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While the right to show bare breasts is, *ahem*, supported by law, there remains a social discomfort with the act.

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

Human Rights


About The Author

Anne Merritt

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,, and The Compass. Check out her blog.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Interesting that one of the most “free” place I’ve seen women exercise this right en masse is Burning Man… and that’s only after a very protective space/ethos has been cultured.

  • Karen Dion

    Similar story in Sweden:

  • Erika

    Yeah there’s still that mentality with lots of people that women displaying their breasts is “immortal” and of course there’s just the plain ol’ perverts.   Quite a shame that this society makes everything linked to sex.  The human body is beautiful. 

    • Hanuman Langur

      Well, no one wants to look into why sex is so important in our lives. If we understood it we might get past these conclusions about women AND men. 

  • Dick Wilcox

    How realistic do you think the following scenario could be? Think it over before you answer.“HELLO! I am Chris Hansson and welcome to Catch A Pedophile. Today we have a young New York City Police Cadet named Heather who will be helping us get evil vile child predators off of the streets! Heather will turn 18 in just 10 days. We have Heather on the beautiful day in Central Park, laying on a towel by a fountain, with our hidden camera’s watching. Also watching are 50 NYPD officers.OH! There she goes. Our 17 year old Heather is taking off her shorts… and there goes her top! As you can see Heather is now wearing a very small thong and nothing else, which as you all know, is now perfectly legal! The jail bait has been set in our trap!Ah, it only took a few minutes for us to lure our first pedophile. Wait… wait… I think… YES HE IS TAKING A PICTURE OF OUR YOUNG HEATHER! And now he is taking another one! Watch as our NYPD officers spring into action and arrest this sick individual for POSSESSION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY! Remember, Heather doesn’t turn 18 for 10 days. But with the new freedom of nipples laws, she is free to be topless in public. Uh oh! There is another man with a cell phone… I think… wait… YES WE HAVE CAPTURED ANOTHER PERVERT! This man just sent an image of Heather, the poor innocent child that she is, and her bare breasts to a friend in Denver! Oh this sicko is looking looking at federal time for transmitting child porn over state lines, and his friend in Denver will be getting a big surprise from the FBI!”Do any of you think this is out of the question?

  • Jodi MacLaughlin

    Is it legal to go topless say.. in the maritimes. All the articles I’ve seen mension just ONT.. what about Nation-wide?

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