Guelph swimsuit controversy: When is going topless OK?

Marcy Markusa of CBC's Information Radio and parenting blogger Karyn Pickles discuss the controversy surrounding a city policy in Guelph, Ont., that required girls — including an eight-year-old — to cover up at public swimming pools.

Parenting blogger weighs in on tempest over topless 8-year-old girl and a city's policy

Most of us can relate to stripping off layers of clothing and jumping in the pool on sticky sunny days, especially when we were children. But an eight-year-old girl in Guelph, Ont., was recently asked by a lifeguard to cover up at a public pool. (Associated Press)

Ahhh, summer … there's nothing like it. 

The hot weather brings the joy of hitting the water at a wading pool or maybe taking a day trip to one of the many glorious beaches in Manitoba.

My head fills with images of smiling children being toweled off by their parents on the sand, exhausted from water games and water guns, siblings dancing under raining flowers at Kildonan Park's splash pad, or doing underwater handstands at the beach at Birds Hill Park.

I grew up visiting Sandy Hook, Lester and Grand beaches, all places where memories were made and time seemed to stand still.

I also think of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where dancing under the big prairie sky seems to be a rite of passage for young and old alike, and outdoor showering abounds.

Most of us can relate to stripping off layers of clothing on sticky sunny days and kicking of our shoes to feel the grass in our toes, especially when we were kids.

That was in my mind this week as the debate started to unfold about the story of an eight-year-old girl from Guelph, Ont., who was asked by a lifeguard to cover up at a city pool.

She was topless. She had taken her shirt off, just as her stepbrothers did, to play in the water.  

In Guelph, however, there is a policy that prohibits girls over the age of four from going topless at city pools. 

The girl's father says she was embarrassed at being singled out and there is now a review happening about the regulations.

Parenting blogger weighs in

Thursday on Information Radio, parenting blogger Karyn Pickles weighed in on the story, as so many have across the country.  

"My reaction was that I do feel that it is a sexist rule that the City of Guelph had, and I'm glad that they've suspended it," Pickles said.

"I've written in the past about dress codes being inherently sexist — not necessarily deliberately so, but they are based in our society's standards of modesty, which says that women's bodies in and of themselves are upsetting, that showing too much skin is offensive or is indecent."

She added, "This story grabbed my attention because it brings that issue down to a younger age … to a younger girl who is in no way developed, and whose body is exactly the same as a little boy's at the same age, and puts that on her now as well — that sexualization — and says that her chest is somehow going to upset people, simply because it's female."

I asked her, "What do you say to people who think that having the girl cover up is a way to protect her from predators or pedophiles?"

Pickles replied, "I feel for those people and I have those same fears as a parent ... but a rule that dictates that what somebody wears will protect them from being victimized is problematic. It is victim-blaming in the same way as saying women should not dress provocatively in order to keep from being assaulted.

"To me, if you want to protect a child from predators in a public place like this, you need to focus on the wrongdoer. Instead of asking the child to cover up, you would keep an eye out for, say, an adult who is there with no children or someone who is photographing children who aren't their own child and have the lifeguard approach them. Put them on the spot and embarrass them and not the child."

The embarrassment aspect of the story is something that should not go undiscussed.

I personally felt terrible when I imagined a little girl who went from having a wonderful day in the sun to feeling like something was wrong with her in a simple moment.

When should a young person cover up?

The big question that the story raises, however, is whether or not there is an age when a kid should cover up.

Again, Pickles weighed in.

"I think that comes down to a personal choice. It is your personal preference as a parent whether you would teach your child to let it all hang out, or teach them to cover up, or cover up as they start developing to keep them from being embarrassed about their body changing. But in Canada, legally, women have the right to be topless," she said.

Of course, the discussion with your eight-year-old is likely not starting with the fact that they have a legal right to take their shirt off at the local pool.

My colleague Kim Kaschor has two little girls at home. She was willing to weigh in on the discussion. Kim says it's important to her that her girls don't feel ashamed of their bodies but are aware that changes are happening.

"It's tough to explain, but all of a sudden your kid starts developing and they don't understand why it's cute for their younger sister to run around with a bare bum and not the same thing anymore for them. They do a somersault and it just doesn't look the same, you know?"

Kim agrees with Pickles, however, that it's a careful discussion that parents have to navigate, hopefully before it unfolds in a public place.

"That poor lifeguard," she said. "They were probably some teenager … working at the city pool and following the rules, but the little girl now will likely remember that for her whole life — that uncomfortable feeling that she did something wrong."

Is it body shaming?

Some are now debating whether what happened is in fact a case of body shaming. Karyn Pickles thinks it is. 

"I understand where the debate comes from, because the word shame is so loaded in our culture. I think people misunderstand the concept of body shaming as it pertains to the situation. Because when you hear the word 'shame,' you think that somebody has targeted this girl and said that something is wrong with her body, that she is ugly or fat," she said.

"Those are the words that we associate with shame, and that's not the case. But in the bigger picture, the idea that girls and women's exposed skin makes people uncomfortable or upset, even to the point that one of the city officials said that they have to look out for lifeguards who might be uncomfortable rescuing somebody if their skin is exposed — that is body shaming.

"The idea that skin is so upsetting that a lifeguard might not be able to rescue somebody is body shaming, and it's sex-based because it's only female bodies that are singled out in this way and not males."

What do you think? Will this cause you to have a discussion with your kids this summer? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Information Radio's Facebook page.


Marcy Markusa

Host, Information Radio

Marcy Markusa hosts Information Radio on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM in Winnipeg. Born and raised in the Manitoba capital, Marcy is passionate about the future of our community and loves how it's growing in both confidence and prosperity. She thrives on getting honest and straight-forward answers for listeners and infuses the show with her energetic warmth and sense of humour.


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