Half-nudity

Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2010, John M. Glionna tells us that

In the sweltering heat of summer, when the refreshing breezes desert the city, [Beijing resident] Hu Lianqun absent-mindedly reaches for a solution: He rolls up his shirt to expose his belly, often fanning himself with the garment to create his own air conditioning.

This is how Glionna wants to introduce his reader to the concept of bǎngyé (膀爺). In all of the journalistic copy I have looked over regarding this topic, it is suggested that bǎngyé (variously translated into English as “bare-chested master”, “exposed grandfather”, and “topless guy”, depending on the source, and also referred to in English as “the Beijing bikini”) is a specifically Chinese cultural phenomenon. An article from 2019 in Singapore's The Independent informs us that “the belly is an essential container for energy” and “exposing the belly gets rid of excess heat,” but this is contradicted by Yan Zheng, “who has been practicing Chinese medicine for more than 40 years” according to Glionna's article. Yan tells us that

exposing one’s belly has nothing to do with Chinese medicine’s theory about maintaining a person’s health. People [choose] to expose their belly because they feel too hot in summer but feel embarrassed to take off their shirts completely.

I don't know enough about Chinese culture at large to say what the deal is either way. Regardless, whereas the Mandarin term chìbó (赤膊) seems to refer to straightforward shirtlessness, bǎngyé is something else: an exposure of the lower abdomen, often by hiking up the lower fringe of the shirt.

I think it's fair to surmise, however, that chìbó and bǎngyé are overlapping, or at least adjacent, concepts. Notice, for instance, the elision as I continue to quote from Glionna's article:

“I don’t know, it just feels cooler,” says Hu, perched on a park bench on a sultry weekday morning, the temperatures already [between 32° and 37° C], the humidity soaring. “Look, you just shake your shirt to create a breeze. I don’t see anyone laughing at me.”

In the sports attire section of a nearby department store, Qi Tong scoffs at such reasoning.

“It lowers Beijing’s standing as an international city,” the 21-year-old says. “I go without a shirt sometimes at home, but never in public. If my dad reaches for his shirt when I’m out with him, I threaten to go home. It’s just too embarrassing.”

For young Qi Tong, who is Chinese and who I take it on good faith to have been faithfully and accurately translated, his opinions about (his own) shirtlessness (“I go without a shirt sometimes”) are delivered alongside his opinions about bǎngyé (when his dad “reaches for his shirt”).

In North America, I have known some gender nonconforming and/or stylish men to ball up the left and right extremities of the lower fringe of their shirts, then lift up both ends up and tie a knot somewhere above the belly button. The result is an ad hoc tank top, knotted in the front, which, with some additional touches, helps to achieve a decidedly femme look.

From what I can tell, though, in northern China, bǎngyé isn't femme (and there don't appear to be any knots involved). It's just common, among men anyway. Some people evidently defend the practice as rooted in the values of the 1960s and '70s and the Cultural Revolution, and again, I don't know about all that—but it's clear that some people in China, including the aforementioned Qi, don't like the practice.

In 2002, the year after Beijing's Olympic bid had succeeded—the city, and China as a whole, would host the 2008 Summer Olympics—a new feature started running in the “Beijing Youth Daily” (北京青年报, hereafter referred to as the Daily). For several weeks, each new edition of the newspaper would feature candid photos of men around the city, generally doing inoccuous things like exercising outside, sweeping the walk outside of their homes, sitting down for a minute, or working at a food stand. The common characteristic of the men is that they were all chìbó or bǎngyé, e.g. they were shirtless or at least exposing their bellies.

The publishers of the Daily, as well as government officials, considered bǎngyé “a bad habit”, shirtlessness “uncivilized”. It is unclear to me, at this time, if they were opposed to all male shirtlessness in public, or if it was only the shirtlessness of bigger, older, or otherwise “gross” and/or embarrassing men that they objected to. I have not seen any of the pictures myself, but I have read that men with “bulging bellies” were often the subject of the Daily's mocking attention. Many of the photos of shirtless men on English-language news articles about the campaign feature older men.

The point of the Daily's new summer feature was to shame Beijing-area men into covering up in public, no matter the ambient conditions, and to establish that those who failed to do so would risk public humiliation.

This was initially justified by the upcoming Olympiad, but efforts at ending the “bad habits” of men exposing too much skin continued after 2008. For instance, in 2015, in the nearby city of Handan, deputies of some kind distributed t-shirts emblazoned with the characters 争做文明使者 to shirtless men (the slogan may be translated as “strive to be a civilized messenger”). Such an initiative seems cheeky but relatively benign—yet, in 2019, in the authorities in Tianjin and Jinan, two other major cities near Beijing, empowered police to issue fines for shirtlessness and bǎngyé. There would be warnings first, but afterwards, those who continued to “offend” in this respect would be obliged to pay for their intransigence.

The situation in China is interesting because it appears to be contentious. There are people who consider (cis male) shirtlessness and/or bǎngyé antithetical to civilization, but there are also lots of people (or at least men) who think it's all perfectly fine, and in any case have no organic interest in changing their ways—hence, the need for coercion. In sum, there is a protracted (albeit pretty low-stakes) struggle between “the state” (mostly in the form of local authorities, it seems, but sometimes supported by the central administration) and “society” (or at least a segment of society, e.g. sweaty men who want to feel a breeze on their skin, if they can).

In North America, on the other hand, the situation regarding (cis male) shirtlessness doesn't really seem to be contested. While I am sure there are jurisdictions (municipalities, I would presume) that have 1) laws against (cis male) shirtlessness on the books and 2) police who are more or less willing to enforce those rules against all shirtless adult men at all times, I don't live in such a place and neither do most people. From Miami to Vancouver, and from San Diego to Halifax, men can generally take their shirts off in public, if they want to do so. This could all change very fast in the context of a sudden cultural shift and/or political revolution, but in 2021, such a thing hasn't quite happened here yet.

About a decade ago, though, during the summer, a guy approached me on the street as I was about to hop on my bike and dart off to my next destination. He asked, “Isn't it illegal to go about the city without a shirt on?” I had my nipples out at the time, as is often the case when I'm fiddling with my lock and about to hop on my bike.

The guy's tone was hard to read, but I think there is an implicit disapproval in a question like that. It should be mentioned that this guy was not old, either. He was about my age, e.g. in his mid-20s probably, maybe even a few years younger.

Another time, during another summer, as I was stopped at an intersection and waiting for traffic—I was again on my bike—a gaggle of prepubescents led by adults was traversing the crosswalk. Several of them, all boys, turned their heads towards me, shriveled their faces up in disgust, and one of them yelled that I should put a shirt on.

Before that, on the actual evening of October 31 one year, when I was still in university, I was walking the short distance from my house to the place where a Hallowe'en party was happening. I was a “jungle commando”, like a Rambo type of person, and my costume did not include a shirt. Some guys around my age called me a faggot when I walked by. At the party, as a girl was leaving, she approached me to tell me that I should “wear deodorant” (and hey, she may have had a point there, I don't remember) but also that I “looked disgusting”.

I could cite numerous examples of similar incidents in which I have been “microaggressed”, if not straight up aggressed, by various people, mostly men, while shirtless and because of my shirtlessness while going from point A to point B or otherwise just trying to chill with my friends and have a good time in a public or quasi-public setting. A lot of the people who were shittiest to me were relatively young, but I am certain that older people can be just as shitty. Most of these incidents happened in cities with “progressive” and/or “no one gives a fuck” reputations—but the thing is, there are definitely some people who actually really do give a fuck, it seems, almost anywhere you go.

It is worth noting, too, that I was neither “fat” nor “old” by any definition when any of these incidents took place. I only recently turned 30 and I'm thin. I'm white to boot, and I don't think I'm most folks' idea of ugly. Other guys, gals, and others who look different than I do, and/or who come from different places or whatever, magnetize a more constant negative attention, which sucks—but still, I have had some such attention in my life, and it sucked for me, too.

No one appreciates having shitty things said about their body, period.

So, up to this point, I have only written about cis men. The situation for women, as well as legions of enbies and trans guys, is worse.

Around the world, in terms of law and state, it is more often than not the case that topfreedom—as it is called by most legalistic activists who advocate for it, often by showing off their boobs in public—is only legal and/or tolerated by the police in a very small number of jurisdictions. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though, because even absent of police, many people one might encounter in a park, on a quiet street, or in the middle of a busy intersection will object both strenuously and histrionically to, say, a young woman with her tits out. In many other cases, they will engage such a woman in an inappropriately familiar and/or sexual manner, even if the two of them are complete strangers. Sometimes they will do both.

Even in such places where the state, both in theory and (maybe) in practice, permits women et al. to get exactly as half-naked in public places as cis men are allowed to be—often because specific women, supported by cadres of feminist activists, won some kind of victory in the courts in decades past—it is still rare for anyone but flat-chested men to take their shirts off in a wide variety of public settings.

There is variance, of course. I have never been to a beach in France, never mind surveyed a range of French beaches and other swimming holes, but everything I have read leads me to believe that quite a few women there do not wear bikini tops or any top. I am certain the rate of bare-chestedness is not equal to that of cis men, but maybe that doesn't matter. In other places, however—including, say, public parks (as well as sketchy parking lots) in supposedly topfreedom-legal jurisdictions like Ontario, British Columbia, and most of the United States—it is not unusual or particularly notable when a cis guy is bare-chested, but it is rare to the point of basically never happening at all that a woman might be bare-chested.

In my city and the surrounding suburbs, during the summer months, a lot of guys don't care to wear shirts in public and/or they don't care to do so even when within view of, say, their neighbours or the street. I'm talking about when they ride their bikes from point A to point B, when they jog with earbuds in, when they play some version of sportball, when they do yard work, when they drink and smoke with their buddies on their balcony or their patio or whatever, when they ask passers-by for spare change—whatever normal urban activity they are up to! And generally speaking, there is no issue or controversy, at least about the shirtlessness as such.

Yet, I wonder if a lot of people have been quietly seething about it the whole time.

This seems to be the case in northern China more recently. I don't have a lot of information to go on, but I don't believe that it is solely “the state”—or more specifically, the highest rung of bureaucrats, either at municipal or federal levels—that is driving the last few decades' backburner-on-low campaign to end topfreedom for people of all gender classes. There must be some degree of popular support for such a policy.

I suppose support may have been astroturfed in 2002, but I find it hard to believe that anything that has happened more recently is anything other than the activist project of people who don't have better things to do. Contrary to the jingoistic stereotype about mainland Chinese society, it's not a situation of an absolute dictatorship (yet). People still have their own lives, their own opinions, and indeed, some space to militate for causes that they care about.

In both China and North America, there are lots of family-oriented conservatives, lots of nationalists, and lots of people who are both. Family-oriented conservatives worry a lot about sex, children, the ways that children can be led astray by various things (including sex!), and grand ideas about morality. Nationalists worry a lot about their country, its present-day prestige, its future, and the things that have purportedly destroyed civilizations in the past (like homosexuality did to the Greeks and the Romans). In both China and North America, some people—they are often called “activists”—use the limited space they have for political expression to militate against scourges they see in the society around them. They do so, of course, in pursuit of a society that better accords with their ideology.

The past is a foreign country, but I find it hard to grasp that, just 80 years ago or so, cis men in urban North America often swam completely nude in public pools (see the header on “The YMCA” and figure #41). At the very same time, male shirtlessness on a busy street or in any other crowded place was extremely uncommon; it would have been seen as hickish or redneck in many cases. Things are different now; for whatever reason, the culture has changed. My broad assessment is that things have moved in a direction of less body freedom for cis men in public pools, but more body freedom for them in most other public places.

(Nevertheless, it is still not really possible for men to eat a meal shirtless in most restaurants, nor for boys in high school to take their shirts off during a stiflingly hot math class, without getting some trouble for it. And then there are workplaces!)

A stereotypical image of the 1960s and '70s counterculture is that of the topless woman setting her bra alight. It is my understanding that some of the women who did this sort of thing (or, I guess, wanted to but couldn't get a permit), or who simply took their dresses, shirts, and bras off, were arrested and roughly handled by police—and I presume that those women understood, in most cases, that such a thing could befall them, if police were to get involved (which would have been more or less a given at most political demonstrations, for instance, and with a pretty good chance of the same in lots of other places).

These women did it anyway, despite the risks—either as part of a protest, or just having a picnic in a quiet corner of a large park. So, why?

Were they simply careless? Or had they decided that this sort of freedom might be worth all the trouble?

Anarchists don't talk about topfreedom much. My experience is that, when women and enbies take their shirts off in our spaces, no one usually remarks upon it (although people do sometimes cheer, depending on the context). Perhaps in some broadly conservative societies, where many anarchist men are less familiar with the most basic of contemporary anarchafeminist critiques of patriarchy and/or sexism, there would be objections to the “topfreedom of the oppressed” being exercised—but in most North American scenes I have spent time in, in the 21st century, I can't really imagine anyone voicing opposition to loose tits. It's the police, the neighbours, or the owners of the bar we're hanging out at who will typically take issue, and for anarchists, the only question is how the rest of us will act to stand up for the members of our party who have magnetized some antagonistic attention to themselves. For instance, in 2011, during the anarchist bookfair in Montréal, a soccer game was taking place in the adjacent park, and people of all gender classes had taken their tops off because it was hot out. Then, when police intruded on the field and tried to arrest the “women” (anyone's own conception of their gender not counting for much in the cops' eyes), everyone's prerogative (that is, every anarchist who saw what was happening, many of whom hadn't been involved in the game) was to run interference by shouting, yelling, and making it clear that the situation would become too much for the two isolated cops to handle by themselves.

But, while I have never seen opposition to topfreedom equity within anarchist scenes, there appears to be very little equity in practice. I am sure that my experience, as a gay man, doesn't count for a whole lot on this front, but I can count on two hands the times that I have just casually hung out with women with their boobs out in spaces where we can be reasonably certain that no one but other anarchists are going to bother us, like a private apartment, a sufficiently secluded or private backyard, etc. This includes numerous times that I had opted not to wear a shirt myself because it was hot. (In comparison, there have been entire weeks of my life where it seemed like none of the cis men I was sharing my life with wore shirts at all, at least not while at home or outdoors.)

The discrepancy that exists in anarchist and other radical scenes in North America doesn't seem that much different from the discrepancy in the dominant culture. But why is there a discrepancy at all?

Some of it could be explained, perhaps, by the fact that having boobs is simply structurally and experientially different from having a flat chest. People with boobs just want to wear bras! And, look, I don't know. Maybe. Yet, there are many flat-chested men, and boys, who aren't particularly comfortable being shirtless either. I was one as a kid. I would opt to wear a t-shirt when swimming. There are also some cis men who, in fact, have large and prominent breasts (the proverbial “man boobs”). Though not at the same rate as flat-chested men choose this option (fatphobia is obviously a factor here), these guys, in North America at least, still opt to wear nothing above the waist in public and quasi-public settings far more frequently than women do.

It is worth remembering, too, that in other parts of the world and/or at other times in history, it is or was (more often was) the norm for adult women to wear nothing (apart from ornamentation, e.g. necklaces, bracelets, earrings) above the waist.

A great deal of the discrepancy, then—not necessarily all of it, but a lot of it—must be the result of social, cultural, and individual psychological factors more so than “biologically determined” factors of flat chest vs. more concave chest. In other words, all the obvious things:

  1. laws and, more importantly, custom in most jurisdictions and areas of the world that explicitly forbid the exposure of large breasts (parallel to commercially driven hypersexualization of the image of large breasts, in many countries at least, typically with little to no meaningful state intervention or regulation)
  2. patriarchy: the rule of fathers, brothers, and like figures
  3. the hard-to-kill cop-in-the-head left over from (feminine?) socialization
  4. the fact that, when anarchist women (and other anarchists) think of all of the ways they want to change the world and change themselves, “equity in half-nudity” does not come to mind as a priority compared to other things like climate change, prison society, dealing with self-hatred (one's own or that of others), and other things of the same utmost seriousness

Nevertheless, the goal of equity between established gender classes (often designated “equality of the sexes” in more antiquated literature) has been a part of every anarchist and/or revolutionary socialist political program that's been worth a damn from the 1800s on. This should include an equal capacity to wear nothing above the waist, whether enshrined as a legal “right” by some constitution or like text, or as a result of a general abolition of the authority of law and statute, as in anarchy.

In northern China, though, something different is happening. The campaign against chìbó and bǎngyé hasn't eradicated the practice entirely—although I would hardly be the one to know, myself, and I have read no news articles on the subject dating to later than 2019. It is hard to believe that there hasn't been any impact on men who might be inclined to take their shirts off, which is effectively all such men, since such an inclination could befall any dude whatsoever.

Vincent Ni, China affairs correspondent for The Guardian, writes that

volunteers in the Chinese capital have become a part of its daily social fabric. They help run their neighbourhoods by picking up litter and guiding those who are lost. They also observe, listen and follow every clue that might lead to a potential legal case. The rise of the Chaoyang masses [which is one such volunteer group] exemplifies the extraordinary ability of the ruling Communist party to mobilise grassroots forces to keep the vast country running, but also to keep its populace in check.

The article includes a photo of a seemingly mixed-gender group of volunteers wearing red armbands, three with grey or greying hair. Ni also quotes Ka-ming Wu, who says: “[Volunteers] are often retirees and female.” There is no mention of areas outside of Beijing, but it's not hard to imagine similar volunteer organizations existing in nearby places, like Tianjin or wherever, too.

I suspect these Chinese volunteer groups are largely political formations of right-wing women—that is, “women who claim to be acting in the interests of women as a group” who “act effectively on behalf of [ ... ] authority” and “on behalf of a hierarchy in which women are subservient to men.” Even if they have the aesthetic of latter-day Red Guards, the content of their politics is in line with an all-too-traditional Chinese patriarchy.

Such volunteer groups have almost certainly been involved in the campaign to bereave men of their chìbó/bǎngyé privilege—issuing warnings, distributing t-shirts, etc.

I am sure there are quite a few men involved in this campaign as well, especially among the ranks of thought leaders (e.g. writers) and financial backers, but framing chìbó/bǎngyé privilege as “unfair to women” and getting women to speak to men seems like the obvious strategy here. It doesn't matter a bit that this is not really the case, i.e. it is not the privilege itself, but the society that has produced this privilege, for one gender class only, that is unfair to women. This subtlety should matter in a conversation about ideas, but when people are getting in the faces of “offenders” and demanding that they immediately “correct” their conduct, ideas don't count for anything.

There is no exact parallel to Chinese anti-chìbó/bǎngyé campaigns (that I am aware of) anywhere in North America, but there have been initiatives targeting so-called “saggy pants” in Dublin, Georgia, and Wildwood, New Jersey, among many other places. (Incidentally, authorities in Wildwood actually did ban shirtlessness, in its boardwalk area only, but still.) Much of the same argumentation can be used to justify whichever of the two. For instance, men are “flexing on privilege” and behaving in ways that women could never get away with. It's lazy and slovenly behaviour, and encourages others to the same. It allows us, the good people, another excuse to target them, the bad people.

In the summer of 2016, a group of people (I think all men or mostly men, but I could be wrong) were chatting amongst themselves at an “anarchy camp” in rural Austria. They were then approached by an “awareness team” (I think none men, and again I could be wrong). These sorts of people are sometimes called “vibe watchers” in North America, but really, in most contexts, they are more like political commissars. Their task is to watch and make sure that the vibe (that is, the behaviour and conduct of participants in a gathering) supports the political line—which usually means, in an ostensibly anarchist space, the vibe watchers' own interpretation of what everyone else's political line should be.

The issue that the awareness team brought to the guys' attention in 2016 was that some of them were shirtless. This, it was said, was either upsetting, or potentially upsetting, to other people at the camp. I tend to think that there was more going on here, though. Perhaps someone had a different sort of problem with one or two of the people in the group, but it would have been less tactful to bring that one up, so shirtlessness was what was brought up because it's easier to make an argument around shirtlessness and how only shitty, insensitive dudes would ever flex on folks like that.

In his polemic “Against Identity Politics” (Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed #76, 2015), Lupus Dragonowl writes that “identity politicians” (which he also calls “IPs”)

reproduce a style of politics which focuses on telling people 'how to behave', conditioning people into roles which reproduce the power of the spectacle. IPs reproduce conventional morality and its structures of [resentment]—negative affect [...] towards others as an expression of one’s own powerlessness, in contrast to celebration of one's power.

In other words, tell men to put their shirts on, because you can't, rather than doing something else—like, say, burning your bra and daring the world to stop you.

Burning a bra isn't very practically useful, but it is kind of a powerful symbolic act, and I think it must be a simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking act to perform in a public setting (at least for the first time), like lots of other good things in life. It probably changes you a little bit for the better, if you survive the experience, whereas bullying people for not presenting in public as you would like them to pretty much always changes you for the worse.

It's not my fight to prosecute, of course. But, if there was ever a big bra bonfire down at the end of my block, I would want to go, so long as the people there would want to have me. Hopefully the vibe would be one where I could throw in some ratty t-shirt I don't much care about—or better yet, the clean and crisp one I wear as part of my work uniform—and thereby help the flames burn a little longer and brighter. Maybe that would nudge things a little closer to a world in which nakedness could be less controversial in general, whether we're talking above-the-waist half-nudity or the full monty.

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