Is “Shirts and Skins” Outdated?

As my eight year old daughter and I walked into the gym the other night for her basketball practice, we were both confronted with a first.

My daughter had never seen a group of boys playing full-court basketball, with one team not wearing any shirts.  I had not seen a group of young boys playing “shirts on skins” in some time, myself, and it was the first time since the Sandusky and Fine sex abuse scandals.

We both were hesitant to walk in the gym.  Naturally, my daughter was embarrassed to see a bunch of 4th and 5th grade boys running around in nothing but their shorts and shoes.

Seeing the kids instantly brought back uncomfortable memories for me, too, as I always hated being a skin. While very athletic, I did not like my skinny pre adolescent body and I did not like taking off my shirt to play sports.

As my daughter and I peered through the little windows of the gym door, debating if we should or should not walk in, I noticed that many of these kids looked just like me.

Uncomfortable.

Stuck in the small gym lobby, I started thinking to myself, is playing “shirts and skins” appropriate anymore?

In light of the events over the past few months, I wondered if such a commonplace norm in men’s sports, especially in unstructured sport, was appropriate for youth and adolescent participants in 2012.

As a kid of the Cold War era, shirts and skins was a standard practice.  There was no choice, you were either a shirt or a skin, no questions asked.  In 2012, I am not so sure this is appropriate anymore in structured youth sport environments.

I am torn because, on one level, I hated being a skin and I know that there are generations of boys who would agree with me.  There is another side of me, the traditionalist, who says this is simply one aspect of sport that used to be commonplace and should continue as a right of passage from adolescents to manhood, something that is handed down from one generation to the next.

I know there are those out there saying “If you don’t have the confidence to play without your shirt, then you don’t have the ability to play out there anyway.”  This may be correct, yet the point of youth sport is not about how good you are, it is about participation, inclusion and providing an environment for kids to feel comfortable enough to learn about and engage in their sport.

At a societal level, I do not see a place for shirts and skins anymore with boys under the age of eighteen in structured and organized sporting events.   Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against getting a tan and staying cool while playing if you are outside, in hot and sunny weather.  I am not trying to advocate taking any fun out of a game of basketball.

Yet, I do have a difficult time accepting that it is ok for young boys to be running around, barely clothed, in structured and organized practices.

The Sandusky and Fine molestation cases force us to question and rethink any “old school” practices that place kids in vulnerable and uncomfortable circumstances.  I now find myself in daily quandaries, as I am now questioning many long standing traditions in sport.

Many of these traditions were innocently born in the unstructured environments of the playgrounds of the past, yet now it is our obligation to consider consequences and be vigilant about outdated practices that have now become questionable and debatable.

We can no longer assume innocence and claim ignorance when it comes to the motives of adults who coach, teach and mentor our youth.

If we do continue with this blind trust, one day we will read a story about a youth basketball coach, accused of molesting children, who loved to divide their team into shirts and skins.

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9 Responses to “Is “Shirts and Skins” Outdated?”


    • 2 Ben Lynch April 26, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Reading your account of the visit to the gym with your daughter, I totally empathise with your uneasy reaction to the shirts and skins game. It’s the same feeling I get on occasions (rarely now, it has to be said) that I see boys in school groups or sports teams playing with their shirts off – I wonder whether they are comfortable about it and whether they’ve taken their shirts off by choice. And the reason, of course, is that it makes me recall my own school days in the gym, when shirts and skins was the usual practice. I think back over my anxious anticipation of that moment when the teams were chosen, my dread of hearing the brief but fundamental word ‘skin’, my embarrassment at being forced to remove my shirt and display my puny chest to the rest of the class.
      Being a skin made me feel like I was being punished for something, why were many of my friends allowed to keep their shirts on while I had to take mine off? I wasn’t bad at sports yet I didn’t play as well when I was a skin, probably because I was focused more on my own sense of discomfort than the game itself. Playing ‘in skins’ was bad enough at 11 or 12, it was worse at 15 or 16 with other boys proudly showing off defined chests and six-packs while my body was still skinny and underdeveloped.
      I certainly wouldn’t suggest that a boy who prefers to do sports bare-chested should be prevented from doing so, but I can see no good reason to enforce it on a boy who may be shy or self conscious about his body. The issue of child protection is one that must be taken into consideration, of course, but for me it seems simple – if shirts and skins makes boys feel uncomfortable, that in itself should be good enough reason to end the practice.

  1. 3 M. Turbot August 19, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Fascinating. Yet few males wear a shirt at the pool or on the beach.

    And in my neighborhood growing up, there were some families where the kids didn’t wear a shirt from the time school let out in June, to going back in September. Girls too, at least until they started looking different from the boys.

    Today, there is so much concern about skin cancer that kids don’t go out in just running shorts anymore.

    While the person with the first post doesn’t say, I ask what their summers are like? I bet that anyone who grew up where 100+ F was a common summer day is a lot more comfortable about skin.

    I worked in a boys school that often had shirts/skins games. While some guys were uncomfortable with being skins, I also heard lots of comments about guys who were unhappy about being shirts — too hot.

    On canoe expeditions, some of the boys were initially self-conscious, but a week into the trip, how hard you paddled, how well you portaged, your willingness to do camp chores was far more important that how scrawny you looked. And on a warm day, the only shirts on in the entire group were on redheads, or blonds who showed that they burned easily, and were ordered by the staff to keep covered.

    A lot of this unease relates to how well known the kids are to each other. To a stranger, unclothed = vulnerable. To family it often doesn’t matter.

    The family culture is important too. If a boy has seen his dad mowing the lawn in shorts, without a shirt, and his friend’s dads the same way, despite being, old, fat, and ugly, they are far more likely to be casual about their own skin.

    On the other hand, if all the skin they see is associated with bedroom scenes on TV, then no shirt is a sexual signal. And if all the men they see are well defined buff models, with no body hair in sight, then their scrawniness, and the emergence of chest or back hair is an annoucement to themselves, and, without a shirt, to the world that they don’t measure up, and hence they have grounds to feel inferior.

    • 4 Richard W October 25, 2013 at 4:33 am

      I guess it’s true that boys who grow up in an environment where being shirtless is common, especially among male role models like dads or older brothers, may be more comfortable with showing bare skin in public.
      However, going shirtless at the beach, the park or anywhere else is something a boy can make his own choice about. This isn’t the case with situations in school gym classes – at least it wasn’t in my school. The gym teacher was the one who selected teams and it was purely his choice, not yours, as to whether you were a shirt or a skin. As in any group, there were some boys who felt confident and proud of their bodies, but I was not among them and I hated having to take my shirt off. The first time I was a skin, I thought at least it would be different next time… Wrong. The teacher decided to keep the same teams for the next few weeks. The only good thing was that there was no suspense, no feeling of dread before the class, because I already knew I would be a skin. But it seemed so unfair, getting changed and seeing other boys put on their full uniform while I just wore my shorts and had to go to the gym bare-chested.
      Sometimes there wasn’t even any point to it because we didn’t always do sports where you needed to tell teams apart. I couldn’t work out why I had to be bare-chested to run around or do drills and I still don’t know the answer now.
      So, is shirts and skins outdated? Most definitely. Apart from making boys feel uncomfortable and dislike gym class, I can’t see what else it achieves.

  2. 5 Ray November 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    To me, it’s about kids making do with what they have, a lesson that seems to be lost on us in this spoiled generation. In earlier times, there wasn’t the luxury of sports uniforms for play on the field. So, kids made do with what they had – they found a way to differentiate among the players so team play was easier. Thus, shirts versus skins was born.
    Nobody is talking about structured, coached, youth sports – at least I’m not. In those cases, I don’t think shirts and skins is appropriate. I’m talking about a group of kids gathering on a field on a random Saturday and deciding that they want to play a game of football. What’s wrong with them saying, “ok, shirts and skins!?” We need to be very careful about condemning and judging a long established practice as outdated and damaging to our youth. When we do that, it opens the door for the PC police to show up and decide that it is so outdated and damaging that we need to condemn it in every instance. That, I cannot agree with.
    Also, I take exception to your use of the term “barely clothed” when describing these boys. Let’s put it in perspective – all they are missing is a shirt. I’m sorry that societal norms have – for centuries – allowed men to be out in public without a shirt, while women do not benefit from the same advantage.

  3. 6 Philip December 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    What a range of views! It seems really strange and quite sad that a little girl feels uncomfortable about seeing boys without shirts – this is something she has been conditioned to feel. Does she ever go swimming when there are boys present?
    I agree with Ray’s objection to the term “barely-clothed” – there is nothing indecent about boys without shirts. Is society really becoming so prudish – we seem to be slipping back into Victorian times.
    Something else I cannot understand is how a shirt will protect a boy from the advances of a paedophile. Whilst everything should be done to keep these people away from our youngsters it is, sadly, inevitable that the odd one will get through. Will he/she turn round and go away because the boys all have shirts on? From the reports you see it just doesn’t work like that.
    M Turbot’s comment about the only boys wearing shirts were the ones who would burn easily is interesting. Nowadays it seems no boy should expose skin to the sun and this is resulting in the return of rickets. Obviously parents, teachers etc should takes steps to prevent children in their care getting sunburnt but things have gone too far now with damaging effects to children’s health as a consequence.
    We rarely played shirts and skins when I was at school as we did not wear shirts for p.e. In the gym we wore coloured bands to distinguish teams – outside we wore white or black shorts. This was simple and effective – no-one was selected to wear a shirt or not and I think we all enjoyed the freedom and exhilaration of not having to wear a shirt.

  4. 7 Kev December 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I feel more uncomfortable about a grown man who goes on so much about bare chested boys in shorts, and who’s daughter was embarrassed rather than excited to see her peers shirtless….. It’s much better to have a society where whether or not a boy is wearing a shirt is of no interest to anyone and we’re not trying to control people’s lives.

  5. 8 Arn September 9, 2014 at 8:28 am

    The final argument is faulty. Pedophiles are not stopped by kids wearing a shirt, so stop defending your being afraid of walking around shirtless by claiming you are protecting kids against Pedos. And as far as your daughter is concerned, if you had let her know that there is nothing wrong with boys being shirtless, she would not be so afraid. I agree with Kev. It does make me feel uncomfortable to hear a grown man going on about how bad being shirtless is for boys, more so if it is only to defend his own weakness. If you don’t like being shirtless, fine, but leave others out of it.

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