The trio stopped by a cop in Ontario, where women going topless has been legal since 1996 – so why did he tell them to cover up?
Men can ride around topless, with no issue. But because of differing societal standards when it comes to what’s acceptable for men and women’s bodies, it’s slightly more difficult for women to pull it off.
Despite the fact that being topless in public has been legal for the women of Ontario since 1996, a policeman wrongly stopped three Canadian sisters for riding their bikes without shirts on. According to the women, he didn’t even seem to know if it was legal or not, he just didn’t like it.
This, along with another incident in the same area, where a male lifeguard told an eight year old girl to either "cover up" or leave a public swimming pool, spurred the sisters on to organise a topless freedom rally in Ontario called "Bare With Us" which invited all genders, ages and body types to march together.
We spoke to Alysha Brilla, 26 – one of the three sisters and a well-renowned musician – on why she felt the march was so important. Brilla said that the main objective was to raise awareness – "most of the police and a lot of the public didn’t know that it was legal". She also mentioned the importance of introducing the idea of "looking at breasts outside of a sexual context".
Brilla identifies as queer. She makes it clear that she has no problem with people looking at breasts and being turned on by them. But she argues that the fact that this happens shouldn’t dictate whether or not a woman should have a shirt on.
The three sisters received some fairly predictable backlash on Facebook after announcing the rally, attracting comments such as "If you think walking around topless is going to somehow de-sexualise women’s breasts, then I something to tell you – you are going to attract a lot of creeps at this event" and "u need serious help and need to value yourself more". These types of contributions only demonstrate that there’s still a lot of work to be done to shift attitudes.
The Canadian also acknowledged the wealth of support she has received, not only from her family and friends, but online communities too. "The internet has really helped", she told us. "They don’t teach about patriarchy or other systematic forms of oppression in school, you don’t really learn about that."
The event attracted hundreds of supporters, including Gwen Jacob, an activist who was arrested for walking topless in blistering heat over twenty years ago. Jacob is the woman that enforced the law change in Ontario after being fined for indecency in 1991. Jacob spoke to the crowd, alongside Brilla, describing the act of teaching girls to cover up as something that feeds into rape culture.
Brilla wants people to understand that the way we perceive women’s breasts should depend entirely on the circumstance and that as functioning, evolved adults, we need to learn to appreciate that. "Myself and my other sister identify as queer and we obviously are also attracted to women, but can compartmentalise the context of their breasts," she said. "If you are in a bedroom with it, it’s different, it’s not the same".
Brilla continued, "At some point, you just have to say, this is my body, my breasts are not there for other people. You’re not showing off, you’re just doing it because maybe you just want the sun on them, or maybe you just want to feel that freedom. Think about that, rather than what society has pushed into our brain".