Nearly 25 years after a woman strolled through the streets of Guelph, Ont., to win the right to walk topless, an eight-year-old girl who took her shirt off to take a dip in a wading pool was told to cover up by municipal staff in the southwestern Ontario city.

Cory McLean said his daughter Marlee and three step-brothers all stripped to the waist Saturday, but only she was told to put on a shirt by a lifeguard, who cited city policy that prohibits girls over the age of four from going topless at city pools and splash pads.

The girl, who didn't understand why she was being singled out, put her top back on so she could continue playing, he said.

"She was so embarrassed and really nervous and scared because it appeared she was in trouble," McLean said.

Marlee broke a "sexist and antiquated" rule, said her dad, who called for it to be changed.

City officials said the policy is meant to balance the safety and comfort of everyone using public facilities such as pools.

The policy specifically applies to enclosed or fenced-in indoor pools, outdoor pools, wading pools and splash pads, which are supervised by city staff.

"Essentially, the policy was put in place because not everyone has the same comfort levels with females being topless," said Kristene Scott, general manager of parks and recreation for Guelph, in an interview with CBC News.

"The city's challenge is to balance the safety and comfort of everyone at our facilities, moms, dads, kids of all ages and our staff, including our lifeguards and our swimming instructors."

Scott said the city stands behind the policy, which she believes came into place around 2012.

'People have varying views'

"Our policy was never intended to offend anybody or make anybody feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. If that little girl in this situation has felt that way, we sincerely apologize for that," said Scott. 

"Again we're back to trying to balance the needs and desires of everyone and ensure everyone feels comfortable. People have varying views whether toplessness is appropriate or not."

While the rules are in effect for a fenced-in area, they do not apply to a couple of the city's splash pads that are not enclosed by a fence and are not supervised. Scott said the policy protects staff as well.

"All of our enclosed areas are supervised, and this is for the safety and comfort level of our staff as well, who may need to touch participants if they are in need of assistance," said Scott.

"In this case, the rights of our city employees to have a safe work environment, the rights of other users of the pool, splash pad and the right to [use the facilities] comfortably have to be balanced against someone's rights to be topless."

Scott said city policies are automatically reviewed when such incidents occur and staff are looking at best practices in other municipalities.

When the rule was first proposed in Guelph city council, officials said topless women who refused to cover up at public pools would be asked to leave, but if that didn't work, that would be the end of it.

A 1996 Appeal Court ruling granted women the right to bare their breasts in public after Gwen Jacob, a 19-year-old Guelph university student, was charged with committing an indecent act when she walked home shirtless on a hot summer day five years earlier.

Her lawyer had argued Jacob was being punished for doing exactly what men do. Police had acted on a complaint from a mother whose young children had seen Jacob walking without a top.

With files from CBC News