Fiona Tapp is an Ottawa-based writer.
The very first time I met my husband-to-be, I was topless. In fact, the first time I met my in-laws, I was topless.
Let’s be clear: I am not a shameless exhibitionist or some sort of naturist hippy. But I am British, and I was on a beach vacation in balmy Cuba at the time.
Long thought to be a reserved and prudish bunch, Brits are actually a lot more progressive than most North Americans. In fact, every beach vacation I have ever taken – whether on les plages de France, secluded Greek coves or at Caribbean resorts – British women of all ages and sizes, on the whole, have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to slip off their bikini tops.
It’s so expected and commonplace that nobody pays any attention whatsoever. I’ve often felt like the beach is the only place where women’s breasts are ignored – and that can feel truly liberating.
In fact, even the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, has been known to sunbathe topless when holidaying on private and secluded French or Caribbean resorts. And if it’s good enough for the future queen consort, well then.
However, whenever I have brought the topic up with my Canadian friends, they have looked aghast and whispered in hushed tones that, no, they would never do that.
A similar reaction was felt when Groupe Calypso Valcartier, which runs several water parks in Ontario and Quebec, recently amended its regulations regarding women going topless after a human-rights complaint was settled. The ruling was in line with a 1996 decision in which Ontario’s Court of Appeal ruled that women could be topless in public because breasts were not to be considered obscene.
The public feedback was not positive, with commentators expressing concern that their children might be scarred for life or their husbands corrupted at the prospect of seeing a pair of breasts in the wild. The truth of the matter is that, as much as we wish it weren’t so, women’s bodies are hypersexualized and politicized at every turn.
Women are judged on the size of their breasts, on whether they wear a bra or what type of bra they wear. They are judged on whether or not they choose to breastfeed, then on how they nurse and if any part of their breast or nipple is visible while feeding their baby. At the same time, headless images of breasts are used gratuitously to advertise everything from burgers to perfume.
Why isn’t there the same strong reaction to exposed male chests? The typical response seems to be that men’s chests are not sexual, but I beg to differ. Have these people never seen Chris Hemsworth frolicking on an Australian beach in nothing but board shorts?
As an equal-opportunity bare-chest fan, you might think I would be packed and ready for a day at the water park after this ruling. But I don’t think I would go topless at a Canadian water park. It would feel like taking my top off in the street – legal but a bit odd.
Much of the appeal of topless sunbathing, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s part of the freedom of a vacation, a break from your normal life and there ought to be a really pretty ocean view to point your nipples toward.
Whether or not you feel comfortable with seeing someone else’s breasts as you line up for your turn on a death-defying water slide is beside the point. It’s as legal for women to bare their chests in public as it is for men. Breasts are just another body part – and shouldn’t provoke such a hysterical or puritanical reaction.
Despite the outdated caricature of a foppish Hugh Grant stuttering and embarrassed, the British are actually really open and laid-back when it comes to topless sunbathing, and perhaps that’s simply due to our proximity to so many beautiful European beaches and the anonymity that comes from baring all abroad, where nobody knows your name.
So, go on, my lovely, shy Canadian friends. Whether at a busy water park or on a more secluded beach, make like the British: Keep calm and take your top off.