Note: This Q & A was originally one of my brief answers about male body issues. But the answer was a little longer than a brief response, so I removed it from that post, added a little more text and additional images, and made it this independent article. I’m posting the expanded version on May 13, 2021. The Center for Disease Control just lifted the COVID-19 mask recommendation for all outdoor and indoor activities for all persons who have been fully vaccinated. If you haven’t been jabbed, get your shots! Spring is here. The days are getting warmer. Men’s shirts will be coming off with greater frequency. Let it be a sign of celebration.
So, a year ago, on May 31, 2020, this question was asked:
As summer comes during this time in which we have been shut in due to COVID-19, I look forward to getting outside. I’ve already noticed this spring some men riding bikes and walking through parks shirtless. Maybe it’s an expression of freedom during this time of confinement. I’d like to join them. As I get older I find that I like being shirtless outdoors more than I did previously. Maybe it’s a reminder of my boyhood when I played shirtless outside during the summer. But I admit that I’m a bit modest about baring my aging body in public, except on the beach or at a pool. Also, my wife makes comments about seeing older men “spoiling the landscape,” as she says, by showing their bare bulging bellies. That’s not very encouraging. She thinks male shirtlessness should be limited to boys. Young men who work out would be okay too. Why do men go shirtless in public anyway? Where do you think it’s appropriate? Where is it inappropriate? Thanks for your reflections on this.
Frank answers: Yes, as summer comes, especially during the pandemic, we need to get outside, remove those shirts, feel the warmth of the sun, and soak up that vitamin D. Male shirtlessness should not be restricted to a certain age.
All ages need the sun.
Your question raises a general issue about male shirtlessness in public in an otherwise clothed society. Let’s grant at the outset that many women don’t appreciate seeing men going around shirtless, except maybe on the beach or at the pool, where it’s definitely appropriate. And let’s also recognize that there are many men who don’t want to be shirtless in public, sometimes not even on the beach or at a pool. You hear negative comments from your wife and you have your own sense of modesty about male shirtlessness in public. It might be worth exploring where this sense of excessive modesty comes from. It can come from your family upbringing or just from a sense of dissatisfaction with your body (perhaps in comparison with other bodies). But norms of modesty vs. nudity are also culturally ingrained and subject to social enforcement through laws.
Let’s take the assumption that men can be shirtless on the beach or in swimming pools. Actually, up through the 19th century men and boys usually swam naked. This is portrayed in “The Swimming Hole” (1884-85) by American painter Thomas Eakins. He took several photographs of young men swimming in a swimming hole in 1884 that served as studies for the painting. This is one of them.
Nude swimming was acceptable in rural America, but in urban society where people live in close proximity to one another they generally preferred to maintain the social boundaries that clothing provides. When urban beaches were developed in the late 19th century, men had to wear bathing “suits” that included tops and bottoms, This was to protect female modesty, not male modesty. Maybe women got used to the idea that they shouldn’t have to see naked male bodies in public. As late as the 1930s men could be arrested for public indecency by swimming shirtless on a public beach. Male nipples as well as female nipples had to be covered.
This changed quickly as men appeared shirtless on movie screens. By the 1940s it was common for men to swim shirtless on beaches and in public outdoor pools. Of course, in indoor pools in high schools, YMCAs, health clubs, etc. it was customary for boys and men to swim nude up through the 1960s. (See Frank Answers About Swimming Naked.) But after World War II men displayed more skin in their public outdoor swimming attire.
By the 1980s bikini’s were introduced for men as well as women. While these were worn in swim meets, they didn’t catch on for men in general in the U.S., although they were common in Europe and Latin America.
There may still be some lingering attitudes from this Victorian predilection to “cover up” the body in public. Most men don’t appear shirtless in public venues other than at the beach or a pool. I wouldn’t attribute it only to male shyness, although there is that. But it’s also a matter of conforming to social norms. It’s a social norm that you can walk shirtless on the boardwalk by the beach, but not down Main Street. Not that being shirtless on Main Street is necessarily illegal; it’s just deemed inappropriate. That, however, may be changing (see below).
I think your perception about a desire to return to your boyhood as you get older is correct. We tend to remember our earlier years more vividly as we age. When we retire from our jobs we’re not always thinking about the next thing on our agenda. Memories that have been stored away get more breathing space and begin to come to the surface. We senior men also notice our body’s aging and think back to when we were in the bloom of youth. Musculature is atrophying and the skin is wrinkling. Those of us of a certain age might remember summer days with our buddies and the crazy things we used to do. And, yes, we were usually shirtless:
Out riding our bike…
…at summer camp.
I would point out, however, that there is a health benefit to exposing your skin to the sun for both men and women and for people of all ages. Direct exposure to the sun enables the body itself to produce vitamin D, which is important in strengthening the body’s immune system for fighting disease, as well as producing strong bones by allowing the intestines to absorb calcium. Older people especially need more vitamin D and should get more direct sunlight. Many retire to the sunbelt just for that reason. There’s been a tug-of-war between dermatologists who warn against getting skin cancer from too much exposure to the direct light of the sun and health experts who recommend at least a few minutes of exposure to the sun every day. (You can’t get too much vitamin D the natural way like you can with supplements.)
Many of us can’t spend our days at the beach or an outdoor pool. But men can remove their shirts and walk or run or ride a bike in the sun…
…or even mow their lawn, getting exercise along with their daily dose of vitamin D.
Shirtless men can usually be seen everywhere in the summer months—walking, jogging, bike riding, cutting the grass—, although not, I would say, in large numbers. Shirtless men pop up at outdoor sporting events. The bleacher bum fans are notorious for baring their chests. It seems like a macho thing to do.
You can also watch or join a skins and shirts pick-up basketball game in city playgrounds.
Male shirtlessness is actually increasing in places where it’s not usually been seen. A search of the internet produced a New York Times article of July 31, 2013 that discussed how many men are, in fact, appearing shirtless on the streets and sidewalks of the New York City. (The article was written during a heatwave.) The Times article attributed this fad to movie actor Orlando Bloom, who had been seen pushing his child in a baby stroller or walking his dog while shirtless on the streets of New York. Was NYC becoming like LA?
See the article with photos of shirtless men uptown and downtown at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/fashion/shirtless-goes-the-city.html.
If your wife looks up, she’s likely to see a lot of shirtless men on their balconies in the summer.
I have personally seen shirtless bikers and skateboarders on the streets of NYC when visiting there. Some may have been messengers in a hurry to deliver their package.
Shirtlessness has been a part of male work history. In social history, men who have engaged in hard labor on land and sea have usually worked shirtless. In ancient and traditional societies working men usually wore no more than a loin cloth. Even in the Bible, John 21:7 says that Simon Peter was out working in his boat when the risen Christ appeared on the shore. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” Admittedly, this was in warmer climates like the Mediterranean world or tropical places. But it’s also the case that men sweat a lot and moistened shirts become a drag and are uncomfortable.
Shirtless workmen are all around us, especially in the building trades—carpenters, bricklayers, roofers, etc.
As to why men bare their chests in public, I was tempted to answer: because they can. And if they can, many will. This is something of a male privilege, and I’m sorry women can’t go topless if they want to. This prohibition in city ordinances has been challenged in some cities. In fact, in some cities like New York there actually is no law against it.
Many cities in the US and around the world host a local World Naked Bike Ride in June as a demonstration in favor of reducing carbon from the consumption of gasoline in automobiles. This gives both men and women an opportunity to bare all for a cause and for the fun of it.
It’s been argued that women’s breasts can be sexually arousing and therefore should be considered one of the “private parts” of the body that should be covered in public. Apparently, men’s chests aren’t considered sexually arousing (although some women would dispute that). But it simply feels good to bare one’s chest outdoors and feel the sun and wind on one’s skin.
I would say that exposing one’s body in public gives one a sense of freedom. By this I don’t mean free only from the constrictions caused by wearing shirts in some physical activities, but free to connect with nature itself outdoors (feeling the sun and wind on one’s naked body), freedom to express self-confidence in public (knowing that people are likely to look at you if you are showing skin), freedom to bond with other men (men more readily shed their shirts if other men do so), and freedom to show off one’s body in mixed company (the male of the species always struts in front of females).
So where do I think it is appropriate for men to be shirtless in public? And where do I think it might it be inappropriate? Generally, I think anywhere outdoors is appropriate. Anywhere indoors is probably inappropriate. But common sense must prevail both outdoors and in. I think urban bike messengers can deliver their packets while riding shirtless, but should have a shirt to throw on before they enter an office building. You expect men to wear bathing suits on the beach and even on the boardwalks and around the marinas, but signs posted on shops and indoor restaurants even along the boardwalks and marinas say, “no shirt, no service.”
I think shirtlessness is appropriate in any physical activity, whether work or play. Indoor gyms and yoga studios might request shirts on, in which case you have to abide by the management’s policy. But I still think it’s appropriate to work out and practice yoga shirtless even though the management says otherwise. Some women don’t like sweaty men on the next treadmill or yoga mat. But if you sweat, you keep a towel handy. In any event, summer is coming and yogis can get outdoors to practice and no one will complain if they are shirtless.
It is certainly appropriate, in my view, for athletes, both youth and adults, to work out shirtless indoors or outdoors. Runners almost always run shirtless. Wearing a shirt would literally be a drag.
If you see some shirtless young guys in the park throwing a frisbee or a football, and your wife isn’t with you, maybe you could ask to join them and shed your shirt and shoes too. Or just enjoy watching them—while being shirtless in the park.
There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about body shame. It applies to men as well as to women. And there’s also been a lot of shaming of older men for being shirtless in public, which could be implied in the statement included in this question about “young men who work out might be okay.” Older men? Maybe not for your some women. Even so, some mature men keep themselves in good shape and ought to be able to show off their athletic bodies.
But if senior men want to exercise and get vitamin D the natural way and experience a sense of liberation, God bless them! Let them be examples of vitality to shy young men and boys. We should not be ashamed of our bodies, and fortunately there are plenty of places and situations in which we can demonstrate that confidence in our bodily selves, as Ed O’Neill is doing on his shirtless bike ride through LA. Go Ed! Set an example for the shy young dudes.
Obviously, opportunities for shirtlessness are contingent on weather and appropriate venues, social rules and cultural expectations. But where men can be shirtless, age should not be an issue. Shameless old men who bare skin in public could be an encouragement to younger men to shed their sense of modesty and concerns about body image. Boys and men, take off those shirts!