The most abused privilege in the world—including democracy, freedom of religion, health, and money—is male above-the-waist nakedness. Theoretically, males should be granted carte blanche to doff their shirts whenever they please, since, theoretically, carte blanche implies discretion—it necessarily entails that people possess, and employ, proper judgment. However, that is clearly not the case. As with all things, we can look to Kevin Spacey for guidance. In American Beauty (indisputably the 90’s best movie, and a key factor in imbuing casual pot smoking and borderline pedophilia/psychosis with a weighty cultural cachet), Spacey plays an inexplicably liberated family man who takes an affinity to working out in his garage. He removes his shirt while bench pressing, performing pull-ups, and sitting in his nest chair and smoking joints. He does, however, put on his shirt inside the house. This is a man who quits his job, blackmails his boss, throws a plate of asparagus against the wall, and buys pot from his next door neighbor’s son. He’s a deviant badass. He’s Everyman's hero. He’s worse than an iconoclast. But he wears his fucking shirt inside. Look: Kevin Spacey might be a badass, but he’s not an idiot.
Nor is he an obtuse, inconsiderate asshole, like all the shirtless narcissists on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Summertime in New York is open season on fashion protocol, and the shirtless, sunglassed streetwalkers are the most severe offenders. Rule number 1 in the male wardrobe guide is this: if you’re in a public space and you’re wearing more clothing on your face than on your chest, you’re probably doing something wrong. Plus, these particular transgressors also violate rule number 2: if you’re shirtless in public, don’t pretend you don’t know it; it’s pompous and annoying. The only thing worse than revealing excess chest is pretending you have no idea you’ve somehow been separated from your shirt. That means you shouldn't strike up a conversation with a stranger on the street and expect them to appreciate your sweaty, probably malodorous trunk. Don’t ask for directions, don’t smile self-assuredly, don’t walk into a deli, don’t hail a cab, don’t ask a concierge for help, and don’t get on my subway car. Am I ghettoizing the shirtless? No doubt. But someone has to do it.
Obviously, shirtlessness is not intrinsically evil (and for females, well, that goes without saying). Neither, necessarily, are calories or jigsaws, but our society tends to misuse all three. Central in this problem is self-worship and entitlement—virtually nobody goes shirtless in a crowded urban location because of the weather, or because they’re afflicted with a rare disease that makes wearing a shirt unbearably painful. It’s all about flaunting what the shirtless person believes should be worshipped on a mass level, much the same way Pam Anderson hasn’t left home without showing cleavage for at least two decades. The difference between Pamela and a given shirtless man, however, is that Pamela exists purely sexually; in a very particular existential way, her function is to show a little tit. If she didn’t, she would no longer have a social utility. Shirtless man x, though, doesn’t have that job—he’s a computer programmer, or a car mechanic, or maybe even a venture capitalist. He is not a sex symbol. In general, men are not sex symbols, and the ones who are have been clearly designated: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Tyrese, Mick Jagger, etc. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re not on the list. So, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re wearing a shirt.
So when is it OK for a guy to get some Vitamin D on his pasty torso? Good question. The beach, obviously, is fine—in fact, a corollary to the male wardrobe guide is that you should be shirtless at the beach. It’s almost required. That corollary also applies in a locker room, sauna, bathhouse, or anywhere else where some degree of nudity is customary. Also, it’s perfectly within your rights to toss your t (or v, or polo, or button down) in your home—the reason Spacey kept on his shirt in American Beauty is that strangers were shuffling in and out of his house, and it was reasonable to expect that someone who wouldn’t want to see his bare chest would come through at any moment (that, and the script called for it, but it’s not unreasonable to interpolate a system of mores in a well-written drama). Shirts-and-skins basketball games? Go for it. But don’t dare be the guy in an all-shirts game who can’t keep his clothes on.
You’re not Pam Anderson, and you’ll never sleep with Tommy Lee. Or even Bret Michaels. So keep your shirt on, or I’ll get Kevin Spacey’s ex-military neighbor to kiss you, and then shoot you shortly thereafter while your topless ass is looking at an aged family photo.
Stay Symbolic, Plastic Bag Rustling in the Wind