We must stop shaming topless middle-aged men in the sunshine

Budgie smuggled: Ray Winstone embraces the sun in the British crime classic ‘Sexy Beast’  (Shutterstock)
Budgie smuggled: Ray Winstone embraces the sun in the British crime classic ‘Sexy Beast’ (Shutterstock)

Hello. My name is Oliver Keens and I am the quintessential topless guy in your community. At the very moment rays of consistent sunlight start to appear in spring, I am the first middle-aged man in the park, blanket laid out, pathetically turning himself around every six minutes like a shish kebab on a grill, trying to get a covering that is deep and crisp and even. Fake tan is not my bag, tanning salons can do one: this isn’t about vanity or beauty, I just want sun, and plenty of it. And you can tell this because I take my top off in the sunshine – a lot.

The trouble is, there’s a palpable air of disquiet around being a topless middle-aged man. For example, every summer a tabloid tut-tut fest breaks out, bemoaning the sight of lumpy topless men in the park, lumpy topless men on the high street, or the hygiene issues of men being lumpy and topless in Tesco – as though we don’t let dogs, forever with their sweet wet noses in other dog’s anal glands, into stores to sniff at the onions. Self-appointed etiquette experts such as William Hanson – a proudly conservative dresser who gives profound William Hague energy and hosts the popular Help I Sexted My Boss podcast – are typically asked to give their views, mostly delivered with eyes closed, lips pouting and prefaced with a stiff shake of the head as if to say “no no no”.

Well without wishing to cause Hanson’s monocle to plop into his no-doubt elegant tea cup, I absolutely don’t care what society makes of me. With summer about to break, I am a 44-year-old man, already mooching about topless in every park in the UK, soaking up vitamin D, increasing serotonin, vastly improving my mood through the most natural of acts and alleviating depression in the process. It helps me to sunbathe topless, and I know you can handle it: as a society, we handle a man’s upper body all the time.

A sexy man is a topless man. If you don’t believe me, just type “sexy man” into Google Images and you’ll see a forever scroll of hunks that are shirtless. We’re past the latent homophobia or classist associations with manual labour of the early 20th century. Today, nobody minds a topless hunk. Nobody complained when the internet binged on pictures of Jeremy Allen White modelling Calvin Klein back in January. We can tolerate a topless softy, such as Nicholas Galitzine on the poster for The Idea of You, as much as a topless blood-lusting warrior – think Gerard Butler on the poster for 300. This isn’t a shallow recent concept either. Religious martyrs like St Sebastian (as famously depicted by early renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna) are shown both wounded by arrows whilst demonstrably ripped and toned. Even Jesus is frequently blessed with a six-pack in numerous depictions of the crucifixion (perhaps a fringe benefit of being a carpenter, who knows).

Yet in real life, the archetype is less Magic Mike and more Tragic Mike. Tragic Mike is the man assumed to be so depressed about his dad bod that it results in an almost bullish defiance to be topless in your line of vision. He’s somehow forcing you to look at his flab, or patchily hairy shoulders, almost through a form of deviancy and desperation – never from a position of empowerment. It rarely occurs to people that, given how much we equate shirtlessness and sexiness, maybe when Tragic Mike uses the freedom and liberty to be shirtless, it might just be because he wants to feel sexy once in a while? In an age of body positivity, is that so bad?

Typical summer sight: a man walks topless through London’s Hyde Park (Getty)
Typical summer sight: a man walks topless through London’s Hyde Park (Getty)

It’s actually perfectly legal for anyone of any gender to be naked in the UK, so long as they’re not intending to shock or upset anyone. This means that baring flesh is more likely to offend sensibilities, like those of an etiquette expert like Hanson, than it is to be an actual offence under the law. Having never been a woman, I can’t speak to what the experience of being topless in public must be like. But having been around countless breast-feeding women, the idea of people being dismissive or judgemental about what a woman does with her body is obviously insane. Yet it still somehow, in 2024, happens. For all our better efforts, we still live in a rampantly judgemental and toxic society around body shapes.

Countries that have a more chilled attitude to public undressing, or even more dedicated nudist areas and beaches in their communities, consistently feel like they have a more grown-up, less uptight attitude to the variety of body shapes we possess. Normalising Tragic Mike, with his paunch, his slim frame and his un-peachy butt, could do a lot to improve the physical wellbeing of men at a stroke (provided they’re using sunscreen, of course).

In many ways, my dad was the mirror of Ray Winstone’s character of “Gal” in the magnificent black comedy crime film Sexy Beast from 2000. I spent many holidays trying to rouse him while – as per Winstone’s character – he was iconically laid out in the Spanish sun, turning pink in yellow budgie-smugglers, the most contented man that ever lived. It’s a shock to me that I’ve become my dad. Yet, like him, I appear to feel no shame here. Maybe he didn’t hear people guffawing over his dad bod, but I do. Maybe if you’re still laughing at a man’s body in 2024, you’re the tragic one?