It’s a fine line between what feels good to you and interfering with other people.
Are more people walking without shirts these days? It is hard to say given that there are probably just more people running in general, as many started doing it when the gyms closed in the early pandemic days. I’m a walker and not really immersed in running culture, but I’m pretty sure I’ve noticed it more lately.
Like my friend Ben Kaplan, general manager of iRun.ca, an online running community and magazine, who says he was recently having lunch on a terrace in New York’s Meatpacking District and of about 30 runners who passed, he counted about 25 who were bare-chested. He says there is even a certain “type.”
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“It’s like, they’re young, a lot of them have Ciele caps, and the overlap between the shirtless people and the tattooed people is really big,” says Kaplan. It’s not exactly exhibitionistic, but it’s not exhibitionistic either.
Kaplan doesn’t have inked sleeves, but he still likes the way running shirtless feels on a hot day. His wife and children? Not so much. They think it’s dirty. And he is well aware that they are not the only ones who feel this way, which is why he tries to choose his shirtless moments carefully.
“I mean, going shirtless on the Martin Goodman Trail is no problem, and nobody cares,” he says. However, running down College Street with your shirt off can seem selfish because it’s that fine line between what feels good to you and meddling with other people.
Especially now that sidewalks are doubling as expansive patios. Public space is scarce these days, and no one wants a sweaty, shirtless runner whizzing past you while you feast on a plate of porcini agnolotti paired with a glass of albario.
But this is not just a story about aesthetics and public space. It’s actually much more complicated because going topless isn’t an accessible or realistic option for many — it’s actually a privilege enjoyed by a few. So is safe and comfortable running, which is an experience people of colour remember (see: Running While Black), those who identify as women, and those who don’t respect their gender. If you are a person who is at risk of being harassed as you walk around, something about increasing the pace seems to make existing problems worse.
“I feel like I’m being harassed more when I run than just walking around, and I’ve often wondered why that is,” says Gina Stocco, a Toronto runner. “Part of me thinks some people who would do that see a woman out there doing something for herself, and maybe it’s just to piss you off. Maybe it’s a matter of power or control. ”
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Stocco started running relatively recently in a sports bra (no shirt). She braced herself for an increase in harassment, but isn’t sure if it’s worse than before. But while running in a sports bra removes one layer and may expose us to more harassment, it’s not the same as running shirtless, something most women would say they can’t do.
However, isn’t it funny that the language is “we can’t do it”? “” she says. “We can, but it comes with all these different things that you have to think about, like safety and even just body image and what it’s like to be a person who identifies as a woman in public and feels that other people feel they are entitled to it. That they expect you to look a certain way to please them while you’re gone.
And we “can” because 30 years ago, Gwen Jacob, a student at the University of Guelph, went topless on a hot and humid day and was charged with indecency. She took her case to the Court of Appeals, where it was quashed, and thanks to her, “top freedom” is currently legal in Ontario. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it viable.
“Even though I’m in my 40s and I care much less about what anyone thinks of me than I ever did, I would never feel comfortable topless,” said Lucy Sterezylo, a Toronto runner and book printer. “I know that, in theory, I could. And legally, I can. But I just think I’d never get past that hurdle to wonder about other people’s looks, which is such a shame. Actually, as I say, it’s infuriating. ”
Sterezylo says that, as a person who identifies as a woman, there’s a certain point in childhood when you’re told to put your shirt on. She wonders what it would be like to be free from these burdens and restrictions and just enjoy the freedom to bike, swim, and, of course, run shirtless, especially as summers get hotter and more stifling.
“I have a few kids and my youngest isn’t gender-sensitive, and some days they run around shirtless and are just so tough, and some days they wear a dress,” she says. ‘And I hope that lasts as long as possible, but I don’t think everything changes as quickly as it takes to recapture that beauty of youth and that freedom to not care. People really shouldn’t give a shit. That’s how it should be. ”
Ben Kaplan says that, except for his family, most people don’t seem to really care about his bare chest.
I’ve been teased by my teammates, like benign ribbing,” he recalls, “but I’ve certainly never heard anything like, hey, ‘fatso, put on a shirt, furry monkey.’ I’ve never been called names, harassed or abused, so I’m sure this is a gender issue. ”
It is a much deeper problem than it appears at first glance. It’s not so much a question of etiquette, it’s about barriers to exercise that are ingrained in assumptions about race, gender, class, and sexuality. A good start, however, could at least be if the runners who enjoy the freedom of not caring about anything became aware of how little the rest of us do and how rare a privilege it is to enjoy it.
“It starts with removing a piece of fabric,” Stocco says, “but there are so many layers.”