We want your views on running shirtless!

July 2014: It has been a year since I have found time to post in this blog. I've released a little flurry by way of compensation. Thank you for the expressions of solidarity that have come my way in the interim.

If you trawl the runners' forums, you will find that the stalwart opponents of 'running shirtless' have not ceded the field! Almost all of them direct their fire at barechested runners (ie the men!); by unspoken agreement no one assails the growing force of jogbraed runners. Why do you suppose that is the case?

To me, the jogbraed and the bare-chested are alike comrades in the battle to reclaim acceptance for attire-light exercise. I continue to welcome guest posts (sent to barethomas@gmail.com) on any related topic, including from those who would discourage stripping to the waist. Let all voices be heard on this site!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My take on the Shirtless P.E. debate

One topic that pops up with some regularity online is the 'shirtless for physical education' issue. The starting point is typically that, at least in the U.K. and the U.S., it has become less common for boys to strip to the waist for P.E., whereas in the past it was common for the entire class to do gym, calisthenics or the like sans shirt. One camp in the debate will argue that requiring everyone to go shirtless can be harsh on plump or shy students, who may develop 'body issues'. An opposed faction responds that there are valid health benefits to going shirtless (not to mention safety concerns when it comes to getting entangled in gym equipment) and  that students are more attuned to staying fit if they have to be bare-chested among peers. It is also commonly claimed that, once boys are required to go shirtless a time or two, they find this so much more comfortable than exercising fully-clothed that many end up stripping down of their own volition.

My sympathies, with some qualification, are with the second camp. I think the 'body issue' matter could be overblown. Students are required to sit school tests that could be deflating to the ego of less-prepared or less-keen students, but that is no reason to say that tests should be banned. Why should 'body issues' be more serious? Indeed, they are surely less serious; by banning shirtless P.E. on their account, we are sending precisely the wrong message: That these matters are very important indeed. And why should we do that?

Now, I rather think there is some truth to the proposition that students would make more of an effort to burn carbs and stay fit  if they knew they'd be shirtless regularly in front of peers. But I'm not sure this is something to be encouraged: After all, isn't this the flip side of the 'body issues' point? There's nothing wrong about wanting to be presentable - children ought to be turned-out decently for church, or class, for instance - but there is rather a whiff of objectification about saying they should become obsessed with their own bare-chested appearance.

On the other hand, the 'it's more comfortable' argument holds water, if you ask me, and I personally know of people who at the very least lost their uneasiness about being shirtless after having to go bare for shirts-vs-skins basketball or soccer. But for myself, at least, I am partly guided by my on-balance preference for school uniforms: There's something equalising about ruling out attire envy or whose-sneaker-is-the-coolest differentiation. Enforced shirtlessness is simply an extension of this democratisation, a further paring-back of inessential ornamentation.

Is this, ultimately, a major issue that might alter a child's schoolgoing life spectacularly? I wouldn't have thought so. But enforced shirtlessness, even if it's only for a term or a year, would broadens students' experience and allows them more of a choice, hopefully breaking down some unnecessary inhibitions. So why not?

59 comments:

Shirtless Robbie said...

It seems to me that these days there is actually quite an issue with students not being allowed to go shirtless. See the Facebook group "Stop the BS, let XC run shirtless". At the very least, I am definitely in favor of letting guys go shirtless if they wish. I'm not really opposed to mandatory shirtlessness, but some parents may have issues and I do believe their views take precedence even if I disagree with them. The health benefits of shirtlessness are worth considering, and I agree the incentive to get in shape is not necessarily a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Being made to strip to the waist was a basic requirement for our PE/Games lessons, and regardless of season or weather conditions our shirts were off - no arguments.

Through this we were taught to respect your body and others, and realise there is little difference in others physiques

Girls enjoy watching lads exercising stripped to the waist and most definately would be offended so why not employ some common sense.

Anonymous said...

hi there

I also had to do PE barechested in school, inside and outside, that's the way it should be,

greg

is there any chance of seeinf the top photo on the blog homepage properly, thanks

Anonymous said...

I was at an all boys secondary school where we didn't generally do PE barechested, but I think it would have been better if we had. As a teenager, I lacked the confidence to take my shirt off voluntarily and the only time I did a sports activity barechested was when we played shirts v skins -which seemed a really big deal at the time. I was 13 and I remember my feeling of dread the first time the teacher split us into teams for a basketball game and announced that my team would be 'playing skins'.
But despite that, I think I would have become at ease more quickly if doing PE shirtless had been compulsory for every boy in every lesson. It would have given us more incentive to work at keeping in shape and become the norm for sports activities.
I wished I'd had the confidence of one boy in my class who used to 'accidentally' forget his PE top sometimes, including cross country, and persuaded the teacher to let him run barechested. It wasn't until after I'd left school that I mustered the confidence to do that - but it was a good feeling when I finally lost the shirt.

Anonymous said...

What about girls?

Also some girls are not always comfortable if their male counterparts are shirtless in PE class. Running, fine...

Anonymous said...

But the vast majority of classes are single sex...

Anonymous said...

Nobody ever went shirtless in any of my PE classes - that is, except when we went swimming, which we were required to do for half a semester. Then, of course, almost everyone went shirtless (though one guy swam with a shirt on, believe it or not!)

That swim class was the first time in a LONG time that I went shirtless in public. I didn't even know how to swim before that class - even though most people knew!

Funny, because nowadays swimming is one of my favorite forms of exercise (along with running).

I say PE teachers should allow (but not require) students to go shirtless - and tell them that they're allowed to.

Anonymous said...

I should add that I believe every high school that has a pool should require a swim class before graduation.

-Scott

Anonymous said...

It's my opinion that if given a choice the majority of boys would do PE barechested.

Anonymous said...

"Being made to strip to the waist was a basic requirement for our PE/Games lessons, and regardless of season or weather conditions our shirts were off - no arguments."

Were you shirtless for outside runnings in winter?
How did you play ball games?How did they split the teams?

Anonymous said...

In a word, yes. Our teacher was ex-army and made it very clear he expected everyone to strip to the waist for PE even in winter. As far as ball games went there were 4classes in each year group the even numbers wore white shorts and odd numbers black,so if you were in year 4 class 1 you'd do PE with year 4 class 2 to avoid any confusion. Simple really!

Anonymous said...

I am stunned to read these articles and comments -- at first I thought you were all kidding! Here in Canada I've never heard of shirtless PE classes. We teachers would be quickly fired if we ever insisted or even suggested such a thing for girls or boys. I don't recall any safety incidents due to PE strip. Do the PE teachers strip down to their underpants as well? I never expect my students to do something I won't do!

Anonymous said...

At swimming lessons all of the boys are shirtless even in presence of girls.What's the difference?

Anonymous said...

What?? Where I'm from girls and boys were typically in the same P.E. class...

Anonymous said...

Boys should be shirtless in PE - it was compulsory when I was at school. Those boys with body issues soon lost them and it gave us maximum freedom of movement. I don't understand why teachers in Canada would be fired for having boys shirtless for PE - I hadn't realised there were such terrible problems in Canada - is it some kind of excessive prudishness?

Anonymous said...

Todays schools need more guy teachers... Our local school PE teacher is a woman and she is a fat woman. What is up with that !!!!

We have an obese problem and our children are being abused by their parents who think that its normal to eat out every single day!!!!

Our food supplies have been contaminated with processed ingredients - which means they are less nutritious. There is more fats, salts and sugar being pumped into our children that I can only relate it to the movie Wall-e.

Going shirtless is a very healthy thing - and we need to get back to being a healthy people and stop being absorbed by all of our policies and procedures and political correctness and get back to teaching kids and raising kids.

Not that this is the right forum but corporal punishment should be included in the debate. Our teachers don't have any voice and no power to deal with bad behaved children.

In short our education system is extremely confused about a whole lot of things (which is why homeschooling is on the rise) ...

Anonymous said...

It's all to do with the feminisation of schools. Everything has to be in favour of the girls and boys are no longer taught to become men.

Sidona said...

When I was at secondary school (single sex, boys) in the mid 1950s, regulation PE kit was white shorts and vest; back in those days, kids in the UK were expected to wear vests as underwear, except possibly during the height of summer, and most of us got into the habit of wearing our underwear vests for PE. After I had been at this school for a couple of years, the PE teacher decided that it would be healthier for us to do PE topless and, in a surprisingly democratic approach, took a vote on the matter. Neeedless to say, toplessness got a 100% vote. Although we were expected to wear vests between the changing room and the gym, this rule was honoured more in the breach than the observance and we soon got into the habit of "forgetting" to put our vests back on under our shirts after PE. With daily PE, generally in the mornings, we contrived to be vest-less for most of the school week and by the end of the first term of the new regime, most of us had stopped wearing vests to school or anywhere else, altogether.

To the best of my knowledge, I don't remember anyone experiencing "body exposure" or "self-esteem" issues as a result of this PE experience. Basically, we were spending time topless, and after childhoods spent encased in vests, shirts and jumpers, that could only be a good thing.

I have never been a runner, but have a lifelong enjoyment of walking, preferably topless, and have never encountered much prejudice while doing so.

Anonymous said...

We did not have compulsory shirtlessness in high school PE class, but we did often break up into shirts and skins teams to play basketball and soccer. I think at the time I had some anxiety about being a "skin" (your body is developing, you've got hair sprouting in places you never thought possible) but you learn to get over it, just as you learn to group shower without thinking anything of it. I think it's important for men to develop a positive image of our bodies, to feel comfortable going shirtless in public -- and comfortable having everything exposed in a locker room. Our entire lives we have to deal with these things. And high school PE class seems as good a place as any to start learning how. These days, playing shirts and skins is second-nature to me (I'd actually rather be a skin in a hot gym or outside in warm weather), and I certainly have no problem undressing and showering in a locker room. But if I had gone to a high school that coddled my initial anxieties, where would I be?

Anonymous said...

Shirts and skins was the usual practice at my secondary school and I think it helped encourage boys to go shirtless voluntarily. The first time my class did PE and the teacher announced it was shirts and skins, it’s fair to say the majority of us felt uneasy and self-conscious – especially the boys who had to take off their tops. I was a shy 12-year-old and felt very relieved when the teacher pointed at me and said 'shirts'. Next lesson, though, the pointing finger was accompanied by the word 'skins', and I had no choice but to strip to the waist.
Just about every team sport in PE involved shirts and skins, even outdoor games like football and rugby – the only difference was that we wore black shorts instead of white.
As the year went on, most of us gradually got used to the feeling of doing PE in just shorts and no top. In the summer several boys asked if they could do cross country shirtless, which wasn’t compulsory, and one or two also played tennis with their tops off.
Shirts and skins continued throughout my time at school until I was 16 and I think it was a good system for making boys feel more comfortable about doing sport shirtless. Of course the teams were random and some boys were skins more often than shirts – in the first few weeks it seemed to me that I was always a skin – but, sooner or later, everyone had to be and we got used to that.

barethomas said...

This topic does seem to get folks fired up! To pluck at just three threads from the 20 comments so far:

1) So shirtless P.E. is unheard of in Canada! What about in other countries? Continental Europe? I've been told it's very rare in Singapore, to take another example, despite its tropical climate.

2) Interesting that, so far, no commenter has spoken of having undergone shirtless P.E. and feeling scarred afterwards. Anyone with that experience wish to tackle that lacuna? Or is this a straw man?

3) Robbie says parental preferences should override school rules. But what if the parent wants his or her child to do P.E. shirtless? If there's a standard kit (vest and shorts, say), should the teacher acquiesce?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say scarred as such but I do remember being punished one lunchtime when it was pouring with rain and having to do 10 laps of the field stripped to the waist. Didn't muck round after that!

Hairy Jim said...

Scarred? Well, I suppose that might be the case if you were overweight or had some other bodily feature that made you feel self-conscious in the first place. But for me, shirts and skins was a positive experience -- in fact, PE itself was a positive experience, in part because it gave me an opportunity to see other bodies, and to realize that I wasn't alone in my development (although I WAS definitely in the minority, with my first chest hair coming in around age 13). After the first couple of times being a "skin" what's the big deal? It's like in junior high, when in my head I built up gang showering after PE to be this horrible ordeal. Then you go through it once or twice and don't even think about it. It's just something you do. Shirtless running is a little different == and for me, a little more challenging == because it involves solo, optional, public baring. There's a sensual element to it, as well, that you're not going to find (well MOST of us aren't going to find) playing shirts and skins with the guys or changing/showering in the locker room. It's like you know that some who observe you running shirtless might be getting turned on by the sight (yes, I may be giving myself too much credit here!) and that might be a turn-on (or turn-off, I suppose, depending on the admirer) for the runner.

Anonymous said...

PT in my college days (in the last century!) was highly regimented and administered in military style. Students were 'posted' for daily calisthenics by numbers, not names. Military courtesies were strictly observed and students were required to put out loud gut-level counts and memorize crazy cadences. Uniforms were strictly enforced and unvarying. Guys were required to 'dress down' (shirtless) both inside and out...and weather was definitely not an issue! And while there are no doubt several health and safety reasons for requiring shirtless uniforms, there is also a definite psychological benefit behind such a discipline. Boys will usually execute a more aggressive PT (calisthenic) performance and will often bond more effectively as a squad if they are 'posted' on line bare-chested, body taut and poised for rigorous exercise. Today PT is too wimpish and PC--we need to present kids with a more effective and motivational style of instruction--they hunger for it!

Anonymous said...

I think that shirtlessness in mixed PE classes should be optional, and the children should know this. But if doing PE shirtless is mandatory, then the classes should be split, boys in one class and girls in another, as some boys would get nervous if girls were watching.
Bad weather conditions should be taken into account, and harsh sunlight should be noticed (shirtless boys should wear sun-screen).
I agree that the 'shirts and skins' idea is practical, saving on the costs of coloured jerseys being bought to differentiate between teams. Though I'm not sure about the 'group showering' effort, as this would make any male unsure about his sexuality nervous. Neither shirts and skins or group showering were done in my school, so i can't say what it was like.

Anonymous said...

I think schools should require boys to take PE class shirtless, even if it is co-ed. This is an important development point for boys to become comfortable with who they are during this awkward stage. While I was growing up, I was afraid to take my shirt off in public for no other reason than my own extreme shyness and fear. Even though I could swim, I avoided things like going to the swimming pool with friends out of fear of having to go without a shirt.

Then came my first high school co-ed PE class where boys were divided into teams of skins and shirts which rotated every 5 weeks. Even though the boys and girls separated into their own groups, the skins team was required to go shirtless for the entire class, including role call. One can only imagine the paralyzing fear that I encountered upon learning this. However, I came to find out that I was not alone in my fear and as a group we were able to bond together in our efforts to confront our shirtless fears. After a couple of weeks of being shirtless for PE class two-three times per week, our anxiety eased to being almost normal. This turned out to be a very rewarding experience which helped teach me to become comfortable with my own body.

If I was give a choice, I would have remained shirted the entire time, thereby missing out on this learning experience. School is a place that should challenge its students to learn and grow by breaking through self-imposed boundaries. It is sometimes necessary to push students outside their comfort zone by imposing a requirement such as this. After I learned how to push my fear aside, I was able to participate in the summer fun activities while being shirtless, plus I learned that girls love guys who are confident in themselves.

Now as an adult I am glad my school had a shirtless PE requirement for boys. I must admit I am still a bit self-conscious about going shirtless at times, but my lessons learned from PE class allow me to run without a shirt knowing there is nothing to fear.

Anonymous said...

School's should return to minimal PE kit for boys. Our official kit was a vest and a pair of shorts. Our teacher alternated the sessions so you'd have skins and shirts teams one day then for the next lesson everyone was barechested, regardless if it was outside or the weather.

For reasons unknown, our teacher picked me along with 3 others to became a "regular skins" - and we were made to remove our vests at the start of the lesson. This continued until we left at 18.

I agree the school system is to wimpish and deprives boys the chance to become comfortable with who they are - barechested PE gives that confidence

Anonymous said...

At my school (boys only) we were split into four groups at the first PE lesson – red bibs, yellow bibs, vests and skins – and those groups stayed unchanged for the next three weeks. Then everyone had to switch to the next ‘colour’ in the sequence, so reds became yellows and vests became skins, and three weeks later we would rotate again. By the end of term every boy had spent the same period of time in each colour and I think it was a good system for making shy boys more confident about taking off their tops. We didn’t always play team sports every time, but you still had to wear whatever colour you were assigned for the entire lesson, so when you were skins you didn’t bring a vest at all.
Boys – at least those in single sex schools – should experience at least a short period of compulsory shirtless PE. If you make it optional, only the more confident boys will choose to take off their tops and the others will probably feel even more reluctant to do so. I wasn’t confident myself as a boy and I don’t think I would ever have begun to feel comfortable about going shirtless if I hadn’t been made to do it in PE.
My first experience of running shirtless (outdoors) came in the summer term, when we did athletics. When it came to practising relays the teacher felt there was too much scope for confusion with every relay team dressed exactly the same. Bibs, vests and skins was the answer, so myself and three other boys were told to take off our vests. This time, though, we kept the same teams, so next lesson the four of us had to run as skins again.

Jimbo said...

You're lucky your teacher rotated the teams,my school's PE teachers made each lad remove their vest before each session started, no exceptions. I agree that boys should go through at least a period of compulsary shirtless PE with cross country runs being a part of it. I went to a mixed school and it made no difference that girls were watching when you were made to strip down.

Anonymous said...

I am 18 now. In PE from 12-14 we had alot of mixed general PE lessons,sometimes boys had been forgetting kit to get out of the lesson teachers were annoyed at this. girls had alot of rude things said to them. One day the head teacher came into PE and made boys take off their shirts,this is how it stayed while I was at school. The girls became more confident I had rude things said to me so we boys tended to behave more in lesson as we were on backfoot a little an d we were not so cocky thi also help shy boys as everything levelled out.

Anonymous said...

We had three PE lessons each week, for two of them boys and girls were separate and it would be either boys in the gym (or outdoor running) and girls swimming or the other way round. The third lesson, also in the gym, was mixed and at first everyone wore the same kit (t-shirt and shorts) but at the start of my second year that changed.
Our first PE lesson of the new term was boys-only, in the gym, and we were told to take our t-shirts off. That didn’t seem such a big deal – we’d previously done shirts against skins – but then the teacher announced that our kit for each lesson would be the same from now on. Not surprisingly, most of us were quite apprehensive about the prospect of going shirtless in front of the girls two days later and, when it came to the mixed lesson, a couple of boys even begged the teacher to let them keep their tops on, to no avail.
In the long run, though, it was a win-win situation. It’s fair to say that the girls certainly enjoyed seeing teenage boys exercising with their shirts off once a week. And we lads soon realised that, if our bodies were going to be on display to the girls, we needed to work hard to build up our muscles and that made us fitter than we might otherwise have been. We were also generally better behaved than we had been before, probably just because we felt a bit more exposed and unsure of ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I think boys take care more of their bodies if they are required to go shirtless for PE lessons.
It seems boys don't really mind having to be barechested for PE. So I can't see why most schools stopped that rule. Do boys wear T-shirts for swimming lessons? No. They are shirtless even in a co-ed lesson there. So what's the difference?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately schools these days giveaway to every minor complaint and give in to accommodate student’s fears. When I pleaded to keep my shirt on, the teacher stood firm and I ended up losing my shirt for all gym classes for the remainder of the school year. I wasn’t happy about that at the time, but it was the right thing to do. By the end of the school year, I was more confident and became more physically fit than I would have been otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I mean if boys are shirtless for swimming events that why cant they be shirtless for other sport activities. It shouldnt be compulsury it should just be 'allowed' for some sport activities. There is the confidence problem but if they start doing sport shirtless regularly they will get more confident in themselves. There is also the "show off" issue. If the boys whose bodies arent so good looking than they will feel shy. To resolve that they should go shirtless, get confident and there wont be any "show off" issues

Anonymous said...

In these days of rising costs for everything - especially school uniforms and sports kit's - vests and skins are good sensible and very low cost options for PE.

Anonymous said...

At my school we used to have an annual cross-country race for a trophy. It was compulsory for every boy in the school to compete and one year the race was held on a very hot and humid afternoon. We all still had to run but I remember the school made sure there was plenty of water along the course to prevent dehydration. We were also told that anyone who preferred to run without his vest, or to take it off during the race, would be allowed to do so.
Some of the older boys in the school, who were the serious contenders for the trophy, began the race bare-chested, but most of us (I was just coming up to 14 at the time) started off in our normal PE kit. The humidity meant that we were all dripping with sweat before long, my vest was sticking to my back and when my best friend took his top off I decided to follow suit. I was amazed at just how comfortable I felt running without my vest and, by the time the race ended, virtually all the boys in my year had gone bare-chested.
After that, if we were running in similar conditions, a few of us would ask the teacher if we could take our vests off and the answer was usually yes. It just felt very natural and I’m glad we were given that option.
I think boys who want to run bare-chested should certainly be permitted to do so, but equally I’m not sure boys who prefer to keep their tops on should be forced to join in. When we did PE in the gym, shirts and skins was the usual system for teams and personally I didn't mind whether I had a vest on or not, but some boys really hated being skins and probably disliked playing sport more because of that.

Anonymous said...

Just to say thanks for your site. For the last 2 months my eldest son (11) has started to come runnning without his top in the last 2 months. Don't think he'd have done this without the positive remarks here.

Anonymous said...

It’s good to hear how inspiring words from this site are able to promote confidence in others to experience the freedom of running shirtless; it is truly the best way to run.

Anonymous said...

how about this instead of making it compulsory for one or the other, just make shirtless an option if some guys want to show it off then let them and if guy who probably have body image issues due to be being bullied don't want to take it off then why should they?

Anonymous said...

I don’t agree it should be optional for boys to take their tops off in PE if they prefer, that means some boys will have one uniform and some will have a different one. The whole point about uniforms is they are the same for everyone. This is also why I disagree with the practice of shirts and skins as used at my school, it seemed very unfair to me at the time that only some boys had to play bare-chested while others kept their tops on. As some people have pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to tell teams apart either with coloured bibs or sashes or, if the boys are all skins, they can wear different colour shorts. Surely it’s much fairer to insist either that every boy wears a top, or every boy wears no top, and ultimately that shouldn’t be the boy’s decision, it’s up to the PE teacher.

Anonymous said...

A girls view here... A boys kit should either be a vest or bare chest. There's nothing wrong with boys taking tops off in PE/Games and a vest is easy and quick to remove/add to make up two teams. Boys really should be encouraged to remove their tops...why? Well it's far more manly and I think gives boys a sense of worth and a way of identifying with who they are. Personally I wish we'd had the option to wear sports bras instead of the unconfortable Aertex tops we had to put up with, life would have been easier. As it was it wasn't until I left school that I was introduced to running in a sports bra and I can truthfully say I've never once thought about going back either. Go on break the mould - it doesn't hurt to be different...

Anonymous said...

what if it is mixed boys and girls..when i was in school..we were made to do pe in underwear..n girls were allowed to wear t shirts n trek pants but we boys were made to do in underwear..n if we wanted to do pe in t shirts n pants..then we were punished by keeping us on underwear for the whole day... even girls used to make fun of us..and we had a female teacher and she made sure tht every boy did pe in underwear..and if we wanted keep our t shirt on then she used to tear our shirt and made sure tht we did pe in underwear

Kris said...

Anonymous said:

"what if it is mixed boys and girls..when i was in school..we were made to do pe in underwear.."

Sorry, poor grammar, atrocious spelling and lack of sentence structure make me think this is a troll trying to make us think he's still a kid at primary school. This has to be a load of codswallop!

Anonymous said...

If boys want to take their shirts off that's fine but it should in no way be compulsory. And that means no "shirts vs skins games" games led by the teacher either.

Remember some boys have physical scars on their bodies or other problems which they cannot help even if they get into the best possible shape. They should not be forced to show their bodies, this is wrong.

What was okay in the 1950's is no longer appropriate today.

Steve said...

I strongly disagree with not requiring boys to take gym shirtless. I graduated 20 years ago and it was still the school policy for boys to take gym shirtless for at least one term every school year. Gym was co-ed roll call, but boys activities were separated from the girls. I was by no means an athlete, little pudgy and dreaded going shirtless. However, the point of going shirtless is learn how to become comfortable in your own skin. Before long, I learned to be comfortable with myself and no longer dreaded going shirtless. I think by learning to be confident in yourself allows you to establishing better relationships. At some point you need to allow the training wheels need to come off, there may be some bumps and bruises along the way, but in the end the rider is better off. Shirtless gym for boys is an essential activity towards their development, even more so in today’s world.

Jamie said...

Steve is completely right about the importance of shirtless PE. We had a slightly different system at my school, basically the class was split into shirts and skins at the start of term and that was how it stayed until half-term, when the teams switched around.
I wasn't a confident boy and my body was quite skinny, so I well remember my feeling of relief in my first term when I was included on the shirts team. Just as clearly, I remember the feeling of dread and anxiety when we came back after half-term, knowing I was going to have to run around the gym with my bony chest on show. When I got changed for PE I felt so self-conscious, almost as if I was completely naked, and imagined the shirted boys laughing at me.
Yet I soon realised there were several other boys in the same boat, in fact some who were more nervous about being skins than I was. I think we all kind of realised we had to make the best of it and helped each other along to a cetain extent.
After a while being shirtless seemed less of a big deal. The system stayed the same up until I left school in the early 90s and gradually I felt more comfortable about my body as it filled out. Eventually I got to a stage where I would take my top off voluntarily when kicking a ball around with my friends, or playing tennis on a hot day. But I can honestly say that would never have happened if I hadn't been made to do PE shirtless as a boy and get over my anxiety.

Charles said...

Jamie – you are so right. My experience was very similar to yours but from the opposite end of the spectrum, as it were! The politically correct busybodies who seem to have made it unacceptable for boys to be told to exercise without shirts (in fact I’m told most schools now don’t even allow boys to remove their shirts these days, let alone make it compulsory)never know how much damage their interfering causes.

At the age of 11 I couldn’t wait to move secondary school – it was a major rite of passage. I’d be in a class of all boys from all over the city, looking so smart wearing my new uniform. And PE would be terrific – no more endless games of rounders or prancing around in vest and pants with ‘Miss’ telling us to pretend to be trees in the school hall – it was so exciting - we’d be in a real gym with wall bars, ropes, and all sorts of stuff, with a specialist teacher doing fitness training, gymnastics, cross country and proper boys’ sports – cricket, football, boxing, rugby and wrestling! The uniform list we’d been sent included a section which said “Indoor PE: bare feet, white shorts, no shirt required.” I can still remember, it was when I read that bit that I suddenly got a deep sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The next day I asked a couple of older kids on the estate who confirmed what I suspected – “no shirt required” actually meant “no shirt allowed”! I was quite shy and slightly overweight, and as a result had a real phobia about being seen without a shirt on, and so started to get really quite nervous about that bit, but it was all part of the same package that I now looked forward to with a mixture of eager anticipation and slight apprehension. There was no choice in the matter and nothing I could do about it - that’s just how it was at ‘big’ school – in English and Maths and Geography you wore long trousers, shirt and tie, and a blazer, and in PE you wore shorts and with no shirt…

Anyway, our first PE lesson was on the third or fourth day and I deliberately got changed quite slowly, hoping there had been some mistake, but no – I watched as one after another, my classmates, took off their shoes and socks, changed into their shorts, took their shirts off, and then walked out to the gym. I did the same feeling very naked, exposed and vulnerable, but once the lesson started it didn’t seem quite so bad – there were thirty of us all exactly the same and no-one took any notice of me and my podgy body! After a couple of lessons it all seemed perfectly natural and I never gave it another thought. I had developed a feeling of self-confidence I’d never had before. Not really being a sporty type and poorly co-ordinated, I actually came to hate many of the activities I had so looked forward to, but I still sat in class eagerly looking forward to PE because I absolutely loved the feeling of freedom and exhilaration that came with running around just wearing a pair of shorts! I’ve gone on long enough so I won’t go into the many other reasons why PE should be done shirtless - the only downside (which I still remember clearly!) was that punches and ‘nipple cripples’ from the class bully hurt more and could be targeted with 100% accuracy when you had no shirt on!!!

Matt said...

I wish my school did shirts-vs-skins when I was in junior high, as much as the idea would've scared the crap out of me at the time. I had problems with some guys who got a kick out of teasing me in PE and cross-country. This made me self-conscious about changing in the locker room with other guys around (at some point I got over my locker room phobia, and the guys left me alone). CC and PE the in 8th grade weren't as bad, although I still wasn't confident to practice CC shirtless, even though guys younger than me would do so.

The only time we were obligated to take our shirts off during PE was for the scoliosis screening.

If I was obligated to take my shirt off frequently in PE, I would've been more confident to go shirtless publicly earlier on. I finally decided to start running shirtless last summer. I've never enjoyed such a liberating feeling while running. I will most definitely run this way during college.

Jamie said...

Matt, it's great to see you're so positive about running shirtless and I'm sure you'll continue to feel that way at college.
Your post really highlights what a pity it is that most schools today no longer require boys to experience shirts vs skins in PE lessons. You're right, it can be a scary prospect the first time you have to play 'in skins' but the long term benefits in terms of gaining confidence in your own body are massive.

Anonymous said...

Middle school for me (ages 11 to 13) was an awakening in more ways than one. I started noticing girls more but I was also introduced to the Junior High way of doing PE. It was no longer called recess where a bunch of elementary age kids run around outside simply to burn off energy. Junior High PE was structured and much more disciplined.

My PE coach was also the school football coach and had been for several years. He was strong, solid, authoritative, strict and yet a man that I respected greatly because he was also able to understand pre-teen boys and how we felt about our bodies and the fears that came with junior high. I was raised (the early 50's) in a time when boys normally played outside barefoot and shirtless. We wore cut-off jeans that were cut just below the crotch as our outdoor attire. We weren't rich and clothes came in two categories… school clothes and play clothes. We didn’t dare wear our school clothes out to play. Also, wearing only shorts, cut down on laundry for mom.

But our first day in PE was a new experience. Even though I was never bothered about being half naked when I was outside, it seemed different when I was crowded into a locker room with about 40 other boys (an all boy class) and had the coach introduce himself and say "Strip to your underwear and line up". Reluctantly and slowly everyone looked around and began to undress. As I removed my shoes, socks and shirt I looked around and tried to keep the same speed of disrobing as the other guys. I didn’t want to be the first one in his underwear and seem like I was enjoying it. As I slid my pants off and piled everything on the bench behind me I walked over and joined the line of boys who had already undressed. Then the coach informed us that the school nurse was going to do a quick physical exam, review our medical sheet (which our parents had filled out already) and then we would be assigned our lockers and our gym shorts (which were very short in those days) and t-shirt which both displayed the school logo.

As each boy stepped up, his name was located on the sheets and he and the nurse stepped to one side where height, weight, ears, nose, throat, and heartbeat were all checked and the information on the boys sheet was reviewed and checked. Once we were finished with the nurse we were told to slip into our gym shorts, locate our locker and place our clothes inside and to also put our t-shirts inside. The coach said the remainder of the class would be spent in the gym barefoot and shirtless having free-time. It was an awkward way to start he school year in a class we had never been in before. Although I never felt bad about being barefoot or shirtless, it was different when I was told that I had to be. It wasn’t an option.

Once we were in the gym we were allowed to shoot hoops, hang out and talk, mess around on the wall bars or climb the rope. There was an assistant coach in the gym that got all of us into some activity until just before class ended and then the whistle blew and I heard "hit the showers"! What?!?!?!? Showers? What did he mean? I wasn’t told about showers and I never really thought about it and I know several of the other guys felt the same way simply by the looks everyone had on their faces. As we walked into the locker room the head coach said "everyone showers before getting dressed. When you finish showering, walk over to the office door and you will be given a towel."

Anonymous said...

CONTINUED.......
This was during the days of "swats" in school for misbehavior and not showering was considered misbehaving. As I removed my shorts and underwear I walked to the shower room which was basically a large, tiled room with about 10 shower heads sticking out from the walls and we all showered together in this big room. I knew immediately which guys were involved in sports or had showered with other boys in the nude before. They went right to work washing and rinsing and never missed a step. For those of us who had never experienced that before we were a little more stand-off-ish. Suddenly I wondered if I was an equal, did I look ok, was I developed properly and for the first time I felt exposed and vulnerable.

I had always been very satisfied with my appearance. Slim, healthy, tanned, energetic, toned and very fast on my feet. But now I felt like I had to meet certain standards. Yes, like all boys who shower for the first time in a room full of other naked boys I did a quick look around. Very quick just to see if I was where I should be in comparison to the other guys who were also the same age. I was pleased to find that we were all different to a point, some more developed and some less so I felt good that I ranked in the middle. As we finished our showers we walked to the coaches office door which was a split door and the top half was open and as we walked up, the coach verified that we had indeed showered (wet body and wet hair) and then he handed us a towel. I walked over to a spot on the bench in front of my locker and dried off and got dressed. The used towels were thrown in a dirty towel bag on our way out.

From that day forward I discovered that a structured PE class is very good for kids in many ways. Each day as we entered the locker room the coach would tell us how to dress and whether we would be inside or outside for that days class. If he said we will be in the gym today, shorts only. Coach meant exactly what he said. If he said shorts only, you better not show up wearing anything more than shorts unless you wanted to run laps around the gym or the outdoor track for the entire period. If he said shorts, shoes and no shirt. That was the law for the day.

I preferred barefoot and shirtless and to the best of my memory I don’t recall any of the guys in my class that ever complained about our dress requirements. But then again it was the early 50s and times were different then… better. If we were going to be doing team activities that day the coach would say shirts and skins and yes we would be divided and some would have to wear shirts or go shirtless. But it was never a set standard for any period of time. it was basically whatever the coach said for that day and that activity.

The beginning of every class was calisthenics and sit-ups, pushups, squat thrusts and jumping jacks were the norm. It never failed that by the time we did sit-ups we would be sweating and our wet backs against the wooden floors felt weird. But I enjoyed being barefoot and shirtless. I enjoyed the freedom and the feel.

Anonymous said...

CONTINUED.............
On Monday, Wednesday and Fridays we always had outdoor or gym activities and on Tuesdays and Thursdays we had swim class because our school had an indoor pool. It was an all boy class so swim class was in the nude and this was a new experience for me. Although I often went with friends down to the river and went skinny dipping, I had never been in a class of other guys and swam in the nude. My shyness vanished quickly when I discovered that most of the guys enjoyed it and once we did it a few times I never really even had a second thought about being nude.

Someone in our class did mess up once and the coach made us all go outside to the running track and he said "start running and don’t stop until you hear my whistle. You don’t have to finish first, but you better not be last". To this day I still don’t know what we did that made the coach mad but I do remember how many laps I ran before I heard the whistle because I counted them. It was 10 laps around the entire track that encircled the football field. Before we started we were told NO shirts, shoes optional. Some guys ran better barefoot. I began to run and after awhile it seemed like my legs took over and were operating on their own. It was so weird. But we ran and I can remember this very vividly… once we heard the coaches whistle, we ran to where the coach was and I lay on my back on the ground and closed my eyes and it felt like my legs were still running even though I was lying on my back in a spread eagle position. It was so weird. The showers felt wonderful that day.

Another problem with the "short" gym shorts of the 50s is they were cut just like our jean shorts; just below the crotch, so when we were climbing the rope in the gym you were often exposed to those below you. Be sure to wear underwear or a jock. Did I ever see any of the guys traumatized because of PE? No. I often look back at pictures of kids during that era and I noticed very few obese or overweight kids. In fact they are hard to find. Now I look at the kids in schools today and the obese kids are everywhere. Why? Because we stopped having structured, physical fitness programs in our schools. A lot of schools no longer require "suiting out" for PE. Some have no physical activity requirements. Many no longer require showers before returning to class. Now that has to smell good!!!

I'm glad I was raised in the era that I was raised in. A time when healthy kids and structured families and homes were the norm. Because of how I was raised, how the schools encouraged or even dictated being shirtless, barefoot, and nude swimming, I am better for it.

As a result I made sure my boys were also raised to appreciate their appearance and to strive to stay healthy and never be ashamed to take off their shirts or to go barefoot. In our house they normally wore just their shorts. When they went out to play, they normally wore just their shorts. When they swam in our pool at home, they were always nude. Now that I have grandkids… guess what. My kids continue the tradition. Three generations of people who are not ashamed of their bodies; thanks to a great middle school and great coaches.

Sam said...

I think it helps if boys are introduced to shirtless PE at a younger age, before they reach their teens and become more self conscious about their bodies. I never experienced PE with my vest off until I was 14, coming up to 15and found it a really big deal - so much that I pretended to be sick to avoid having to do it again.
For the first few years we did PE in vest, shorts and trainers and if teams were required we wore different coloured bibs. Further up the school though we had bigger groups for PE, organised depending on which other subjects we were studying. The upshot of that was that for sports like basketball we needed six teams rather than four and there weren't enough different colours to go round. So my teacher announced that teams five and six would be in 'vests' and 'skins'.
At first I thought maybe he wasn't serious: skins, as in nothing on top? Surely not! But I remember suddenly feeling nerves in my stomach as the teams were picked, and soon my fears were realised. Team six it was and, along with five other boys, I was given the order I'd been dreading: vests off and leave them over there. I was so shy about showing my bare chest in public. Swimming wasn't so bad as you were in the water most of the time and also it was the same for everyone, now I had to line up on a basketball court against boys in vests and bibs and I felt really uncomfortable, almost as if I was naked.
Somehow I got through my first PE lesson as a skin, but my sense of relief soon evaporated when the teacher informed us that the teams would stay the same next time. I couldn't believe it, I hated the thought of having to take my vest off again. So just before the next PE lesson I went to the school nurse and said I was feeling sick.
I got away with it that time, but obviously it wasn't something I could keep doing, and I went back to the gym next time, telling myself I'd been unlucky before. If the teams were picked at random I had a five in six chance of not being a skin. For some time I still dreaded that moment in PE when the teams were selected. Usually it ended in relief, but inevitably there were times when I had to take my vest off.
Yet there came a moment, towards the end of that year, when somehow I wasn't all that bothered about being a skin. Rather than feeling embarrassed about my bare chest, I was actually quite proud of the fact that I had some chest hair starting to show! More importantly I had just got used to the whole skins thing and it was no longer such a massive issue as it had been at first. But I'm sure it would have been easier if we'd had to go shirtless earlier on.

Matt said...

I probably should add that at my junior high there was no way around forgetting your PE clothes, so doing PE topless was out of the question. If you forgot your shirt and/or shorts, you had to wear what are referred to as pinkies. Pinkies are the school's PE attire that were dyed pink and are reserved for those who didn't have their clothes (hence the name). The people who wore pinkies had to make up the credit by attending the PE mile make-ups. So doing PE shirtless was, and I assume still isn't, an option there.

Anonymous said...

One of the first occasions I can remember of doing PE shirtless was when my class did rock climbing on a field trip, we hadn't brought along our regular PE clothes so the teacher told all the boys to take off their school shirts and do the activity that way. Meanwhile, the girls in our class got to sit out on the side and watch us. I think most of us felt a bit uneasy about this but we got on with it anyway. I do recall a fair bit of giggling and whispered comments from the girls as we started to strip down! Certainly must have been quite a show for them, getting to watch their classmates exercising barechested and covered in sweat by the time it was done.

Anonymous said...

At my school the boys and girls did PE at the same time but if the boys were in the gym the girls class was outdoors and vice versa. However, if the weather was too bad for outdoor PE we all had to squeeze into the gym together. The girls enjoyed that because it meant they got to see us boys being split up into shirts and skins and there was always a lot of giggling and whispering when they saw which boys had to take their shirts off. There was also an end of year match when the boys played the girls in different sports - usually netball for the first half and basketball for the second. I'm sure they could have found another method of telling the teams apart but we always did shirts and skins - which obviously meant every boy had to play bare chested. I seem to remember the girls looked forward to that too!

Peter said...

While gender equality in education is generally a good thing, I think it's important at certain times for boys to be just with boys and do boys' things, likewise for girls.

PE is probably the area where there is the strongest case for the sexes to be separate. I can't really talk about the female perspective, but boys need to have some opportunity to do certain activities in a boy's way, and without girls looking on - it's part of the male experience of growing up.

Part of this male experience is exercising shirtless. Like most of the correspondents here, I think it's a really valuable experience. So, too, are communal showers. Of course, both can be embarrassing, and you can't help comparing yourself with others, but kids are always comparing themselves with others - in the classroom, in sports, on the street. But actually, the conclusion you're likely to reach is that you're all pretty much the same, or will be, or could be. Being half-naked in the gym, and then naked in the shower, is a great way of becoming more aware of your own body, and of others' bodies, and more comfortable with bodies as a whole. Ultimately, it's about being happy to be a guy and to do guys' things. Which has to be positive for self-esteem and development.

My own experience is of an occasional requirement to go shirtless in the gym and then have a shower - it all depended on the teacher and how strictly he enforced the rules. And to start with I hated and dreaded both activities, and tried all manner of ways to get out of them. But finally there was no escape. The first time, it was torture, but then, after a while, something unexpected happened: like many others, I realised that I was actually enjoying this enforced bareness. It was liberating, exhilarating, and most importantly, what guys did. And once you've reached that point, you don't go back to your shyness and inhibitions. Now I really feel sorry for adult men who have to hide themselves in locker rooms, or who don't feel comfortable running or exercising shirtless when to me it's all so natural and normal. I just wish there were more exercise classes and gyms for guys to work out shirtless, and I would certainly reverse the trend for communal showers to be replaced by cubicles.

I don't think I would feel this way if I hadn't been obliged to work out shirtless and take a shower with others. I certainly wouldn't have chosen to do so. But boys need a certain discipline, and they need a certain moderate toughening up. Yes, they can be sensitive, and that's fine, but they need to develop that sensitivity in the context of having a man's body.

Being comfortable being bare with other guys is the first step to being comfortable being bare, in an appropriate situation, with girls. But being comfortable with other boys comes first. So the one thing I would say is that I wouldn't force boys to work out shirtless in front of girls - that might just be a bit too much for some of them. Let them choose themselves when they are happy for girls to see their bodies.

We do really need to think hard about the ways in which we can get boys to develop into healthy men. Wrapping them in cotton wool, pandering to every gripe, and pretending that they're basically the same as girls isn't the way forward. Shirtless exercise and communal showers are part of a positive pathway for boys to follow as they develop into healthy men.

Anonymous said...

In our school, all gym lessons and creative dance lessons were mixed. For creative dance, year 7 girls often did it naked because at the end of the day exercise is about the human body not what you wear. Knickers were advised for yr8 girls upwards and boys always tended to wear just shorts but most girls CHOSE to go naked cause it felt natural and nobody cared. All this hangup about shirtless/topless is nanny state gone mad, let ppl do as they want its natural

Josh said...

At my school it was the exception rather than the rule that any boy was required to be bare-chested for PE or Games. The rare occasions when boys were made to do this were always connected with discipline or punishment, for instance detention. I remember getting a PE detention with two friends when we'd been told to report to the gym in our usual kit, but straight away we were ordered to take our vests off. I guess it made us feel more vulnerable and self conscious, standing there bare-chested while the teacher barked orders at us. The actual detention was pretty intense and by the end I was almost glad to have my vest off as I was covered in sweat!
Obviously the effect wouldn't have been the same for boys who were used to doing PE without a top. But for us it felt uncomfortable and being bare-chested was like an extra part of the punishment.