American thigh

Saturday afternoon we met our friend Joanna at Wahoo’s, a taco joint near Manhattan Beach, where we ordered a sack full of blackened fish tacos and other goodies to take down to the beach. Parking would suck, Joanna had told us, and the beach would be a zoo, but it was near other commitments we had that morning and convenience won the day. It would be scene enough, she also assured us, to generate conversation.

Joanna had driven up that morning from San Diego, her kids in the back of the car. The girls are adorable: Ella, two and a half, told us early on that she loved to sing and dance to the punctuation song (vintage “Electric Company”) and that she would get her own surfboard when she was ten. As we walked toward the beach she was captivated by any storefront window featuring flipflops. Rosa, not yet one, sat in her stroller wide-eyed and hungry. She toggled back and forth from breastfeeding to eating big people food — whole chunks of plum, spoonfuls of beans and rice — throughout the afternoon. She rolled on the beach until her whole face was covered with warm sand, her big blue eyes blinking.

Our girls wanted nothing else but to boogie board, and luckily Joanna, native So-Cal, could give them better pointers than we’ve been able to. While they rushed to the waves and Stephanie and I unpacked the taco bag, I had the same feeling I’ve experienced repeatedly on various LA beaches over the last week: why do we do anything else in our lives but sit in the sun and relax?

My reverie hit a momentary glitch as I pulled my tanktop over my head and stepped out of my baggy beach shorts to let the sun start to soak in. It took only a moment to realize I was the only male within view who was wearing a suit cut above the knee. I felt like a delegate from the Society for the Preservation of the American Male Thigh.

Here’s a typical scene from Manhattan Beach, randomly googled. I challenge you to find one male beachgoer not wearing board shorts.

who wears short shorts?

Here’s what my shorts looked like, though granted this is not my body.

same shorts, different body

Where did I go wrong? Did I go wrong?

For one thing, I’ve spent the last five years living in New York, riding the train out to Coney Island and Brighton Beach on hot summer days. At the latter, Russian men of all ages stroll the shore as if competing over who can wear the least lycra, and the most brightly decorated. (Not exactly true: Russian teenagers seem to favor swimming in their Calvin Kleins, the way some of their grandmas seem to favor sunbathing in their bras.) A site called claims to document New York City men’s swimwear in general, but most of the photos seem to come from Brighton. Here are a couple of my favorites:

the godfather

you lookin' at me?

big odessa

A couple things summering out at Little Odessa has taught me, and the biggest lesson is that sexy is as sexy does. And it’s not just the Russians. New York’s beaches are the world’s beaches, I suppose, and all kinds show up — most of them refusing to wear the circus-tent issue favored by American males.

multigeneration refusal of american norms

he'd rather be nude -- wouldn't you?

While most Americans would recoil at the sight of these hairy, big-bellied (or hairless, skinny) men in speedos, I think there’s something grand in their lack of self-consciousness about their bodies. Why do they wear these suits? Because the sun feels good on your thighs, of course. Because fabric feels good when it’s cut to fit. Because naked men with tan lines at the knees look kind of absurd.

It seems that most of the world’s men agree on these points, but Americans for some reason over the last few decades have come to be terrified at the idea of men other than olympic swimmers exposing thigh, or, worse, publicly acknowledging the male form between the knee and the waist. It didn’t used to be that way; the shorts I favor are, after all, “retro.” To wit, Tab Hunter, circa 1955:


I suppose that over the last five to ten years I’ve also moved away from the American norm as I’ve come to feel quite differently about my body than I did as a kid. As a teenager I always felt a little scrawny, like I didn’t deserve to wear tanktops because I wasn’t one of those guys who spent his afterschool hours squirreled up in the weight room. But as I got older — especially those years when I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape through running and yoga — I realized that somewhere along the way slim male bodies had gained some cache and that most of the highschool weightlifters I knew had long since descended into beerbellies and baldness. Worse, their steroids had probably long since shrunk their peckers to wee little peanuts. What the hell did I have to worry about?

At Manhattan Beach the other day I was shocked at the conservatism that reigned. It was an overwhelmingly white scene, and overwhelmingly straight, almost like it was an annex for local highschools and USC frat and sorority houses (which it probably is). I expect straight middle-American males to be afraid of their thighs, both because they probably tend to be on the heavy side and because they’re nervous about exposing their intimate anatomy — to women, who might find their packages underwhelming, or to other men, who might find them attractive or laughable. I expected LA to be a little more forward thinking. Not at this beach, at least. The whole boardshorts phenomenon that’s reigned from the early-80s forward (and has always been strongly aligned with the popular image of surf culture) seems fueled by homophobia on one hand and by a fundamentalist fear that the world might not cower before male authority if it realizes the penis is, after all, just a stubby little scrap of flesh.

I was pleased, for my part, to realize I didn’t really give a shit about having the shortest shorts on the beach. I like how sun feels on my upper thighs, and I like how fabric feels when it fits. I dove beneath waves, swam out a bit and back, admired the boarders surfing. When I came back to the beach the suit clung even a bit tighter. Compared to other men on the beach, I was sporting a veritable divining rod, aiming toward the ocean as I watched the tide come in. A couple teenage kids acknowledged as much as they passed. “Hey, man,” one said. “Which way’s West?” I laughed to myself — the joke was funny after all — and felt fine knowing that I didn’t need to answer.

7 responses to “American thigh”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Yeah, nice post, dude. I’m looking forward to more about SoCal culture from the perspective of the New Yorker as you settle in here for the summer.

    One thing that comes to mind as a possible partial explanation for the board short phenomenon is that as athletic shorts (basketball players, especially) lengthened and ‘going to the beach’ has become increasingly associated with athletic activity (boarding, surfing, etc.) instead of tanning and relaxing, longer shorts have come to dominate as a crossover from other sports. This has been reinforced by the infiltration of hip-hop style into white-boy SoCal culture.

    The one thing that I find interesting about long shorts is that, even as they cover the thigh and cloak the genitals more thoroughly, they also tend to expose the ass crack. It’s very common to see board shorts riding down enough to expose dudes’ cracks and the tops of their butt cheeks, due to the weight of all that water-soaked material. Of course, this lowrider look is another element nicked from hip-hop style, so it looks funky fresh to their eyes.


    P.S. Was the AC/DC reference in the title intentional? You had me fighting for air.

  2. MF says:

    Go Brian! Show off those thighs! American men tend way to much toward hiding out. If the rest of the world used the word “dork,” that’s what they’d call those board-short wearing CA surfers.

  3. Ruben Mancillas says:

    I used to play tennis in the mid 80’s and let me tell you those shorts were short. I think Tim is onto something when he talks about the general trend in sportswear over the last two decades moving towards shorts that can be seen as a crossover and that the dominant model is a kind of one (gigantic) size fits all basketball short. I heard that Jordan was the model for this-the story about him wearing his Carolina shorts underneath his Bulls shorts and all-but wonder if this is apocryphal. If I were to wear my lucky Borg Fila’s with the two inch (at most) inseam to the courts today I would probably get the same kind of looks those Russian guys in their swimsuits would get at Manhattan Beach. Not sure why it happened besides marketing, it’s easier to sell one silhouette of a product that if not exactly flattering can at least be sold to most every body type. My tennis centric view of the world blames Nike and the domination of American tennis players who willingly wore those long shapeless shorts. Of course, now Nadal wears Capri pants of all things so maybe I shouldn’t hold out hope for an European led old school revival of short shorts anytime soon. A crisis of the patriarchy might be at play too though.

    I know I am saying too much about shorts but why is it that when NBA teams gleefully market their throwback jersey nights they still wear modern day length shorts? Has anyone seen an ESPN Classic Lakers/Celtic finals game lately-yeah, Magic and Bird are great but even I can’t get over those shorts for the first minute or two. I think John Stockton was the last current player to wear shorts that weren’t ridiculous in length.

    Now I’ve got to go dig up my old Sergio Tacchini’s with the drawstring-you remember, McEnroe circa 1984. But I haven’t been as virtuous with my yoga as it sounds like Bryan has so wish me luck still fitting in to them!

  4. so jeremy and i had a conversation about this after i posted it last week, and he pointed out two things: one, he doesn’t think the old russian dudes are somehow less homophobic because they’re not afraid to show some bulge below the belt. true, of course, but my rejoinder is that they seem to me to be a little more comfortable with their masculinity. the whole hiphop/jordan/athletic argument doesn’t buy much with me because 1) i can’t imagine a sport that’s *better* executed because you’re wearing that much cloth, and 2) I think the whole hiphop masculinity bit smacks of nothing more than insecurity about one’s masculinity. it’s all self-conscious posture, and it makes total sense to me that the main thing baggy clothes have done for mainstream american male culture is to protect the holy mythology of the penis from any sort of serious scrutiny. think of how uncomfortable most american filmgoers are with male full frontal–even something as innocuous as room with a view or the piano. those scenes were legendary.

    jeremy’s second point had to do with boxers v briefs, and i guess he’s right — people who can’t imagine *not* wearing boxers probably can’t imagine wearing a speedo. again, though, i think there’s something to be said for fabric that fits.

    tim — i had sort of thought of ACDC when i came up with that title, but i was also thinking about American Pie.

    finally, i should say that the other morning i was running down on the beach (here in Long Beach) and i saw a whole gaggle of 17-year-old lifeguards in training. the guys were all in short shorts and seemed fine with it. i imagine it has to do with growing up taking diving and swimming classes and being a competitive swimmer. jeremy and i kayaked through the canals down here on sunday, too, and saw more teenagers in speedos diving into the canals from bridges. so maybe it does have something to do with manhattan beach’s particular demographic.

  5. CF says:

    I moved to Manhattan Beach from NYC a year ago and you are totally dead-on in your suspicion of MB’s demo in particular. This place is cookie-cutter to the extreme.

    It sucks.

  6. Tim Wager says:

    Salon has a story today about the author’s original fear of and then conversion to wearing Speedos:

    Maybe the rest of America is going to catch up soon.

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