Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Gwen Jacob speaks to the media after the Bare With Us Rally in Waterloo, Ont., in 2015.

Hannah Yoon/The Canadian Press

Stéphane Deschênes is the owner of Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park and has taught a course about nudity at the University of Toronto. He has been hosting the The Naturist Living Show podcast since 2008.

Thirty years ago today, 19-year-old Gwen Jacob took off her shirt in the oppressive 33-degree heat in Guelph, Ont. The police were called and Ms. Jacob was arrested when she refused to cover up, even though there was a group of bare-chested men playing sports nearby. She was charged and convicted of committing an indecent act. On Dec. 9, 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the 1991 ruling, thus giving all women in the province the right to be top-free.

Yet despite Ms. Jacob’s victory, little has changed in the three decades since. Women’s bodies are still objectified, and they are often expected to take responsibility for the reaction of others as a result of all types of exposure. The sight of a shirtless woman on a beach or anywhere is still an extreme rarity, societal norms being far more effective at controlling behaviour and attitudes than laws.

Story continues below advertisement

It could be argued, despite some significant advances in equality, that society’s attitudes toward women’s bodies have actually gotten worse. A half century ago it was common for prepubescent girls to wear the same bathing suit as boys. Today, some people are offended by that sight. Indeed, back in 2015, an eight-year-old girl at a public pool in Guelph was told she had to cover up her chest when she took off her shirt to take a dip with her family. Ironically, this sort of misguided attempt to protect children actually functions to sexualize their bodies.

More than ever, our bodies are being objectified, commodified and hypersexualized, and social media has strengthened the pressure to achieve an impossible ideal. Instead of celebrating diversity, we now have digital filters that attempt to make us all look the same. The effect of this airbrushed ideal is that men are now perceptibly suffering from body shame too, as evidenced by the relative rarity of shirtless men in public nowadays. Thirty years ago, men seemed to take off their shirts at every opportunity. It was that nonchalance that Ms. Jacob envied, and that which ultimately led her to defy societal norms. But now it appears neither gender is comfortable being bare-chested – hardly the equality that Ms. Jacob had in mind.

Social-media censorship rules have been amazingly effective at highlighting the absurdity of the way we view female breasts. Male nipples are okay on most platforms, but female nipples are not – except when breastfeeding, because we all agree that’s a good idea. And when portrayed in art – except what is art, and who defines it? And what about women with mastectomies; there is no nipple. Men with large breasts? Women with small breasts? Transgender people? Children whose gender is not obvious?

It’s no wonder that some people choose to shirk all off these arbitrary rules and have come to embrace naturism. Living completely free of clothing allows participants to finally accept themselves as they truly are.

The solution to dissatisfaction with one’s body is not fancy clothing to hide under or, worse, surgical intervention. The most effective solution is acceptance of the incredible body that nature has given us and the recognition that each of us is unique. Nudity in naturism is not the objective. It is the tool that leads us to acknowledge that insight. In 2020, social psychologist Keon West published results of a 51-participant trial that showed “naked activity can lead to improvements in body image” compared to when activities are completed fully clothed.

These results are not surprising to those of us who have studied this century-old movement. When we lose the clothing, we present our authentic selves without the attitudes and false confidence that are associated with the costumes that we use as shields. Our bodies exist for us and not for the visual pleasure or judgment of others. Thirty years ago, Ms. Jacob pushed to change that attitude. She set an important legal precedent and instigated a lot of conversation. But there is still a long way to go before we unburden ourselves of body shame and stop the beauty myth propaganda.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies