Why is a row brewing over toplessness at pools in Catalonia?

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Why is a row brewing over toplessness at pools in Catalonia?
Around 20 women place a formal complaint every year in Catalonia after being told they couldn't go topless at public pools, with rights group estimating it's just the "tip of the iceberg".(Photo by PATRICK BERNARD / AFP)

Catalonia's regional government has reminded local councils that they must allow swimmers to be topless in public swimming pools or face a possible fine.


Following an intervention from the Catalonian Generalitat government, this summer it will be possible to go topless in any public pool in the northern region.

The comes after the Generalitat sent a letter to all municipalities in the region to remind them that "the prohibition of women from using facilities with a naked torso, known as 'topless', constitutes discrimination," in the same way that not allowing access to those who opt for "a bathing suit that covers more parts of their body," such as the full body swimsuit known as the 'burkini', would also be discriminatory. 

READ ALSO: Bare necessities: The rules you need to know in Spain for taking your clothes off

In terms of stipulations on clothing at public pools, the Generalitat specified only that it must "be suitable for aquatic activity," as long as it guarantees hygiene and public health by covering the genitals.

Going topless is protected by law under a 2020 Catalan equality legislation, but local councils in many municipalities across the region had de facto banned topless swimmers and sunbathers from their public pools.

In many areas this was informally enforced, flying in the face of equality legislation, or, because public pools are run by local councils, based on local legislation that contradicted the Generalitat's law. Local councils that ignore the rules could now be fined up €500,000.

READ ALSO: Dare to bare all: Top ten best nudist beaches in Spain

During the summer of 2022, the Generalitat claims that it received several complaints of discrimination at public swimming pools. In July 2022, a woman reported that a lifeguard at the municipal pool in Isona (Lleida) reprimanded her for bathing topless. Writer Bel Olid reported that she had been forbidden from being topless at the public pool in Sant Vicenç de Montalt (Barcelona).

In 2020, a woman was sent home for breastfeeding her son in a municipal swimming pool in Montcada.

The Generalitat decided to send the letter to all municipal councils in March, ahead of the busy summer season and therefore leaving enough time to change any local practices or rules that contravene the equality legislation, making clear that any "municipal ordinances" will not apply.


Banning topless swimmers, the letter claims, serves to "exclude part of the population from access to certain services and violate the free choice of each person over their own body." 

The Generalitat also made clear that local pools cannot prohibit a woman from breastfeeding, or deny entry to "any group due to their ethnic origin," notably groups of young ethnic minority people or gypsy families. 

The intervention by Catalonia's regional body has been celebrated by feminist groups. This letter has been viewed as recognition of work of various groups, led primarily by Mugrons Lliures (Free Nipples), which has campaigned for years to guarantee access for all women to municipal swimming pools, regardless of their clothing.


It remains to be seen if local councils (and lifeguards) across the Catalonia region will take heed of the warning from the Generalitat, or will ignore the superior legislative body and try to bypass the equality legislation with the sorts of continued informal bans seen in recent years.

READ ALSO: Why are Spanish women still bathing topless whilst around Europe women are covering up?

Spain is generally one of the most permissive places for nudism in Europe because public beaches do not need to be specifically authorised as “nudist” but must opt out with the creation of local bylaws. That said, many parts of Spain, particularly smaller towns, can still be quite socially conservative with regards to many things, let alone nudity.

However, in practice you don’t see nudists milling around among families on the beaches of busy resorts. Instead, they usually congregate at the furthest reaches of beaches or on more isolated or hard to reach stretches and coves.


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