This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Picture the scene: It's 2 AM, at a festival. The DJ drops "Africa" and the tent erupts. Drinks fly all over the place, and people make strange excited guttural noises with their faces. And then, you spot him: the idiot, topless and lassoing his shirt above his head.
An admission: I am that idiot.
Ask me why I routinely take my shirt off in public and I couldn't tell you. I'm slim with a slight potbelly, and under normal, sober conditions I wilt when I'm the center of attention. So I set out to find out why I—and thousands of men like me—seem predisposed to whipping our tops off in public, while so many other men can get through an entire day and night with their shirts remaining firmly on.
Before we start: it's basically because we're idiots, isn't it?
"Guys taking their shirts off is definitely a multi-sided thing," says Jonathan Hoban, counselor and psychotherapist. "But it's all about freedom and connection."
For the casual observer of beefed-up whey-shake bros staging impromptu shirtless piggyback races, such platitudes might sound a little forgiving. But, continues Hoban, it is also very much the uniquely testosterone-fueled behavior you might have expected it to be: "It's about men establishing an alpha male," he says.
It's easy to take a dim view of this seemingly narcissistic behavior, but if we peek below the peaks of those Herschel caps, and behind the kettlebell bicep tattoos, these muscle-bound guys are perhaps due a little sympathy: "Narcissism is basically massive overcompensation," says Hoban. "A lot of it is not being seen, heard, or valued when you're a child. When the mother recognizes you—your achievements—you get the hit of endorphins or dopamine. You get that sense of reward."
The upshot of being denied these happy chemical doses as a child can be that the person in question grows up to be a man-baby, desperately pursuing them via other means. "It's saying, 'I wasn't recognized as a child, so please recognize who I am now.' It's also about addressing a sense of power," says Hoban. "They don't have that power within, but their body does. Really, it's all about feeling loved. When people say, 'Wow, you've got a great body,' it's about them being loved."
I spoke to a bunch of guys for this article, and perhaps unsurprisingly, only one of them admitted to regularly taking his shirt off in public to show off his rippling abs. "I used to do it when I was in really good shape," says 34-year-old Lee Goddard. "Mainly for showing off or intimidation. It was full attention-seeking mode. But then I met my wife, and she didn't care for any of that and I settled down."
The other "lifters" I spoke to rooted their semi-stripteases in more innocent-sounding motivations, such as male bonding. "Clothes protect us," says clinical psychologist Deborah Page. "When we take them off, we make ourselves vulnerable, which means disrobing could be a sign of intimacy and bonding between males."
However, it was the "comedic value" of getting shirtless that was by far the most cited reason. "I know it makes other people laugh," said 26-year-old Josh Finn. "I'm not in shape and am covered in hair. If I was six foot, had tattoo sleeves, and was in the gym every day it might be intimidating. But I have none of those things, so it's just for the comedic value. And, I guess, to show that I'm comfortable with how I look."
But what about the men who make their toplessness a part of their act—or their art—and broadcast it to the world? Two very well-known—and ideologically diametrical examples—would be Vladimir Putin and Childish Gambino, a.k.a. Donald Glover.
Putin's topless vacation pictures—where he's riding horses, catching fish, and doing the butterfly stroke in Serbia's Lake Baikal—have been widely lampooned in Western society. "Putin is a poster boy for stereotypical masculinity—riding, hunting, and fishing bare-chested," says Hilda Burke, integrative psychotherapist, couples counselor, and life coach. "But then Russia has a culture steeped in iconography and the power of symbols—like the sickle and hammer. Maybe he's carrying on that tradition and the images aren't aimed for us."
There's an interesting view, put forward by journalist Leonid Bershidsky, that most Russians aren't actually that impressed by Putin's vacation pics. Instead, posits Bershidsky, he releases them for the benefit of the Western press as some kind of double bluff, as we lap up this contrived machismo while he goes about his business quietly behind the scenes, massaging the corridors of power to strengthen his own bearhug on the Kremlin.
Childish Gambino's bare chest has now become un-retractable part of his aesthetic, whether in his live performances, TV performances, his appearance in Magic Mike XXL, or in the video for "This Is America."
"Donald Glover's shirtlessness connects back to a long, enduring history of torso-exposed black men in popular music and performance. He is slightly buff, but not a beefcake: He's always presented himself as something of an alternative sex symbol," says Jason King, professor at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. "He adopted a seducer persona as a savvy way of promoting his surprise, accomplished turn to vintage soul with [third album] Awaken, My Love! You could say that boudoir music requires a boudoir look."
In among all this theoretical deep-diving, there is one absolute: that taking your top off in public is a male privilege. Among the women I canvassed for opinion, the attitude toward guys taking their shirt off was sympathetic, if normally delivered with half an eye-roll. "It doesn't normally bother me, but it can come across as willfully obnoxious when it's guys loitering around outside of a grocery store, looking like they're up to trouble," said 25-year-old Emily Bryce.
Bee Nicholls, organizer of Brighton, England's Free the Nipple march, said: "I don't find it offensive or threatening, but I do find that it's a very visual and imposing representation of male privilege. I don't hold men accountable for that and I don't think that men shouldn't be topless for that reason. But, as a woman who is very aware of this, to see a big group of men carefree and topless is a very real manifestation of where men have privilege that women don't."
All of which circles us back to me: the Idiot. Why do I do it? It was definitely shock value when I was younger; it made people laugh and, as an awkward guy who accrued confidence by getting drunk, it was an easy win. But I'm a bit older now; I'm happier in my skin and comfortable in the shadows. So why, when I hear "Africa," am I still destined to start lassoing in the corner of that tent? I asked my girlfriend's mom, Deborah Page, who—alongside knowing me well—is also a clinical psychologist.
"Human beings have two 'happy' systems. One is about comfort that comes from being safe and cared for. The other is about joy: Those moments of delight—often involving another person, but not always—that are fueled by happy chemicals like endorphins, opioids, or dopamine," she said. "Your shirt removal sounds like a joy moment, and throwing it off is a response to freedom."
It doesn't sound so bad when you put it like that.
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