topfree once, at a very secluded beach.
Why the reservations? It doesn’t help that women’s breasts are still seen as sexual parts, first and foremost. Recall the Facebook issue of censored breastfeeding photos. Read the lecherous comments in any online article about Femen, the Ukrainian women’s rights group who frequently get media attention for their topless protests. While Ontario’s topfree law is about gender rights, the social and media reactions often paint bare-chested women as exhibitionists or radical activists.
At last year’s Topfree Day of Pride march in Guelph, Ontario, the parade viewers were mostly camera-wielding males. I think it’s hard for women to feel they’re acting on a human rights issue when the crowd is there to gawk. In our cameraphone culture, it’s hard to exercise a countercultural right when there’s a chance that you and your breasts will end up on a Girls with Low Self Esteem website.
I dig this quotation from the Topfree Equal Rights Association, who say: “It’s up to women to decide when and where [breasts] are or aren’t sexual.” Though social attitudes won’t change overnight, I think there’s hope. It wasn’t so long ago that we were scandalized by a glimpse of a woman’s bare shoulder, right?
* Story via The Toronto Sun
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Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.