Male toplessness exposes gender politics of body policing

Robin Gow

With temperatures finally in the 70s this past weekend, I could count at least ten men with their shirts off after stepping outside on campus for no more than thirty seconds. At first, I thought I was annoyed because I’m transgender, and I wish I could have a masculine chest that would allow me to take my shirt off in public. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my frustration was more due to the sheer amount of people who don’t have the ability to take off their shirts or show more skin when it’s hot out because of how much assigned female and gay/bisexual men’s bodies are policed.

I don’t necessarily think cis-gender (non-transgender) men should not take off their shirts in public, but we should think about the different, more subtle degrees of privilege our specific bodies allow us. One of those privileges is about how much our bodies are policed, especially as the weather gets warmer.

The next thing I thought to myself was “well then why don’t you just take you shirt off—it doesn’t matter!” Nipples look essentially the same no matter your gender, so why do they have to be sexualized on my body and not on other people’s? Some people argue that women’s nipples are sexual organs, but if you’re using that logic then any area on your body that’s sensitive can be a “sexual organ.” Are feet sexual organs because some people use them sexually? These double standards about what counts as sexual parts reveal how we sexualize female bodies to regulate and police them in public.

I decided that if I was going to take my shirt off, I should also check the state laws about toplessness. This step itself says a lot about regulations on assigned-female bodies, cis-men don’t have to Google whether or not they’ll get in trouble with the law for removing their shirt. For the record, Pennsylvania does allow people with breasts to not wear a shirt in public, but this doesn’t mean that police or other community members won’t give you a hard time.

I scanned Ursinus’s student conduct policy, and we don’t have any specific language regarding a dress code, but there are areas where I could see language that could potentially be used against a person with breasts who decides to take their shirt off in public. For example, Article IV of the “Community Expectations & College policies” states that any action “prohibiting or interfering with classroom instruction or College sponsored events” or “leading or inciting others to interrupt scheduled or normal activities within any campus building or area” is prohibited. Students and administration can use this ambiguous language to make the argument that class, coursework, or campus activities were disrupted by someone with breasts being topless.

Similar subtle language-based arguments have been made on the local high school level. Recently, a trans man in Boyertown’s school district was accused of “violation of privacy” and even “sexual harassment” for removing his shirt in a locker room with cis-male students. People with assigned-female bodies are forced to think about these ambiguities in policies even if they feel comfortable enough to take off their shirts in public.

Even if going topless is “legal,” we can clearly see that largely our society doesn’t accept “free nipples.” Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter censor any images of bare breasts. Even when people with breasts wear “acceptable” covering like a bikini or even a low-cut shirt, they’re subject to ridicule and are inherently sexualized. Meanwhile, there are groups of guys parading around with nothing to cover their chests, and for the most part, they’re left alone.

However, I don’t want to over generalize. Because bodies come in a variety of shapes and identities, it’s also important to take into account that gay or bisexual men might face different kinds of judgement or harassment for not wearing a shirt. People of color’s bodies are also often policed, sometimes just for existing in public.  In addition, we also don’t talk much about how size-ism, or how discrimination based on size/weight, and body scars plays into the policing of bodies.

This issue might seem like a very small thing to a lot of people, even to people who do have breasts. But I think small things matter and add up to larger inequalities. The comfort required to be able to wear as much or as little clothing as we want reflects more broadly on how comfortable we are navigating this campus that we call home.

No, I didn’t end up taking my shirt off. I wasn’t ready to. But men who do take their shirts off in public should think about how that mundane act reflects the agency written into their bodies and should consider how to better support other people of all genders and sizes who may not have the same privilege.

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