We shouldn't shame parents who let their kids go topless

"'Do kids have to be dressed when they’re outside?' my daughter asks me. I told her it’s a bit complicated."

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Anna takes a dip in the wading pool. Photo: Tara-Michelle Ziniuk

Yesterday was a particularly windy day in Toronto. After picking up my four-year-old daughter, Anna, from school, we went down to the lake to have a picnic together. Walking across the bridge to the lake involved a frustrating balancing act of picnic supplies, sand toys, her backpack and my purse—all while holding my dress down in the wind.

This dress-in-wind situation, which Anna noticed was testing my patience, led to a conversation about how adults need to be dressed in public. (Or how they usually do anyway. As we prepare for Pride this weekend—which Anna calls the “glitter party”—she recalls that public nudity happens on occasion and is celebrated within certain contexts.) “Do kids have to be dressed when they’re outside?” she asked me. I replied that kids usually do, but babies don’t have to. I told her it’s a bit complicated. Anna had a more specific question: “How about when I’m putting my bathing suit on at the park? Is that OK?”

Since the splash pads near us opened for the summer, I’ve noticed her uncertainty about changing in public. That hadn’t been an issue in years past. I have mixed feelings about having her change in the park. Mostly, I think it’s fine—or should be—but I also worry about judgment from other parents, and I worry that it may not be entirely safe. I do it because I don’t want to shame my daughter about her body or about nudity in general. I also do it for pragmatic reasons—I often keep a bathing suit or extra clothes with me in the summer because these activities often happen unplanned. Park bathrooms, for the most part, are disgusting at worst, wet at best—and it just makes more sense to change her quickly in the park.

I came across an article from CBC News. An eight-year-old girl from Guelph, Ont., was told to put a shirt on in the wading pool—a rule that doesn’t apply to boys and that her parents claim is sexist. I noticed it at first because Exhibition Park, the park and wading pool where the incident took place, is where Anna and I often go. (I used to live in Guelph, so we still spend time there.) It also seemed timely, given the conversation I’d just had with her last night.

I have mixed feelings about my daughter being topless in public (in a prolonged way, not just while changing clothes). I sometimes think about letting her go into the wading pool in just shorts, and I definitely allowed it during her baby and toddler years. I know that if we lived out in the country, I would be all for her being in various stages of undress outdoors and as often as she wanted (with precautions taken for sun protection, of course). But as it stands—living in the world we do, both the city and time—I worry about her safety.

I post a lot of photos of my daughter on social media, but I’m careful not to post full-body bathtub photos—as cute as they are. The other day, I noticed that her underwear was visible under her dress in a photo I particularly liked and I opted not to share it. For me, this is about it not getting into the wrong hands or being taken out of context. It’s a small measure, but it’s a line I’ve drawn. In various online versions of this news story out of Guelph, commenters are up in arms over the possibility of creeps taking photos of this eight-year-old girl. I’d be behind this, except that taking photos at public pools (including wading pools and splash pads)—in my experience anyway—is forbidden. These pools are staffed and have parents present, so anyone taking photos should be stopped at once. Even excited parents, visiting with small children, are told to put their phones and cameras away.

With adults, I think the idea that women should cover up to avoid “provoking” men is both sexist and victim-blaming. I think the same applies to children, but it’s more complicated because kids aren’t giving informed consent. With kids, it’s up to their parents and caregivers. So, how do I keep my daughter safe and act in her best interest while actively trying to fight against these structures that put women and girls in danger?

I absolutely agree with these parents that being approached about their daughter being shirtless could cause her unnecessary embarrassment. And I believe this decision should be up to her parents. If, in fact, it’s a standing rule and the rules are visible and clear, the girl breaking the rules is less subjective—but the fairness of the rule still is.

In parts of Canada—and in Ontario, specifically—it’s legal for women to go topless. But, oddly enough, this rule doesn’t apply in public parks. Much of the legal precedent regarding women and toplessness, in fact, stems from a case that began, coincidentally, in Guelph. Nearly 25 years ago, a university student named Gwen Jacob was charged with indecency for going shirtless on a very hot day. She took her top off because of the heat, and also to make a statement about the double standard of men being able to go shirtless. The person who complained about her being topless was a local mom who was worried about her children seeing the young woman. Jacob ultimately won in court. There’s something jarring about reading this story now, a quarter-century later in the same relatively small town, where a girl’s right to be shirtless is called into question—this time, in the case of a child.

Admittedly, Anna isn’t eight yet. If asked right now, I think I would have reservations about her being shirtless in public at that age. These reservations aren’t political, though, and ultimately I wish it weren’t an issue. Ask me again in a few years, but for now I’m sticking with this: If kids aren’t hurting anyone, let their parents make their own decisions about their choices.

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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