Shirts and skins

beech graffitiIt’s the back-to-school season, and I wake up with cold knees thinking, shirts and skins. Touch football. Wishful thinking on the part of our high school gym teachers, that latter term. We were not there to touch, much less to be touched — a popular euphemism for insanity when I was a kid. Manliness meant playing rough, rejecting all gentler forms of physical contact. To be a man meant to carry a switchblade in the front pocket and a can of chewing tobacco in the rear, to be always ready with a lightning-swift jab or a stream of spit.

Even for a pacifist such as I was then, showing fear or pain would’ve wounded my pride, that golem, that reservoir of touchiness. I learned to stand still and smile when someone punched me in the chest with all their strength, and to show up at the appointed spot for an after-school fight ready to turn the other, defiant cheek. I got good at it — maybe too good. My skin — I like to say when people wonder whether they should venture to criticize something I’ve done — is a mile thick.

But perhaps the operative measurement is not thickness, but proportion of surface to volume. In which case, I must’ve been nearly as sensitive as one can get, since I was always very ectomorphic — i.e., skinny. Unlike now, when my heart and my gut — that moral lodestone of our president — are much more insulated from direct contact with the world.

Even though I hated team sports, the symbolic aspect of the contest between shirts and skins fascinated me. The Skins: lord, how we white people have always loved to play at savage, stripping for the Boston Tea Party, wearing blackface, getting “tribal” tattoos. Naturally hairy, how we have alternately loathed and adored the shaved skin, the tattooed skin, the pierced skin! And then to make such a commotion about its color, because the eyes at least can hold another at a distance and still take her measure, unlike the sense of touch. Once upon a time in white America, ultimate humiliation wore a thick skin of tar coated with feathers. Soft, sticky, tar-baby-dangerous, it represented everything a man must reject. We need so badly to steel ourselves against the treacherous vulnerability of the Other.

Nakedness in European culture has long been confused with an existential withoutness. The naked savage by definition lacks civilization, refinement, even — yes — sensitivity! But boys’ pick-up sports, even in a school without uniforms, may show the folly of this conception, because in fact it is the shirts who are defined by what they cannot be: nude. In a situation where nakedness is elective and clothing is otherwise compulsive, it is the clothed who are without that most precious of possessions, freedom.

In other situations, of course, the opposite may be true — under slavery, for example. In that case, the skin itself became a uniform, and a single value — blackness — was imposed on a wide range of colors. One way or another, the infinitely attractive and subtle skin challenges those who would enforce uniformity of behavior. For Westerners, and for anyone else who aspires to modernity, your shirt is the one thing you don’t want to lose. However much we fetishize the naked skin, clothed remains the standard, the flag, the team colors that inspire allegiance to the rules of the contest. Clothed and closed.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

7 Comments


  1. Clothing certainly conveys meaning, status, identity, and as you suggest, ethnicity. There must be some sort of dialectic occurring between those with different sartorial standards. But it is very hard for me not to see it as a one-way power play. The “skins” mimic the naked “savage,” and in so doing, in ways subtle and not, show again who in this society may fetishize the other.
    But what is happening the other way? What is happening to the traditionally, necessarily, colonially underclad when young white boys flaunt tattoos and naked chests and tribal motifs? Does this act of the powerful taking off their clothes serve only to cement the otherness of the other, or does the other gain something intrinsic in all this?
    For a good read on such things, there is the Comaroffs’ study of British missions in South Africa “Of Revelation and Revolution.”

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  2. Good questions.

    Thanks for the comment and reading recommendation. I might come back in a day or two with some more reactions.

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  3. To complicate the argument further, images of nude women are publicly acceptable, but not male nudes. Men can take off their shirts in public, women cannot.

    There is a strange power being the only one in a room without clothing, but would not be if it is by force of the rest, being the epitome of vulnerability.

    Many questions twining and amorphous depending on context and interpretation.

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  4. Many questions twining and amorphous depending on context and interpretation.
    Well put.

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  5. “I learned to stand still and smile when someone punched me in the chest with all their strength, and to show up at the appointed spot for an after-school fight ready to turn the other, defiant cheek.”

    What display of huge strength of character, a territory beyond what my own small region of pusillaminity could ever recognize. I think I developed early habits of cowardice which have only rooted deeper over time. How did you refuse the temptation to defend yourself? What were your models? Your father certainly. As well your pacificism would have been abetted by your seclusion from television and perhaps pulp fiction as well. I got into a modest appointed afterschool bout that was well attended, as all such advertised matches were. I had no idea how to throw a punch and the whole thing was play-acting mostly. I think I struck the fellow once in the face, somewhat openhandedly. A very dissappointed teacher broke the contest up and I was walked home from the playground attended by an newly admiring friend who jibbered excitedly “You really connected with that one punch. You could the hear the ‘pow’ just like on TV!” The suprising payoff was a moment of intimate comity and amnity with my opponent the next day at gym, grins, eye contact and shared bonds of fat lips and sore shoulders.
    I see myself here sadly conforming to overiding expectations, absolutely lacking independent vision. Old news.

    As I reread I see I use “attended” twice. Yes. Attention is what I got. I announced to the school that was conformable in nomal, expectable, ways. What were you announcing to the greater public with your refusals? That you presented unknowable and independent mind? Payments of tribute that attended your pathway were scorn, abuse, electric, poisoinous regard daily confirming your identity.

    My partner is a high school teacher. She has a new student who seldom comes to school. The principal finally explained to here that the student, very small for his age, had been savagely hazed at his previous school, perhaps St. Louis’ most prestigious private high school. The hazing culminated in the student being lifted over the head of his tormenter and thrown to the wood floor of a basketball court, while the coach was looking the other way. The student’s neck was broken and he spent a year in recovery. A case was brought to court but thrown out by the judge, due to conflicting eyewitness accounts. The hazers were never punished by their school.

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  6. Whoa. That’s messed up (to put it mildly).

    What display of huge strength of character
    I don’t know about that. When i look back on those days, I see an arrogant little snob who withdrew into his own, private world in order to shield himself from social bruising, and accepted the role of class pariah and brain because it meant he would be left pretty much alone. My pacifism, which I think had a quasi-Christian origin, flourished in the shadow of my older brother’s nuclear umbrella — Tyroners have long memories, and his creaming of a supposedly tough kid two years his senior was not soon forgotten. At any rate, to me, character is best measured in positive acts of kindness and generosity, and I can’t remember committing too many of those. I was a self-centered little beast. (Not that I’m that much better now, actually.)

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  7. You guys were tough! We never did shirts and skins touch football. We did lots of shirts and skins basketball, though. Indoors basketball.

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