Dress Code After Mastectomy

Jodi Jaecks is a Seattle woman, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy. She needed to swim for her recovery. A bathing suit top caused her pain.  She had no breast tissue and asked for permission to swim topless.

Jaecks, who has neither breasts nor nipples, says she wasn’t looking for a fight, simply a way to be active and perhaps get some temporary relief for her chest pain.

She was denied.

Why?  There are some clothes that women are just supposed to wear:

“And that’s when they said it was a policy that they required gender-appropriate clothing … regardless if I had nipples or whatever,” Jaecks said. 

And of course, there are the children to think of:

“We’re trying to protect children,” Potter [spokeswoman for the Seattle Parks Department] said. “A public pool isn’t necessarily the place to be carrying out an agenda.”

Eventually, Jaecks was granted an exception to the policy, during adult swims.  The Seattle Times says,

Jaecks says that’s not good enough. She wants the dress code changed for all women with mastectomy scars. She’ll keep on pressing for such a policy change, she says, and Wednesday night was not sure whether she would take advantage of the decision in her favor.

“It’s absurd and ludicrous that they would give one person permission because it puts the onus on a specific person to ask for permission individually,” Jaecks said. “It’s going to be harder for a more reserved, self-conscious woman to have the guts to stand out and be different.”

According to Jaecks

“It started as a personal fitness issue but once they said no to me, it became a far greater overarching political issue,” she says. “I’m hoping this will change their policy,” she told the paper. “Ultimately, I want to remove the stigma that women with breast cancer have to endure. We should be so far beyond that at this point.”

22 thoughts on “Dress Code After Mastectomy

  1. I’m not sure why women without masectomies can’t go topless personally. 2011 was the 20th anniversary of the arrest of Gwen Jacobs for going topless in Guelph, Ontario. From the CBC: “In 1991, Jacob was found guilty of one count of committing an indecent act and fined $75. During her court case, she argued that women’s breasts are just fat tissue, not unlike men’s. But in his ruling, the judge said a woman’s breast is “part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch,” and should not be uncovered in public.
    In 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned Jacob’s conviction, saying “there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her.” Moreover, the court ruled that Jacob did not exceed “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account.” The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the issue, though Jacob’s lawyer had argued that her client had the same constitutional right to go topless as men did.”


  2. If any of my arguments can help anyone, use ’em! (“Bare Breasts: Objections and Replies”)

    It’s interesting that thanks to Gwen Jacobs over a decade ago, it is legal in Canada for women to go shirtless. And yet, NO ONE DOES.

    I have done so on occasion when I’m out kayaking and it’s really hot, and yes, one of the people who live here spoke to me about it. I got the impression she’d been nominated as the one to do so. (And yes, it was a ‘she’.) She too invoked the children thing. She was frustratingly immune to any of my arguments (not the least of which was that I was usually too far from shore for people to even KNOW I’d taken my shirt off – unless they got their binoculars out); as far as she was concerned, it didn’t matter – I made people uncomfortable (best I can tell, b/c I wasn’t conforming to convention) and that was that.

    And, the kicker: she spoke with me after I did it post-bilateral mastectomy. I did it pre-bilateral mastectomy, but she spoke to me only after. As far as I was concerned, doing it after gave me even more of a convincing argument, since I didn’t even HAVE breasts anymore. I asked what they needed to protect the children from – seeing a scar? So a man after a triple bypass shouldln’t go shirtless either? Didn’t make a dent in her thick, frickin thick, skull.


  3. Fascinating, all y’all! Great post and comments. I wonder if it will ever be the case that bared breasts are not deemed offensive in colonized North America. So much has changed over the centuries.

  4. Sorry, I thought I’d already posted my piece at my own blog, but I see that I didn’t. Here it is: (moderator, if it’s too long or too inappropriate to post it here, do what you need to do!)

    In response to the moral outrage about women going shirtless in public, I offer the following.

    1. It’s immoral. Why? What is it about a woman’s breasts that make it immoral for them to be uncovered?

    a. They’re sexual.

    i. If this refers to their role as fast food outlets, well, not every woman’s breasts are – and to legislate against all because of some (and actually a very small percentage at that, at any given time) is unreasonable.
    Further, a McDonalds in Ethiopia is surely more immoral than such a breast in the park.

    ii. If ‘sexual’ is intended to mean ‘sexually attractive’, well, no they’re not. At least, not to me. Nor to any homosexual man I know. Gee. D’ya think this is a law made by and for heterosexual men?
    And actually, by and for only some heterosexual men – I understand that some are ‘tits and ass men’ while others are ‘leg men’. And since it’s not illegal for us to uncover our legs – in fact, baring our legs, wearing dresses and skirts, is encouraged (were the ‘leg men’ in on that?) – the law is inconsistent, at the very least.
    Doubly inconsistent, at the very least, because I find men’s chests sexually attractive, and yet there is no law insisting they cover up. (Well, some men’s chests. As is the case, I expect, even with those ‘tits and ass men’ – surely they don’t find all women’s breasts sexually attractive. And if not, then again, the law prohibits all because of a few.)
    But let’s back up a step. Who determines whether a body part is sexual at any given time or place – the owner of the body part or the other? When I am shirtless on a hot day out on the lake, I’m not considering my breasts to be sexual. When I’m with someone in private and in desire, I do consider my breasts to be sexual. It’s my call.
    And anyway, what if they are sexually attractive? Well, you may answer, men are sexually aggressive; really, it’s for your own protection. Well, I say back, if a man has so little control that I must fear assault whenever shirtless, then I say do something about the man, not my breasts. (Surely the provocation defence is pretty much dead and buried by now.)
    And in any case, that wasn’t the point; the point was it’s immoral for women to go shirtless because their breasts are sexual. But I have yet to hear why sexual is immoral.

    b. The Bible says

    i. – that it’s immoral for women to bare their breasts. Okay, so Jewish and Christian women shouldn’t go shirtless. They don’t have to – I’m not arguing for a law that insists women go shirtless; I’m arguing to eliminate the law that prohibits it. So you’ll still be able to follow your religion; you’ll still get to heaven, don’t worry about it. I, however, don’t share your religion. So why should I have to follow it?

    ii. – that it’s immoral for men to see women’s breasts. Well, this would make it more difficult for you to follow your religion then, wouldn’t it – if women at large were to be shirtless. I guess you’d have to spend a lot of time indoors. But again, I don’t share your religious beliefs. On what basis do you limit my freedom so you can follow your religion?

    2. It’s disgusting.

    a. Not according to me. Why should your aesthetic rather than mine be legally supported? (And while we’re invoking personal aesthetics, what I find disgusting – much to my shame, so I’m working on this – is men’s guts that look nine months pregnant; so to be consistent, there ought to be a law insisting they cover that up.)

    b. Hm. If women’s breasts are disgusting, why is Playboy thriving? (The articles, ah yes, I forgot.) Let’s pursue this for a moment. I’ll bet that the same man who ogles Candy Cane’s breasts in the centrefold would get all upset if Candy Cane did a Gwen Jacobs. Do men have some psychological problem such that they can’t handle the real thing? And is it as boring as the need to control, the need to be the centre of the universe? The real thing is okay in a strip bar, it’s okay if a woman does it for a man, but if she does it merely for herself, well, we can’t have that.

    3. It’s just custom, that’s all.
    ‘That’s all’ is right – appeal to tradition is not sufficient for anything, let alone a law. (We’ve always bashed our babies’ brains out, so let’s have a law saying we must continue to do so. It’s just our way.)

    4. It will lead to topless beaches, then nude beaches, then pretty soon everybody will be walking around buck naked.
    Well, I sincerely doubt it, but – your point? (See 1, 2, and 3 above if all you’re saying is that naked bodies are immoral, disgusting, or contrary to custom.) (Otherwise, check out the slippery slope fallacy: X need not lead to Y.)

    Let’s admit that men have breasts too: women’s are more developed and have the potential to produce milk, but both sexes have two areas of tissue density on the chest, each centered by a nipple.
    Given then that the distinction seems to be based on a difference in development, pre-pubescent girls should be shirtless, by custom, as freely as boys. The custom is, however, that girls as young as two years of age are dressed in two-piece bathing suits – what’s the point of the top piece? Could it be the insane need to differentiate on the basis of sex? Pink and blue, girls and boys, Ms. and Mr. – secretaries and presidents.

  5. “She wants the dress code changed for all women with mastectomy scars”

    Forget mastectomy scars, the dress code should be changed for all people, period. Anything that is appropriate for one person to wear is appropriate for another person to wear, period.

    If I, as a man, can go out in nothing but shorts, then anybody should be able to. If a topless woman is “offensive” or “disgusting” or “a danger to children”, then so is a topless man. The anatomy is the same, the only difference is the relative proportions of the constituent parts.

  6. This should be only an aesthetic choice on the part of the individual. If one is cool with exposing a torso, then everyone else (ideally) should be tolerant of that. So many men in my mid-west USA community choose to go shirtless, despite being what I would call grossly unaesthetically justified to do so, and no police show up while they are mowing their lawns so displayed. We are supposed to be tolerant of that, even though many times I am completely grossed out by the display. I personally am in good shape, and yet I would never, ever go without a shirt for personal aesthetic reasons of what I ‘d call modesty. If accepted norms tolerate that wide discrepancy of taste–and it is of course taste as assessed for men–then women should be treated likewise. Apparently young boys and girls are not thought to be corrupted by the man-boobs in my neighborhood, and not by the flat six-packs and tight pecs of others. Some I like asethetically more than others, but the law should not be the arbiter of that, and the law allows that I should be that arbiter of whether I am shirtless and tolerant of those that make an opposite choice. This in light of the effects of disease only makes me sicker.

    A comparison based on a real case (right now). A man (mentally challenged and a worker at a local supermarket as cart jockey) has a disfiguring cancer develop on his face due to years of sun exposure, and has drastic surgery amd radiation that leaves him badly damaged facially and, as many react to him, quite repugnant asethetically. Yet the supermarket–to its credit–continues to employ him even though his radical disfigurement is unsettling to many customers. (I just talked with him recently, and he has great courage, as does the person in this blog case, and so I see them comparable in that way, though my cart-guy is far, far more disfigured as I would judge.) The supermarket thinks–rightly–that appearance does not disqualify the right to be employed and placed before the public.

    Men may display torsos with whatever aesthetics they have and against my own preferences of such. People with radically disease-induced somatic distortions may be legitimately exposed to the public and against aesthetic taste of many, with which I and apparently private industry agrees. The person in this blog case is a not-very-radical case of an exposed torso that only transgresses mere gender-defined norms of dress, and that seems silly titrated against what we accept for men and what we accept for consequences of disease as matters of morality and aesthetics. The result is the difference for her case is mere sexism, pure and simple.

  7. Funny anecdote: I’ve been swimming at a beach in Ontario with a friend who swims topless. She’s quite obvious in that she has long hair and breasts. The only comment I’ve gotten (twice) is being asked what part of Europe we’re visiting from! Australian beaches sometimes have a family section where no one is topless and a regular section where it’s mixed, from full on haz mat suits (due to sun dangers) to just bikini bottoms for women.

  8. In Spain there are plenty of topless women at the beach. And you know what the children think? They really don’t even care– or notice. (After all– beach! sand! waves!)

  9. My own instinct is to agree with the sentiments raised on this post. But, in good philosophical style, let me raise a contrarian point and see if it can be defended.

    Grant that there are no obvious arguments for proscribing women’s toplessness and permitting it by men. Grant, even, that negative attitudes about topless women likely stem from some icky patriarchal origin. Okay. Still, people have those attitudes. Some people are genuinely made uncomfortable by exposed breasts. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way they are, and their discomfort is sincere and genuine.

    Now, there are other cases where we, as feminists, accept that certain reactions of discomfort are to be respected and sometimes accommodated, even when we cannot personally understand these reactions. Consider recent discussions about the word “blind” in the phrase “blind review” (to describe journal peer review processes). Some have suggested that this use of “blind” may be received as pejorative by people with visual impairment. I don’t understand this claim – it’s not clear to me why “blind” is negative in this context. But I’ve accepted that my inability to understand the possible offense is just irrelevant. If there’s some possibility that people are troubled by the word, and it’s just as easy to use another word (e.g. “anonymous review”), then that’s what we should do. The same applies to lots of other offensive terms – it’s just gauche to go on arguing about one’s “right” to utter such words, demanding an argument for their offensiveness, when it’s a plain fact that exposure to these words causes genuine discomfort in some people.

    What is different about the genuine discomfort that some people apparently experience upon confronting exposed women’s breasts? In principle, I’d say, absolutely nothing. Presumably the origins of breast-discomfort and slur-discomfort are different, but I don’t see why this would be relevant to assessing the actual experiences of people who have no responsibility for the attitudes’ origins. So we shouldn’t mock this reaction. And if we can accommodate the reaction at minimal cost, we ought to do so. Obviously, that phrase “at minimal cost” is pretty important. Jodi Jaecks’ case certainly doesn’t look like one of minimal cost. This argument does not entail that she ought to comply with the Parks Department’s rule. And “minimal cost” really is minimal — if it’s really really hot out and removing your top would relieve you of great discomfort, then I don’t think you are obligated to stay covered just to spare the emotional discomfort of those around you.

    On the other hand, if you’re going topless only to make a point, you ought to reconsider. Making your point necessarily entails causing innocent people genuine discomfort. Maybe that can be justified, if you think you really are contributing to a gradual change in attitudes. But you shouldn’t be cavalier about this; there needs to be a real chance you’re making such a difference. Meanwhile, we shouldn’t mock the reaction itself, or the people who have it.

    The argument above seems to me consistent with feminist principles, possibly even a natural consequence of them. I think it has fairly limited practical import (per the “minimal cost” qualification). But it does bear on how we discuss things like this.

  10. “It’s interesting that thanks to Gwen Jacobs over a decade ago, it is legal in Canada for women to go shirtless. And yet, NO ONE DOES.”

    In New York State it’s legal for women to go topless anywhere that men may go topless. Because of this you sometimes see topless women sunbathing on “normal” (i.e., non-nude) beaches or in Central Park or the like, but not that often. Without a critical mass, I suspect, the act draws more attention than most people would want. (Amusingly, the law changed to this (in the later 90’s) after a protest where a group of women marched topless from Canada into New York State at Niagara Falls.

  11. Yeah, Jender, I think the appeal to children is a paper tiger.

    And Dorothea, by your discomfort argument (Canada’s Ethics Officer, Leon Kass, makes a similar appeal to repugnance argument) justifies burkas because the men are uncomfortable seeing women’s faces etc.

    And since gender-differentiated dress supports/encourages gender-differentiated everything else, the cost is never minimal, however superficially minimal it may be.

  12. Wait, when the h*ll did Leon Kass become CANADA’S ethics officer? Seriously? WTF? Genuinely confused.

    Also, ptittle – I think you should probably update the Playboy argument. Is Playboy (or any other hard-copy porn source) actually still thriving? Regardless, one nice thing about the 21st century is that when we look at porn on the internet (surely where 99.999% of porn is looked at) we no longer pretend it is ‘for the articles’ or anything. One goes to a porn site to look at porn. I do find that contemporary honesty refreshing.

    But back to the much more important Kass point. My head is exploding so someone explain please.

  13. I can’t find any internet trace of Kass having any Canadian connection at all…

  14. so sorry, ‘nother oops. He was Chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics. I read the Canadian report on NRTs at about the same time as I read his repugnance paper re cloning…. (But honestly, do you really think there’s much difference between Canada and the U.S.? ;-) ) sorry for the exploding head.

  15. dear peg tittle,

    It’s not clear that the argument I described would “justify” the donning of burqas. For that to be the case, it would have to be true that (a) the men in question experience genuine, sincere discomfort at the sight of women’s faces and (b) that wearing a burqa imposes minimal costs on women. Part (b) is likely to be false in virtually every conceivable case, and part (a) is questionable as well – there are positive reasons to be suspicious of claims to sincere discomfort by these men. So burqas are not really relevant here.

    I don’t think my argument is similar to that of Leon Kass. If I remember correctly, he claims that repugnance expresses some form of traditional wisdom, and that we should regard our own repugnance at some act or state as indicative that the act or state is problematic. In effect, repugnance has evidential value in deliberation. I don’t claim anything like that. Indeed, I’m most interested in cases where the discomfort in question is precisely lacking in (apparent) justification or evidential value. On my argument, discomfort is important merely because it is discomfort, not because it indicates anything else.

  16. FWIW, yes, ptittle, I find it nearly unimaginable that Canada would choose Kass as its ‘ethics officer’, and most US presidents wouldn’t have chosen someone quite that, er, ‘repugnant’ to lead the bioethics commission either. But most shocking and disturbing to me was the idea that Canada would import an American with no particular knowledge of the local concrete context to be their (our) ‘ethics officer’. (Is there really a single ‘ethics officer’? How odd.) Anyhow, glad we sorted that out.

  17. Dorothea, I thin repugnance and discomfort both reduce to appeal to tradition, habit, custom. Another point – discomfort is often a necessary prerequisite for change: cognitive dissonance.

    Rebecca, Ignatieff! (and, no, I don’t believe there is a single ethics officer – I was using language far too carelessly.)

  18. I’ve met Leon Kass, and Michael Ignatieff, you are no Leon Kass.

    (All joking aside, c’mon, Ignatieff is a Canadian and a liberal. I don’t like him either, but let’s get serious.)

  19. When/How did I say I was Leon Kass? I would NEVER say such a thing. Now it’s my brain that’s exploding!

    As for the Ignatieff comment, my suggestion was that he was quite American – according to negative campaign ads, he lived in the U.S. for 20 years before returning to Canada to run for office and in that time openly referred to the U.S. as his country.

    But, back to Jaecks, I read on Twisty’s site (I think) that they may have already changed their policy?

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