Free the breasts? Yes, please! Reflections on going topless

If you’ve got breasts, walking down the street topless is a pretty big deal. But when we see someone without breasts strolling around shirtless and free, no one bats an eye.

Isn’t it weird that breasts are so controversial when they’re basically nothing sexual?

** This article depicts breasts from the perspective of a cis woman, but the author is aware that breasts can be perceived differently by different people and can cause gender dysphoria in trans men and non-binary people.

topless woman on her stomach topless

Hello, double standard

Whether small or large, round or oval, uneven or mirrored, firm or hanging, breasts are generally considered sexual, even obscene. In our North American culture, people with vaginas are required to hide their breasts in places where people with penises have the right to show their chests. Hello, double standard. 👋🏼

It’s a bit ironic, don’t you think, to sexualize glands whose primary biological function is to feed babies?

Because of that tendency, we live constantly between two extremes: if we cover ourselves too much, we’re Sainte-Nitouches. If we wear too litte, we’re sluts.. But you still have to dress sexy if you want to capture the attention of men (heterosexual cis). But, you know, don’t get carried away! A perpetual game of hide and seek, or rather hide and see . . . this is the paradigm in which we live, and it’s like our bodies belong to everyone but us.

This is also a point Lili Boisvert raises in her book “ The Principle of the Cumshot. .” She denounces the fact that women have to dress in ways that excite men, even if it means sacrificing their comfort (we agree that a pushup bra that shoves our breasts up to our throat and squeezes our rib cage is far from the most comfortable thing).

The ways she sees it, heterosexual sexuality is predicated on treating women like accessories. We’re considered desired objects, not desiring subjects.

How come cis men’s chests don’t cause scandals? For exactly the following reason. Cis men don’t dress to excite, so we were desensitized to the image of their naked torsos. On the contrary, marketing has attributed short skirts and tight dresses to female bodies to awaken the excitement of men (while reinforcing the gender binary).

And while we’re at, let’s talk about the infamous bra. Unlike cis men’s chests, breasts are perceived as sexual largely because we’ve been conditioned to camouflage them under layers of fabrics, lace, and pads. Hiding them just enough has the effect of reinforcing sexual tension.

If we have the crazy idea of leaving our bras in our drawers thereby revealing the true shapes of our breasts and letting our nipples point the way we’re then far too provocative. Gotta leave room for desire!

A major feminist struggle (and a simple desire not to sweat the small stuff)

The censorship of breasts has manifested a sexism that’s been around for ages.

In fact, women’s bodies have always been censored in one way or another, but outside control over them has grown stronger in recent decades.

While women have gained ground in the public sphere, including by gaining the right to vote and to practice a profession distinct from that of their husbands, the patriarchy has retreated and become comfortable in the taboo confines of the private sphere.

And by private sphere, we mean sexuality above all.

“Our bodies belongs to us” is a feminist slogan from the 70s. It’s pretty clear that there’s still a long way to go when we see the page for the march that was organized in Quebec City and Montreal in June, following the case of Éloÿse Paquet Poisson: “Because it bothers us when we take control of our body. . . . FREE THE BREASTS!”

To make a long story short (actually, it’s not so much long as heavy), Éloÿse was stopped by police while enjoying the sun topless in a park. The police reportedly asked her to get dressed, which the young woman refused to comply with, in full knowledge of her rights.

Apparently one of the police agreed that they couldn’t give her a fine. “Techincally,it’s legal,” he reportedly said. And it is indeed legal, hence the irrelevance of police intervention. Can’t we all get along here? A couple breasts living their best lives in the sun isn’t going to hurt anyone.

Anyways, having cis men tell us what to do with our bodies is nothing new. There’s a difference between something technically illegal and something we’ve been taught not to dare to do.

Baring your breasts can be a feminist act. It can also be motivated by the simple desire to avoid a river of sweat running between them when it’s 35ºC.

No matter what motivates the gesture, we always have to deal with the consequences, which is what I’ve been doing so far (imagine me pointing at my breasts).

female breasts

Going topless is legal

There, I said it. Being topless in public is legal. In Quebec as in the rest of Canada, everyone has the right to walk around without clothes on their upper body, as long as it’s not sexual and it’s justifiable to do so.

In other words, the Criminal Code does not expressly prohibit it.

But even when it’s more than justifiable to do so – for example to feed a child – the sight of a bare breast still creates quite a stir.

Think of the case of the Eaton Centre last March, when a young mother was banned from breastfeeding.. There’s still a strong tendency to believe that breastfeeding should take place in absolute privacy, whereas legally speaking, the Human Rights Tribunal found in 2005 thatpreventing a woman from breastfeeding in a public place constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex.

The fight for toplessness isn’t new. Eight years ago, the journalist and author Lili Boisvert went topless on Sainte-Catherine Street, and big surprise: there was no apocalypse. The more we do it, the more normalized it will be. But it’s not so easy to ignore the hypersexualization of our breasts and claim our right not to sweat the small stuff! 🍑

Learning to reclaim our breasts…and our rights

First of all, we’re going to make something clear: No, Micheal, if we walk around topless, it’s not because we’re coming on to you. What we do with our bodies isn’t always (is actually almost never) oriented toward male pleasure.

So how do we reclaim this part of the body that we’ve long been pressured to hide, this part of the body that’s so surrounded by taboo? Everyone has their own ideas based on their levels of comfort and ease, and that’s absolutely the way it should be.

Having said that, here are some ideas you might want to try someday:

  • Leave your bra in your dresser

Once we learn to hide our breasts, we even learn to hide the way they’re shaped. A first step toward the standardization of going topless can be to break up with your bra, whether that’s part time or full time.

  • Topless in nature

Wild forests and lakes are amazing places! Plus, speaking from experience, being topless in nature produces a greater connection to the environment. And what better feeling than fresh water on free breasts?

  • Organize topless gang sessions

A short afternoon at the park chatting or reading topless with friends can be much less intimidating than trying it alone! Power to community!

  • Know your rights

Now, if someone yells at you to cover up, whether they’re a cop or not, you know your rights. And that’s really empowering, right?

Whether or not you’re up for going topless at the beach this summer or ditching your bra, the important thing is that you feel good about your choice. In fact, the important thing is, above all, TO HAVE the choice.

If the title of Sylvie Marchand’s article in La Presse in reaction to the topless controversy was ““Free the breasts? No thanks!”then we say, “Yes, thank you! If that’s what we decide.” After all, breasts are an extension of the heart.

With that, I’m going to read and reread “The Principle of the Cumshot” at Laurier Park with my breasts in the sun so I can make my tan a little more even (and fight for our rights!).

Gabrielle