Sunbathing On The Tractor 


It seems to me that more than the usual number of young men are appearing in upscale fashion magazines stripped to the waist. Nudity can hardly prevail in the bodily attire business but I guess it works when said young men are standing next to  young women wearing the latest from Madison Avenue. But bare-chested men are not a new fashion trend. They  were quite common  on the farm even back  in my high testosterone years. The really avant-garde thing to do then was drive a tractor shirtless in the glaring sun all day. When fields were lined with brushy fencerows giving the tractor drivers some privacy from motorists passing on the roads, some females were known to do similarly. I once asked a professor at an agricultural college how he managed to get the female students to do all tedious weeding required in test plots. He shrugged. “We allow them to go bra-less.”

Oh how carefree and sexy it seemed to make us feel. The darker the tan, the better. Who needs  tanning salons. But as a result, various pre-cancer and cancerous skin blemishes are epidemic today and dermatology is a lucrative field of medicine.

Even in those days, there were plenty of warnings against overexposure to the sun. There was talk of how atmospheric changes were making the sun’s radiation stronger than in earlier times. But now, studying history, I believe that the danger was always there and older generations knew it. Old photos show that field workers of yesteryear covered themselves almost completely from head to toe.  For example, the  J.C. Allen photos from the mid-1900s farming scene that The Draft Horse Journal  publishes every issue, show very little bare skin.  Women wore bonnets as big as umbrellas and men wore wide-brimmed straw hats.  Long-sleeved shirts were buttoned up to the neck.  One photo in the 2014 Summer issue, of a young woman picking blackberries in Texas, is particularly striking. She is wearing a very loose-fitting blouse that rides high up almost to her ears, and slacks that fit loosely down to her shoes.  It is hard to know that the figure is a woman except for the hair done up in a bun under her huge straw hat. If you have ever picked blackberries, you know the clothing is as much for protection against the thorns and chiggers as from the sun, but if only she could speak, I bet she’d say she was much cooler dressed that way than in a bikini. She reminded me of a painting that hangs in our bedroom: a group of farm workers of the Middle Ages coming home from the fields on a summer evening. Their clothes look as though they are headed for church on Sunday morning.

About forty years ago, there was an attempt to sell farmers and other outdoor workers ball caps that had a bill in back like the one in front to protect the back of the neck as well as the face and forehead from the sun. I can’t recall ever seeing a farmer wearing one of them.  If clothing manufacturers were to push long-sleeved shirts for field workers today they would surely go broke. But old men who always wore long sleeved blue chambray or white linen shirts when they shocked wheat and oats in the old days told me  such clothing was far more comfortable and cooler in the sun than bare skin. There’s another reason for shirts when shocking wheat. I shocked bearded wheat in Minnesota once minus a shirt and woke up in the night with a pain in my stomach.  A barbed beard from a wheat head had stuck into my belly button and was systematically working its way inward.

Of course the day has passed when  sun exposure is as much of a problem on the farm.  Farmers in the field now bask in the shade of their air-conditioned tractor cabs. But in case you’re wondering, they still are sometimes shirtless. Have to keep up with the latest fashion styles.


I always end up crawling around in the garden doing some project … so it’s long pants with rubber bands around the bottom (keeps chiggers out). Sun, though, does provide much needed Vitamin D. If you can shade your face, eyes and neck, but keep the top of your head open (unless you’re bald) you can absorb lots of D during the summer. It’s a hard choice … allow the sun to be absorbed for health but take a chance on cancer ….. hmmmm … all things in moderation.

thetinfoilhatsociety June 28, 2014 at 9:55 am

The wisdom of those in earlier times is greater than you know – not only do linen (and to a lesser extent cotton) shirts protect from the sun’s damaging rays, the fabric acts as a swamp cooler, with a greater surface area for breezes to evaporate it and cool the skin. Wool is even better for this, if you can believe it – that’s why the Bedoin and many other N. African and ME tribes still wear wool outer wear.

Its ironic that when I was a kid we were encouraged to get more sun and get a tan. Being a pale skinned kid I only burned and eventually learned to avoid the sun after numerous painful sunburns. . Now my skin rarely sees the sun but I guess the damage was done.

A week and a half ago it was in the 90s and humid. I made the mistake of thinking I could get away with wearing shorts and a t-shirt while scything a pasture that hadn’t been touched all year. Fifty-seven black fly bites later, I learned a valuable lesson.

Being a chigger magnet, I have always had to wear long sleeve shirts and pants when I am out picking, planting or weeding. Even then I still get my share.
And oh how I remember putting up soybean and clover bales that irritate the heck out of every exposed piece of flesh!

About the only time I was stripped to my skives was when I swam in the local creek to cool off after working in the sun all day.

I mostly cover up too, BUT I always wanted to live in a place where I could walk around naked if I wanted to and yell at the top of my lungs without bothering anyone. Mission accomplished! Now if I could just keep the local volunteer fire department form showing up unannounced!!

My granddaughters don’t understand why Nana never wears shorts, tank tops or flip flops in the summer. I explained that, invariably, I have to climb through a barbed wire fence or something steps on a bare toe (that’s if the chickens don’t try to peck off my toenails) or a horsefly tries to nail me on a bare patch of skin. And I agree that good cotton long-sleeved shirts are cooler than exposed skin.

It wasn’t always about the sun, though. Even when I was a kid you rarely saw a man (young or old) with a bare chest, much less a woman. It just wasn’t done. (Don’t you long for the times when there was a little mystery and wonder left in the world?).

I’m a woman and I’m all for women going bra-less, however, because I think tight, constraining clothing isn’t good. It was done over the centuries (bustiers and tight girdles and camisoles, etc) but that doesn’t mean it was good for those ladies. But then, put me in the “nutso” category (and most will) because I also don’t believe in mammograms and many other modern medical practices that border on the ridiculous.

My parents had us wearing long sleeved shirts and brimmed hats, long pants and wellies when we were helping with farm chores. I do remember going free-spirit one cold autumn day though when my brothers and I were pitching/turning silage and a mouse went up my leg by attaching itself to my knee-sock, and my brothers had to pull off my boots, pants and socks in order to get the little critter off my leg. I was happy to have them there to help!

The fact that medicine has deteriorated into a focus-based science is disheartening to me. There is absolutely no reason on this earth that a regular GP shouldn’t be able to handle various and all skin conditions. No one should need a specialized doctor for skin ailments, but that’s what medicine has evolved into these days. A specialist for everything. One who knows all about your left nostril but not a thing about the right nostril because that requires ANOTHER specialist. It’s really out of hand.

I cover up. I figure that if I can’t bear the sight of myself in my birthday suit, others might actually run away in fright.

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