Picture the scene: You’re sunbaking on a secluded stretch of beach with your boyfriend. Nobody is around, so you decide to remove your bikini top and work on your all-over tan. Did you just break the law? Or do conservative ninnies need to mind their own damn business?
Topless bathing image from Shutterstock
While it is socially acceptable for men to sunbathe topless, there is still a stigma attached to women who choose to indulge in the same practice. This has rankled women’s rights activists who find the double-standard to be (literally) suffocating. After all, why should one set of nipples be smothered in clothing while the other set gets to bask in the open air?
Australia’s obsession with what women can and can’t wear at the beach stems from the recreational bathing boom of the 1930s. For decades, beach inspectors would patrol the dunes, meticulously measuring the swimsuits of female bathers to ensure public decency was being adhered to.
Unsurprisingly, the first woman to wear a bikini on Bondi Beach was ordered to change by Waverley Council members. If newspaper reports of the time can be believed, the woman was also charged with offensive behaviour — a tough price to pay for risque trend setting.
As recently as the 1960s, lifeguards could forcibly remove bathers from NSW beaches for dressing “immodestly” under Ordinance 52 of the Local Government Act. (This wasn’t limited to topless bathers either: a wide range of commercially available swimsuits were also deemed immodest.) In 1961 alone, 75 female bathers were ejected from a single beach because their swimsuits did not conform to regulations.
It was an unfair law that targeted body shapes as much as clothing. A voluptuous or long-legged woman could find herself in trouble for wearing the same style bikini as countless other bathers. For women with a liberal attitude to their bodies, it was doubtlessly a frustrating time.
Eventually, Ordinance No. 52 was replaced with a less restrictive rule that simply required bathers to be clad in a “proper and adequate bathing costume.” As with obscenity laws, there is no precise definition of what a “proper and adequate” swimsuit entails. The answer varies widely depending on the group or community being asked.
So is topless bathing legal in Australia? Technically, yes. Each state’s indecent exposure laws are restricted to the genital area — as long as your hooha and/or budgie is covered up, the police don’t care what else you show off.
However, this doesn’t mean you can bathe topless anywhere you please. Many local councils impose their own rules when it comes to nudity, particularly in public pools. While they can’t actually charge you for being topless, they can ask you to cover up or leave the premises, just like those prudish beach inspectors from the 1930s.
Thankfully, this tends to be less of an issue on public beaches. Most beach authorities turn a blind eye to the occasional bared breast, regardless of what their house rules imply. If you remain in the general vicinity of your towel, going topless is unlikely to warrant any attention from life guards.
With that said, there are still some issues to be mindful of. For example, don’t be surprised if you end up on the internet courtesy of some passing creeper or grotty paparazzo — technically, you don’t need permission to take photos of a stranger’s breasts if they are in a public space. You may also draw the ire of parents and older bathers who feel your boobs are an affront to society. Fun times.
While you aren’t breaking any laws, it might be better to hit one of Australia’s nude beaches if you’re keen to indulge in some topless sunbathing. Oh, and above all else, remember to slip-slop-slap! (Well, maybe just slop and slap.)