The sun is beating down on me hotly. My mouth and body and mind are thick and heavy with the fatigue of so much built-up heat. I’m alone in a public park, sunning and napping on a picnic table. It’s near enough to a main pathway to make me feel nervous about taking off my sleeveless shirt. A long drink of cold water doesn’t help. My shirt is stuck to me, so I begin to unbutton it. Three teen boys appear on the main path, suddenly laughing. My hands drop, almost guiltily.
A swan glides by, wings held aloft like sails, neck held high. Then it rears up, wings flapping, breast pushed forward, almost taunting me. The teenage boys continue on their merry way. I unbutton my shirt and remove it, looking around furtively. If the boys’ voices drop to a whisper suddenly, I’ll know from past experience that I’ve been spotted.
An older couple troll by in a motor boat, and my arms plunge into my sleeve holes. I am just as aware of the ethics of a bygone era as I am of my own safety. If my long hair is loose, I can swing it in front of my shoulders to cover my breasts, but that’s still pretty obvious – and in a breeze unreliable.
It’s not the idea of being seen that bothers me, but the fear that it will lead to an unwelcome approach. In this age when we are all supposed to be equal, the courts have decreed that requiring women to wear garments on the upper half of our torsos while men aren’t subject to the same constriction is biased. But it appears it’s going to take a long time for attitudes and culture to catch up with the law.
Ever since Gwen Jacobs got the laws changed seven and a half years ago I have enjoyed the freedom to dress as modestly in the summertime as men always have: shorts and shoes, the simple recipe for relief on a muggy summer day.
Comments run the gamut: teenage boys boating on lakes up north have been seen to circle around more than once to confirm their first impression, hoot, holler and get a better look. Pubescent boys have tripped on land or crashed their boats into abutments when they crane their necks for too long. Boys of public school age have been heard to announce loudly to their caregivers, “Hey! That lady isn’t wearing a top!” I love being called a lady under those circumstances.
I’m glad to remove my shirt, to relish the warmth of the sunshine and the coolness of the breeze, wherever it is reasonable. I do it all over the city: on the nature paths through the Don Valley, at the Spit, on the Islands or at my community garden plot, as well as out in the country. I’m still reluctant, though, to be shirtless in my van on the roads, either city or country – both because of the distractions it could cause and because a vehicle with a licence plate makes us traceable by any wackos who might not have caught up with the times.
I bare my breasts because it’s natural. I do it because juggling clothing according to the tan lines they create is a pain. I do it because it’s legal and I can. I do it because it’s cooler than even the flimsiest silk blouse – and makes less laundry. I do it because I want you to understand that wearing no shirt does not mean I’m topless in any sexual way.