This central Ontario city known for being a hip, family-friendly place also happens to be the birthplace of women's rights to go topless in Ontario. On a hot summer day 19 years ago, then-student Gwen Jacobs
took off her top to walk half naked through the streets of Guelph, getting arrested for her daring nudity. Jacobs fought the indecency charges, eventually winning the right for all women to be bare their breasts publicly, if they want, in Ontario.
But even with that right legally enshrined, Top Freedom Day of Pride organizers Andrea Crinklaw and Lindsay Webb say that it still is not socially acceptable for women to go about topless. And that prompted the two University of Guelph students to organize Guelph's first top-free event Saturday.
Crinklaw and Webb wanted to celebrate the right for women to bare their breasts, and Saturday's event allowed women and men to go topless for seven hours in a safe and friendly environment in downtown Guelph. The two had organized for a stream of musicians to play to the participants of the event.
Crinklaw and Webb opened the event urging the crowd to exercise their freedom respectfully. Crinklaw said
"Women we want you to be empowered. Men, we want you to be supportive. And everybody be respectful. This is a safe space for women to be without their shirts. Men you're welcome to take off your shirts too, as you have been welcome to do since the thirties. So we're just taking our right now at this point and we're going to catch up from the Great Depression. So have a great time, enjoy the music and enjoy yourself."
Away from the microphone, Andrea elaborated by saying she wanted people to enjoy their freedom, but also wanted to show children that breasts aren't everything that is portrayed in the media. Lindsay said it was very important for women to feel comfortable with expressing their right to be top-free in public, saying
"I think we have a lot of self-esteem problems as women. I know we had a lot of trouble taking our tops off, but you know what, I feel great now."
The event was well promoted
, even drawing the attention of the Toronto Star
. All that promotion brought out many men who had hopes of viewing bare breasts. Crinklaw said
"If you're here just to see boobs and be creepy, please move on."
The gawkers stayed anyway, but eventually drifted away when they realized there was nothing sexual about the event. However, the empty spaces were quickly filled by newcomers.
Not everyone minded the onlookers. Some of the women who took off their tops said they felt very safe, in spite of the ring of men surrounding the square. At least one man, identifying himself as 'Phil,' freely admitted he had come in part to ogle, but ended up participating instead, even getting his chest painted in solidarity with the women. Enjoying his new found liberty, Phil said societal mores were too restrictive and unhealthy. "Women are trapped, being held down by society and its values and the men are captive as well."
Organizers had hoped to see at least 200 participants at the free event, but during the first few hours, there was only a handful of women who dared to take off their tops, while hundreds of mainly male onlookers filled the square. As the event continued, more participants arrived.
Cynthia and Elaine said they had come out to support Crinklaw and Webb drawn mainly, they said, by a piece in the Guelph Tribune that took the Top Freedom organizers to task for 'not doing something better for mankind.' Cynthia said
"That made me really angry to put that responsibility on women, that they should always be doing something for other people, because that's been women's role traditionally. I say women should have the right to do things for themselves. And this is a good way to counter the shame that's been heaped on women's bodies for centuries.
I don't think there's anything shameful about a woman's body. It's no more sexual than a man's body. When a woman is aroused or a man is aroused, then their breasts are sexual. Lots of times a breast is like an elbow, when you're putting the garbage out a breast isn't sexual, it's a part of your body ... It used to be considered improper to show your ankle, or cut your hair or to show your neck. History changes things."
The event was attended by members of gotopless.org
, who lobby for women's right to bare their breasts. The group is affiliated with Rael
. One follower, Dianne, spoke to the crowd stressing the fact that Canadian women had a right not enjoyed by their American counterparts.
Saying the event was a celebration of gender equality, Dianne said (sic)
"... Canadian women have to inspire and lead the way. In Canada we have gained the immense privilege that many US women have not gained as of yet. But gaining our rights and using our rights is two different things. Women in Canada do not use their right to bare their chests. And when a few of them do, men are gawking."
An unidentified male responded, saying "Not me, baby!"
"Don't get me wrong," Dianne went on, ignoring the comment,
"No one is forced to be topless. It is a right that only you can decide to use or not. But let's make sure that the puritans do not overstep their boundaries by reinstating laws for indecency. In 1991, Gwen Jacobs fought for our rights. She has not fought for nothing.
... my breasts is not dirty. Your breasts is not dirty. Not only are breasts is not dirty, but they are natural, they are beautiful and there's nothing to feel ashamed or guilty about. So we need to show them. All the ladies here today, this is not a beauty contest. This is about our rights, and feel good in your own skin."
Saying "We believe that when you free your breasts, you free your mind," Dianne urged the women to take off their tops. "... So let's do it! ... Do it with me, ladies," she urged while the audience answered back with applause and cheers. Men briefly took up a call of "Freedom! Freedom!" to encourage the women, and when Dianne took off her top, some men could be heard saying "All right."
Some women who came out in support of the event, expressed disappointment that there were so few women chose to bare their breasts, but given the number of men on hand to act as witness to the unique event, it was a brave dozen or so women who freed themselves.
The revelry was scheduled to continue until 10 p.m.