It's been more than 20 years since Gwen Jacob walked topless down a street in Guelph, Ont., and was charged with committing an indecent act. That sparked a court battle that ultimately vindicated her, and the courts ruled it was legal for women to go topless in Ontario.
Just because it's legal to go without tops, however, doesn't mean it's culturally any easier for women to do it now than it was for Jacob in 1991.
"We have a pervasive culture of women being harassed on streets all the time," said Aimee Morrison, associate English professor at the University of Waterloo and frequent commenter on women's issues.
Morrison says many women still fear being harassed, so opt to remain covered. "We very much have a culture of policing what girls and women can and cannot do with their bodies in public spaces, in order to be deemed blameless or appropriately feminine," she said.
On Friday, three sisters in Kitchener, Ont., went for a topless bike ride and say they were stopped by a police officer who asked them to put their shirts back on.
Waterloo Regional Police acknowledge there was an incident involving three topless female cyclists and a police officer, but they wouldn't discuss the incident in detail. The sisters, Tameera, Nadia and Alysha Mohamed (also known as recording artist Alysha Brilla), said they will file a formal complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director over the incident.
It's just the latest incident involving women and girls not wearing tops that has sparked outrage. In June, an eight-year-old girl was asked to cover up her bare chest at a swimming pool in Guelph. After her parents complained that the city's swimming attire policy was sexist and old-fashioned, the City of Guelph said it would review the policy.
- Guelph swimsuit policy under review over topless 8-year-old
- Target baby PJs say boys are heroes, girls can date them
"The law is a little bit more progressive in its understanding of what is and is not indecent between men's abilities to go topless and women's abilities to go topless," said Aimee Morrison,
"But culturally, there is not a norm in Waterloo Region, or in Canada or North America generally where we are used to seeing women do this," she said.
The three sisters plan to hold a rally in Waterloo on Saturday to support the desexualization of women's bodies "with people wearing as much or as little on their torsos" as they might be comfortable with, Tameera Mohamed told CBC.
Pervasive culture of harassment
An informal poll of women in downtown Kitchener revealed what you might expect — women are not keen to embrace toplessness.
"For the most part, I think most of the men out there are respectful, but there's the odd few that may not be so respectful," said Chantal Chartrand. "So that would worry me for sure."
It's a safety issue for her and her two adult daughters in their 20s, she added.
"I just wouldn't feel comfortable doing it," said Morgan Scoyne, who said it didn't make a difference whether it was on a city street or at the beach.
That's no surprise to Morrison, who says women constantly deal with comments on their appearance.
"In rape culture, there's this pervasive idea that women are available always for male attention, and if that male attention becomes really undesirable, that somehow the woman has provoked it," said Morrison.
"I think women are understandably quite wary that if they receive any sort of negative, ogling, leering attention for appearing in public without a shirt on, people will say, 'Well of course, you were asking for it.' Boobs, obviously, right? You did that to yourself," she said.
"Rather than be blamed for receiving attention they don't want to receive, they try to manage the circumstances of their appearance in public so that that won't happen."
Morrison also sees a link between the way people react to women's breasts and the way they react to the current trend of women growing and dyeing their armpit hair.
"When you do those sort of man-on-the-street interviews, the amount of revulsion and horror that people are expressing at the idea that women might have body hair that other people don't want to look at it, you never hear [the same] about men," she said.