Seattle Officials Reconsider Ban on Topless Breast Cancer Survivors in Swimming Pools
On a cold morning in February, breast cancer survivor Jodi Jaecks walked into the Medgar Evers Pool in the Central District to swim a few laps. Several women in her breast cancer support group had recommended the public pool for its warm temperature and low chlorine levels. And as a lifelong athlete, she was eager to reclaim her fitness after months of ill health. So she took the tour, checked out the locker rooms, and then politely warned the desk manager she planned on swimming topless.
Jaecks didn't think it would be a big deal. A bilateral mastectomy in 2011 left her as flat-chested as a child, and two thin scars now cut across her chest where her nipples once lay. There is simply nothing left to cover up.
Still: "I wanted to be respectful by making them aware," 47-year-old Jaecks says.
But swimming topless—breasts or no—was a big deal for the city. She was told she couldn't swim that day.
Jaecks tried explaining to the Seattle Parks and Recreation officials that she suffers from nerve pain across her chest and neck, which is a common side effect of mastectomies. "It burns all the time—a pretty searing, intense pain," she says. Wearing post-mastectomy swimsuits, which often feature extra material for prosthetic breast forms, is simply too uncomfortable. Further, she is part of a growing population: Jaecks is one of roughly 1,200 women in this state annually who have their breasts removed and choose not to have reconstruction surgery.
But the parks department, which maintains the city's 10 public pools, insists that Jaecks is simply trying to be shocking and subversive.
"She made it clear she wanted to show her scars as a 'badge of courage' and wanted to use the pool to spread her message," says parks spokeswoman Dewey Potter.
The parks department posts a dress code at each public pool that says women must wear tops and bottoms. Potter explains that bathing suits must be "appropriate at a family facility," ensuring that people from different cultural backgrounds feel comfortable swimming. Jaecks was told that her topless body would disrupt the family-friendly environment.
After weeks of waiting for the parks aquatic manager to address her request, Jaecks was once again told she wouldn't be welcome unless she wore "gender appropriate swimwear."
As a lesbian who describes herself as "pretty androgynous," Jaecks is offended. She wants to know how the rules apply to transgender swimmers. "A transsexual would wear a bathing suit of the gender he or she is at the time of using a pool," says Potter.
As Jaecks points out, if she were to dip into Medgar Evers Pool with the exact same body but called herself a dude, her naked chest would not be considered offensive or anti-family. But because she's a woman, parks officials told her that if swimsuit tops are too painful, she should try swimming in lightweight fitness tops.
"This clearly reflects how politicized women's bodies and breasts are in our culture," says Dr. Patricia Dawson, a breast surgery specialist at Swedish Medical Center who called the policy both "stupid" and "incredibly misguided."
Not only misguided, the city's policy is also more restrictive than city law.
"Nudity is not illegal," explains Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. This is why nude sunbathers and free-flapping Fremont Solstice Parade bicycle riders aren't hauled away every year in handcuffs. Streaking, sunbathing, even swimming at public beaches topless is not against the law unless it's "accompanied by behavior that causes a reasonable person affront or alarm," Whitcomb says.
Approximately 4,500 women in Washington State will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute, and roughly half of those women—or 2,250—will have mastectomies. Of those women, only 37 percent will decide to have reconstructive surgery, according to a 2008 study from the American Association of Plastic Surgeons. Which means thousands of women each year are adjusting to living without breasts and learning to love their new altered bodies.
"I'm frankly appalled," says Brittney Stewart, another double-mastectomy breast cancer survivor who occasionally swims topless with her children in Lake Washington. "I'm trying to teach my kids that my body isn't something to be ashamed or afraid of. Policies like this make it much harder."
As for Jaecks, she's not done fighting the rule. "It's good for kids to be exposed to the positive reality—not only of the existence of cancer as a fact of humanity, but also the example of surviving it with strength and spirit intact," she says. "I have no intention of accepting this pronouncement."
UPDATE: Responding to this story, Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Christopher Williams announced on June 20 that he would overturn the policy for Jaecks—and Jaecks alone. Williams will consider future requests from breast cancer survivors with double mastectomies to swim topless only on a "case-by-case basis." While Jaecks says she "never expected that the response would be so quick," she is upset that the rule was construed so narrowly to apply solely to her. More here.
UPDATE TWO: On June 21, Superintendent Williams announced that the city will consider "wholesale changes" to public pool policies. Read more here.
Additional reporting by Joseph Staten.
This article has been updated since its original publication.