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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.

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.

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