A Spectator's Guide to Chests

UPDATED 07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

I remember seeing the film The River, which had something to do with floodwaters in Tennessee, but primarily contained a scene where Mel Gibson took off his shirt. There may have been other scenes in this movie, but who remembers what they were? "If that chest belongs to an impoverished Tennessee farmer," I told my date, "then I am Rhonda Fleming."

A man's chest does not lie. It is a Texaco road map of a man's entire life and times. In fact, each decade in American culture has had a Great Chest that it could call its own. Take the '30s film It Happened One Night, which had something to do with hitchhiking but primarily contained a scene where Clark Gable took off his shirt. That one scene changed America forever, spawning the Undershirts Are for Geeks movement (for Mr. Gable wore none) as men across the land whipped off their Fruit of the Looms and let the trade winds whip through their chest hair.

And now we have Sylvester Stallone, making the definitive statement about chests for the '80s. Eight years ago his chest was only good enough to box its way out of Philadelphia's slums. Now in his Rambo years, Mr. Stallone is proving that if men of the '60s had had barer, brawnier chests, that little Vietnam problem could have been sewn up in a couple of weekends.

Many men ask the question, "What chests do women want?" And it is a tantalizing question, because most Nautilus spokespeople contend that a great chest is within every man's grasp. (Or grip. Whatever.) Do women cry, "Give us megapectorals," or "hair growth like Mighty Joe Young?" Do they want an aesthetic chest, or one that invites hands-on experience?

A lot of men are convinced that the hairier torsos always get the nod, whereas women will aver that this is an archaic notion. Famous Anthropologists theorize that the popularity of hairy chests goes back to the days of the Wisconsin Glacial Stage, 100,000 years ago, when hirsutism must have been a survival-linked trait. A hairy chest trapped a layer of air in the wintertime, so that a woman married to a furry man did not freeze to death quite as readily as the less blessed woman in the next cave. Nowadays a near-hairless chest isn't cause for distress. And any man with a blow dryer and a can of quality mousse has no excuse not to make the most of what he has.

Which leaves us with the issue of Development. Certainly, large, flamboyant chests became popular with American moviegoers via low-budget Italian gladiator epics, where the hero always had the most-defined, the best-greased and therefore the holiest chest on the screen. If it were not for Steve Reeves, many young women of the '50s would have been unable to embrace, as it were, the concept of male sexuality at all. Understandably, this prompted a backlash from a lot of '50s guys, who said, "Yeah, so what's wrong with a good sense of humor, anyway?" And of course, there's nothing wrong with a good sense of humor. (Notice, however, that for most of Annie Hall, Woody Allen has sex without removing his shirt.)

The answer, of course, is that a woman cannot look at a chest as a mere disembodied object. It is a source of comfort and hope to her, and whom it belongs to makes more than a little difference. It is the best part of a man to hug, because a) it is the place where a man's arms grow out of; and b) hugging any other part of a man's body in public would look mighty strange. A man's chest contains an organ which does not lie, which is to say, his rapidly beating heart. (Other organs of a man's body do not lie exactly, so much as they frequently overstate the point.) When a man is saying, "Oh, Marcia, I want you to be my love slave for ever and ever," if his manly heart is going thwap, thwap, thwap, Marcia has every reason to believe it is thwapping the truth to her.

A lot of women have more—shall we say—catholic tastes in chests than men might realize. Placido Domingo has a great chest simply because of the sound that comes out of it. Women with a sense of subtlety feel that Clark Kent has a better chest than Superman, largely because a huge red "S" on any man's chest is not a fashion statement many women feel comfortable with. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a chest to be reckoned with, but is it actually more an assortment of chest modules than a chest? So much is going on in Mr. Schwarzenegger's chest that it is doubtful that anyone has ever looked at it all at the same time.

And then there is Stallone's chest, one of the most high-concept chests in all of mass media. But is it a sexy chest? Certainly spending the night with it could be no less thrilling than having foreplay with a Winnebago.

On the highest level it could probably be said that women are a tad envious of the idea of men's chests. There's no denying that a man can expose his chest in public and be flirting like heck and get away with it. Since his chest contains no publicly acknowledged erogenous zones, he is well within his rights. "Gee, it's hot," a man says, and whip-o: The air is thick with pectoral power. This probably explains the urban woman's mythic (and begrudging) fascination with the construction worker on his lunch hour. Construction workers are the only men in urban areas who have chests. Everyone else just has lapels.

It behooves me to say here that if any national magazine were to run an essay of this length and soberness on the subject of women's chests, it would be in execrable taste, and this author would be the first person to write that magazine a letter in protest. But the pendulum of fairness has not yet swung back to dead center. Personally I will know that civilization has truly risen out of the slime of benightedness the day I hear a woman say to a man, in the great tradition of Groucho Marx, "If I told you you had a great chest, would you hold it against me?" At the very least, that woman would deserve a free cigar.

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