Oh boy! The scourge of topless men in London parks

·5-min read
 (Evening Standard comp)
(Evening Standard comp)

It was a Saturday morning when I first noticed them. I had drunk too much the night before, slept too little and was now making trudging progress to my 11am haircut. Still, it was sunny and the park was gradually filling up with people full of the joys of spring, making their way to Broadway Market to buy a scorchingly dear bit of Comté and oysters from that stall by the bins. All was well in the world — or at least in this bit of it in east London.

Then I saw them by the pull-up bars. Three of them loitering like big cats by a watering hole. Topless, seemingly built by the same firm who did the Great Wall of China, they were impossible specimens of men. Muscles bulged, bellies did not, and they were all wearing those skin-tight lycra trousers that Mr Motivator used to flex in.

There they were grunting and chuntering and posing. “Just one more rep, bro…” It was hard to know where to look. Which, of course, was rather the point. There would be another few chin-ups, then a pause, pose, and a nonchalant look forward, as if they weren’t counting the number of people looking at them.

We are in a time when men everywhere are beefing up and making sure everyone knows it. Gyms, indoor as well as outdoor, are booming, as are bodybuilding competitions and extreme obstacle races like Tough Mudder.

This has been fuelled by social media where The Rock is king, body transformations are a fast route to more likes, and where gym bros with zero body fat can give up the day job and simply work out for a living as a succession of protein shake companies throw money at them.

The pop culture milieu is dominated by the likes of Love Island, Top Gun: Maverick, and Marvel superheroes, which have established an ultra-ripped body as the norm for leading men and basic celebs alike. This “go big or go home” approach has trickled down into an expectation that is now prevalent in high streets and workplaces, from building sites to trading floors.

Hang low: east London is awash with half naked peacocking (NeonShot)
Hang low: east London is awash with half naked peacocking (NeonShot)

In some ways, this is men experiencing the kind of social body pressures that women have been subjected to for a long time, a kind of alarming levelling up in anxiety that has resulted in dramatically rising eating disorder figures in men. There has also been much discussion about the effects of “masculinity in crisis” — men are feeling under threat from rising equality and so are spending their time seeking reassurance about their manliness by aping Thor.

Yet this trend of displaying your bodily wares appears to often work on a more basic level: men who have spent a lot of time and effort on their bodies want to show off the gains. Let’s face it, a heatwave isn’t required before stacked men strip to the waist.

Certainly, the men I saw working out didn’t seem troubled by insecurity and instead were all about a peacocking display, and likely some animalistic territorial dominance too. But whatever it was, I hurried on to my short back and sides.

Now there was a time when parks were for taking in air or drinking lager. They were places to relax, where a delinquent alsatian or a football were the only things to break the mood of happy repose.

Since the pandemic, however, the simple pleasures of the park have come under threat: and that threat comes in the shape of a buff male body, shorn of its clothes, doing pull-ups. As my friend Dan pointed out the other day: “That bit of London Fields is now a cross between Muscle Beach and a Versace shoot.”

The simple pleasures of the park have come under threat: and that threat comes in the shape of a buff male body

It is not just London Fields either. The pull-up bar and its close relations, the stall bar and rings, are now everywhere in London, north to south, east to west. Where once there were slides and see-saws, now there are bars and more bars.

It is like an invading army. You will find them at Finsbury Park, Ducketts Common, the Lordship Rec Ground and Elthorne Park. And with them, come rain or shine, hell or high water, you will find an unfeasibly muscular geezer who has come to show off.

I can see some of the sense in outdoor gyms, of course. We all need to keep fit, it is good for body and mind, no one can dispute it. But outdoor gyms come in many shapes and sizes. And some of those shapes lend themselves to certain types of working out. We might split these differing exercise regimens into two categories: the efficient and the vain. The Great Outdoor Gym Company, which supplies many of the parks, offers many efficient bits of kit that you will often see used by young and old.

Hand bikes, for instance, or leg presses, or even the pull-down machines for your lats. But in east London these often stand unused and unloved because, well, you would look a right pillock using them with your top off; they are not conducive to power stances and mid-burn posing. And so, it is all about those vainglorious bars.

Power pose: London’s men are working out topless and en masse (Shutterstock / Just dance)
Power pose: London’s men are working out topless and en masse (Shutterstock / Just dance)

It would be easy to blame the council for all this. But looking into the matter, I find that the council put them in after a glut of people actually asked them to install an open-air gym. In the subsequent consultation, 98 per cent of people said they wanted them (the two per cent who didn’t were apparently concerned about noise pollution) which, once again, shows us the folly of referendums.

But even a moderately sporty person passing by cannot fail to feel small and inadequate while on the way to the pub, or for that matter walking to a haircut.

Another friend of mine who has run marathons from New York to Paris to Berlin summed it up thus: “When I pass, I feel just about the size of a chihuahua”.

It is vanity run wild, an attack on the sanctity of the London park. Topless exercising, like picking your nose, ought only to be done in the comfort of your own home.

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