Guys gone topless Ah, the shirtless boys of summer. Is it acceptable for men in public to strip down by half?

Posted: August 27, 2008

They appear in the summer, like in-laws around the holidays, whether you want to see them or not. They show up on construction sites, at gyms and around stadiums. Shirtless men. In public.

When Jack Carroll sees them at his gym, he gives them a standard response.

"You can't be shirtless in here," says Carroll, who manages the Rittenhouse Square Fitness Club. It's usually not a problem for guys working out in the air-conditioned weight room, but when members come in from the street after a run, there can be words, and an admonishment.

"Personally, it doesn't bother me. But in the context of a place of business, you should respect their dress code, if they have one."

As summer's heat pounds the city, the temptation among some men to shed their tank tops or guayaberas can be irresistible, leaving many to ask: When and where is it OK for a man to go shirtless in public?

"I would say never," says Sandy Martin, manager of Lost + Found, a clothing store in Old City. "Why would you ever need to go shirtless in public?"

Martin says there is one type she finds particularly unattractive - male joggers who have left their tank tops behind. "I don't like that at all. They're all sweaty and gross-looking."

While men's health magazines are chockablock full of models with cut-granite abs, Martin says, "most men aren't in that great a shape."

The question of when and where the shirtless look is acceptable touches on a long list of sexual mores, taboos and social norms, scholars say.

"Skin has a long association with intimacy or sexuality, and for a long time, society has thought sexuality belongs in the private sphere," says Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association.

During heat spells, there is a tendency for these mores to slacken a bit, but social pressure to cover up is not necessarily tied to the weather, Farley says. He points to hot-climate Muslim societies, where, in some countries, the idea of a man's wearing shorts is out of the question.

Aside from morals, Farley says, the shirtless question boils down to aesthetics.

"Some people might see a pot belly, or the 'man boobs,' as they say, and say, 'Ewww.' They don't want to see it," Farley says. "On the other hand, some people enjoy seeing good examples of our aesthetics."

Count Elisa Buratto as one of the latter. Buratto, who owns Sugarcube, an Old City clothing store, says men should never go shirtless in public, "unless you're Brad Pitt."

"Morally, I'm not opposed to it," she says. "I just think it's too much information. It also seems kind of unhygienic."

For guys who do go shirtless, it is often a matter of comfort. Tim O'Brien, a barber at the Men's Club Barber Shop in Roxborough, says he "definitely" feels more comfortable taking his shirt off while jogging or working outside.

O'Brien's rules for shirtlessness reflect where many people draw the line. "It's OK at the pool, or jogging in the park. It's not OK in a business. It's not OK at stadiums, unless you have your chest painted some color," says O'Brien, 29.

A man's physical fitness, or lack thereof, should not figure into the shirt/no-shirt calculus, he says. "You can't really discriminate if you've got someone who's a little overweight. If the guy's comfortable letting it all hang out, more power to him."

Since antiquity, clothing has been integral to how humans distinguish themselves into social groups. Chris Shilling, a sociologist at the University of Kent in England, says the Western preoccupation with appearance can be traced to the Middle Ages, when "impression-management skills" became more important in court societies.

"People got more careful about the impressions they gave off, monitored themselves and the reactions of others. As the gaze increasingly focused on behavior and the body, all manner of social prescriptions and taboos came to rest on the body."

Part of those taboos had to do with distancing behavior in the natural state - hence, the invention of the modern toilet. The modern taboo against male shirtlessness is part of this separation between nature and civilization, Shilling says.

"Transgressing these norms sends a message to people, which is a kind of a threat," Shilling says.

To some, shirtlessness is simply bad manners.

"On the beach, sure," said syndicated columnist Judith Martin, also known as "Miss Manners," in an e-mailed response to the question of where shirtlessness is acceptable. "Out on their backyard decks sunning themselves, sure. In an airplane - or anywhere else where strangers must sit near them, which includes the stands of athletic stadiums - no. Clothing standards are a matter of context. Would you trust your lawyer if you showed up to consult him and found him sitting in his office half naked?"

Regardless of the unwritten rules, shirtlessness in broader society is more accepted today than in the past. Farley, the Temple psychologist, thinks images of bare-chested celebrities flaunting their personally trained pecs and abs has something to do with it. You would never see a modest Humphrey Bogart sans shirt, yet "today you can see Matthew McConaughey and all these guys running around shirtless."

The rapid ascent of "male grooming" products and procedures may be a sign some men are more concerned about how they look once their jerseys are off. Men now shave, wax and laser away unwanted body hair in greater numbers than ever.

Bella Medspa, a Chester Springs-based spa and salon, offers $1,800 laser removal of unwanted hair on a man's back, shoulders and chest. In some of its locations, men now make up 40 percent of the clientele for these services, up from 10 percent a few years ago. Most who come in are 30 or older, but even some teenagers are coming in for back-hair removal.

"The refrain I hear is you don't want to be the guy at the beach with the hairy back that people are snickering at," says Beth DiBella, the spa's owner. "So much of it is about sex appeal. They want to look and feel attractive, whether they're straight or gay, and the criteria for that is broadening."

For a temporary fix, some men are opting for hot wax. American Male, the Reading-based salon chain for men, offers a $45 wax for the back or chest. Its waxing business doubles during the months leading into summer, says Stacia Stasnek, a company spokeswoman.

Derek Hoffman, 33, an entrepreneur from Conshohocken, gets his back waxed at the American Male salon in Berwyn.

His best friend is a model who doesn't hesitate to go shirtless. "Let's put it this way: If we go bike-riding, his shirt's off," Hoffman says.

Hoffman works out and eats a protein-heavy diet, but doesn't share his friend's eagerness to take his top off. "I don't like taking my shirt off unless I'm in the shower, on the beach or by a pool."

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