Bare With Us
This past weekend in Waterloo (sister city of Kitchener where I live), a few hundred people gathered in a demonstration under the name Bare With Us. It was another story in a summer that has had a few high-profile stories about women being topless in public. This rally was prompted by three sisters being stopped by a police officer and told to cover up when they biked topless last weekend (an extremely hot weekend). When one of the sisters said it was legal for them to be topless and then pulled out her camera to record it, the officer claimed that he was just checking they had sufficient lights. The police department is investigating, but the sister’s greater concern was making sure other women were aware of their rights, so they organized this rally.
There was a similar story in the same week in British Columbia. She covered up even though she thought the officer was wrong, then looked it up later to find out she was right. And there was a story this week about a Walmart employee telling a woman not to breastfeed while she was waiting in line. And there was one in Guelph earlier this summer where a 6-year-old was told she had to cover up after she followed her brothers in taking off her shirt and getting in the splashpad on a hot day. That one’s a little different since it was city property with an explicit rule so the legal right didn’t apply, but it still exposes the underlying problem, maybe even moreso since it’s not like she even had developed breasts.
In Ontario, it has been legal for women to be topless in public since 1996 (B.C. was soon after, with regards to the other story). That was the conclusion of a trial against Gwen Jacob, a University of Guelph student – also not far from here – who had been arrested in 1991 for indecency when she took off her top on a hot day. And yet, it is still very rare for anyone to do the same in the 24 years since Jacob. Is it because they just don’t feel physically comfortable? In some cases, definitely. Many, though, cite that it is because of rape culture giving them negative attention.
I know I’m a man so my opinions here aren’t necessarily as important, but even I felt encouraged by it. I’m not necessarily ashamed of my body. I have very little muscle, but I’ve gotten down to a healthy weight. Overall I’m probably pretty average on the cultural definition of attractiveness. It’s mostly a case that I just wouldn’t even consider it other than maybe on a beach, even when I’m close to fainting from heat. So it was still in (mostly) private, but I spent a bit of time on my balcony without a shirt on since that rally. The sun and the breeze felt amazing. I don’t know why I don’t do that more often.
Where’s the Line?
I know there’s an obvious difference between men being topless and women being topless. Women’s breasts are directly tied to sexual expression in a way that men’s are not. There’s even a biological impulse there, with natural selection drawing us (straight men) to breasts since that means she can support children allowing us to pass on our genes. Yet many other things are found almost universally sexy with a biological natural-selection impulse, such as symmetrical faces.
This is where we get into a fundamental question for those who want to enforce “modesty”: where do you draw the line? For some cultures, a minimum of modesty is to cover everything except your eyes, which helps with the symmetrical face attraction (only women need to cover, of course, even though they are similarly attracted to symmetrical faces). For other cultures, being fully naked is acceptable and maybe even expected in certain situations. I’ve written before about an anecdote with one coworker in the Philippines the same time another was in the Netherlands and how they commented on those differences.
In Canada, in terms of law, we’ve essentially balanced out the expectations. Yet we are nowhere near equal on societal pressures that still pick apart everything a woman is or is not wearing. Equality is a value we should learn from Jesus. “Boobs are private” is not. I hope Bare With Us is a small step toward actualizing that equality and dismantling shame many women experience about their bodies.
Naked and Unashamed
On a deeper point very quickly, the Bible says that Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden “naked and unashamed.” Clothing is associated with shame, something we needed after the fall when we were no longer vulnerable with each other and with God. A friend of mine who was prone to such odd questions once asked a group of us why more Christians aren’t nudists, trying to roll back that element of the fall. He had a point. I’m not suggesting we all jump to being nudists right now. If you’re not comfortable with being topless for whatever reason, of course you shouldn’t be pressured to wear less the same as you shouldn’t be pressured to wear more. This is about freedom to decide for yourself, without shame, the same way a man can.
Give Up Your Clothes
Jesus actually give explicit instructions very similar to Bare With Us in the Sermon on the Mount. He says if somebody takes you to court over your outer garment, give them your inner garment, too. Those were the only two garments people had. It called attention to the person who forced you to be naked, shaming their oppression. Cultural elements are different, but I still think Bare With Us achieved similar in that it showed the problem is with those who are attempting to control women by claiming that control themselves in a public way.