Photo: Kyla McDonald

Going topless

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By Jacki Burns

It’s nine o’clock on a Monday morning. The only energy you’ve got is being used to carry your hot cup of coffee to class. You slide into the room, late again, trying not to distract any of your peers. But you’re not the one who’s attracting the attention. Your eyes make a beeline for the corner, where all eyes are focused. There, frantically taking down notes as the prof rambles on as usual, is a topless woman.

Thanks to a decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal on Dec. 11 this could become a reality. It is no longer a crime for women to bare their breasts in public.

Although the issue is no longer a legal one, many feel it has become a cultural one, a question of whether or not topless women would be violating the moral dress code. Legally, topless women can walk down main street, enter public buildings, stroll through parks, lay on beaches and even shop in stores unless the owner says otherwise. Although a woman cannot be charged with indecent exposure, she can still be charged with trespassing if she refuses to cover up or leave the private building, said Constable Devin Kealey of the Metro Toronto Police.

If women take ot the streets bare-chested, would this not be seen as a violation of society’s standards of dress? You can be sure people would find some other way of making women feel as if they had to cover up, whether it be through dirty looks or rude comments.

Gwen Jacobs had to put up with this when she walked topless down a Guelph street on hot July day in 1991. She was charged with indecent exposure which carried a fine of $75. She fought this charge to make a statement. Women’s breasts aren’t sexual objects, so if men can walk around topless, so should women.

Even though Jacobs was successful and the law now says women are free to go bare breasted, does this mean society will suddenly back the idea wholeheartedly, and the name calling and dirty looks will instantly disappear?

Jacobs think it’s up to women to dispel the myth that breasts are sex objects and maybe then society would be more open to the idea of a topless women.

After ruling she was quoted as saying: “If we do not wish to be perceived as sex objects, we need to control the context in which we present our bodies as sexual. If we continue to allow society to define our physical bodies as strictly seual, we will never get beyond that limited means of expression.”

It has become women’s responsibility to change the way society views the breast. But is it necessary to walk around topless in order to do so?

It is unlikely many women will take advantage of this new found liberty.

Julia Morneau is a criminal lawyer who said it’s unlikely there are going to be a lot of women baring their breasts. She said Jacobs was obviously just trying to make a point when she lost her short. “I think there’s a very limited number of women who would feel they have to make that kind of statement in our society,” she said.

A similar ruling in New York four years ago saw no mad rush of women exercising the new right.

Psychologist Marion Eales said women, like most men, know walkin through the city streets topless just isn’t morally right. “I just kind of laughed at the politicians getting their knickers in a knot,” she said.

Ontario Premier Mike Harris fears the impact it could have on impressionable young people. According to the Canadian Press, the Premier said he’s never felt it appropriate for women to bare their breasts.

The decision is a symbolic breakthrough for women. The real prize for women may not be the baring of breasts without conviction, but rather knowing they have the same right to do so as men. Women may also be reassured knowing society is gradually accepting the female breast for what it is, a natural part of a women’s body, and not merely as a sex object.

Often overlooked is the female breast’s ability to produce milk. However, women who breastfeed in public have often suffered the same moral convictions Jacobs did. At least now they don’t have the law against them.

The function of the breast too often gets clouded over by the secual connotations that go along with it.

Things have changed dramatically over the years when it comes to what was considered secual about a women’s body. In the 19th century, the sight of a woman’s ankle was considered scandalous. Then there was shock over the sight of a woman’s legs in short skirts. Today, we laugh at such stories — they seem so far in the past.

But will the same hold true for future generations when they look back at our initial reluctance to accept the idea of topless women walking around the streets?

Is the breast drastically different from the ankle or the leg when all three are natural parts of the female body. Perhaps the only reason breasts have more secual meaning is because they are still covered in public. If, over the next 10 years, we become accustomed to seeing topless women, will breasts eventually fall into the same category as legs or ankles?

We may never get a chance to find out. If women aren’t going to jump on the opportunity to go bare-breasted, the question may never be answered.

But should some women decide the decision wasn’t merely symbolic and take to the streets baring all, many men are bound to be googly-eyed for a while. “Men have a tendency to be more easily aroused than women,” said Eales. But she added once men become more used to the idea, they won’t find it sexy anymore. “Mystery is better,” she said.

Nora Egner, a recognized social activist, agrees. “Women are more seductive when they wear see-through clothing rather than going bare-breasted,” she said.

Many people think the issue has been blown out of proportion. Jacobs was hot one summer day and took off her shirt. Sure, there may be more topless women at the beach this summer, but don’t expect to see hundreds of Ryerson students flocking to class half-naked. Realistically, it won’t happen.

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