The Case of the Missing Shirt

By Joel Stein

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You used to need an excuse to take off your shirt. Bathing. Swimming. Mining. Plowing a field. Working on a chain gang. Seeing a doctor. Getting a particularly large tattoo. Swinging a pickax in the summer between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Writing a green A on your chest to help spell Spartans. Getting so drunk you appear on Cops or so high you attend a Grateful Dead show. Spilling a large quantity of poison on your shirt in a lab that does not store spare shirts.

Being bare-chested, as it was once called, was never a comment on the man but merely on his situation. The only men who routinely walked around shirtless were those who were beyond caring about society’s judgment: the homeless, people who live near the beach and really fat men. There’s a Shirtless Man Twitter feed that runs headlines involving the phrase shirtless man; on a recent day these included “Shirtless Man Damages Large Riverboat, Says He Was Angered by the Way It Was Looking at Him,” “Shirtless Man Barges Into Stranger’s Home With Stolen Samurai Sword and Blind Cat” and “Shirtless Man Bites Cops for Interrupting His Nap on the Floor of a McDonald’s.”

Now no one is bare-chested. They are shirtless. Even Shirtless Man is shirtless. The shirtless lifestyle is chronicled on blogs that feature metrosexuals, waxed all shiny, walking the streets, shopping for groceries and going clubbing. Shirtless men first appeared in Calvin Klein ads, expanded to Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs and are now used to sell everything. Once confined to the covers of Muscle & Fitness, these men began to lose their shirts right in the middle of airport newsstands, thanks to Men’s Health. Now they’re in lots of men’s magazines, which are magazines meant for men, many of whom are straight. U.S. congressman Aaron Schock, who is a U.S. congressman, unbuttoned his shirt for Men’s Health despite the fact that he’s a U.S. congressman. This year the MTV Movie Awards added a category for best shirtless performance. And Magic Mike didn’t even win.

Not long ago, to be topless on TV, on stage or in movies required an excuse: Ronald Reagan was lifeguarding; Burt Lancaster was about to bodysurf; Bruce Lee couldn’t afford to get tangled up during a fight; Johnny Weissmuller didn’t know better because he was literally raised by apes; Iggy Pop needed quick access to his veins. Now there has to be a reason for a guy on a reality-TV show to put a shirt on. There is no easier job on the sets of Big Brother, Survivor, The Real World or The Bachelor than men’s stylist. It is half a job.

Even in normal life actors walk around shirtless. I’m fairly certain a photo of Matthew McConaughey’s closet would reveal it contains nothing but pants. Justin Bieber went through the security check at an airport in Lodz, Poland without a shirt. This was in March. When it was below freezing.

Not only do I wear shirts at airports, I wear them hiking, at the beach, by the pool and, when possible, during sex. Even when I take my shirt off it’s like I’m wearing one since I have tan lines in the perfect shape of a shirt. There is absolutely nothing pretty about the sight of me without a shirt: In some quirk of evolution that I assume had to do with my ancestors sleeping on their sides in cold caves, I have more chest hair on the right side than the left. I have fat in places only women should have fat. I have nipples, which, in my opinion, is super girlie.

Which is exactly the problem with the new shirtlessness. It’s fine to reveal your chest and have women swoon. It’s fine to be psyched that your particular chest makes women want to sleep with you. It’s not okay to be turned on by your own hotness. That was solely for gay men, and that was fine. They looked good, so they deserved it.

Without getting into feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s 1970s theory of the male gaze, let’s just say that straight male humans, unlike straight male peacocks, do the looking and not the trying-to-be-looked-at. Is that fair? Is it good for men? Is it good for society? Ask a 1970s feminist film theorist. When you do I’m pretty sure she’d rather you did it with your shirt on.

The mixing of gay and straight cultures has been good for everyone except the people who own the rights to the old Hollywood Squares. But that doesn’t mean straight guys should be forced to adopt everything from gay culture. Those of us who don’t want to indulge in the shirtless lifestyle, and in fact want to go back to a time when being in shirtsleeves was considered casual, should not cave. We do not need more things to feel insecure about in addition to our body hair, body shape, body size and body.

So for those of you who are not competing for the kinds of women who go on television dating shows, keep your shirt on. When I asked my lovely wife, Cassandra, if she would have married someone in the shirtless lifestyle, she said no. “You just don’t have those abs naturally,” she said. “That guy is probably at the gym a lot and staring at himself in the mirror a lot. And that seems like a silly way to spend your life.” And this is from a woman who thinks spending your life writing words in Playboy isn’t a silly way to spend your life. Imagine how badly the rest of them want us to wear a shirt.


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