Image: Chelsea Beck/GO Media

There is a lot to take in when watching Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pump iron on Instagram. There’s the oversize chain he slings around his neck, the wireless Project Rock headphones that he continues to wear even while addressing viewers, and the appearance of a sweaty American flag bandana, which always sends me on a bemused reverie about the quirks of patriotism. Recently, though, I found my eyes gravitating toward an unremarkable piece of fabric, save for its seemingly strategic placement: a hand towel tucked into the middle of the waistband of his skin-tight compression leggings. This towel was perfectly situated to cover the groin region. Once I noticed this accouterment, I couldn’t stop noticing it in the many pictures that followed.

Then, like a detective suddenly connecting dots, I flashed to images of other men with towels worn over their workout leggings. Always tucked in the front, mid-waistband, and hanging betwixt the hipbones. I go to my gym approximately once a year, but during those infrequent visits, it seems my subconscious had stored away this important fact for later discovery: dick towels. As a once-a-year gym goer, though, I am an unreliable source. Are dick towels a thing? If so, why? Whence? Wherefore? I decided to investigate.

Men’s compression tights have recently been called the “must-have” piece of clothing that, according to Esquire, will make every workout better.” The benefits reportedly include increased blood flow and reduced muscle fatigue. (A recent study cast doubt on that latter claim.) The Rock himself has launched multiple pairs of branded Under Armour tights that promise an “ultra-tight, second-skin fit.” But it seems “second-skin” fit feels like “first skin,” judging by the Reddit threads debating whether it’s acceptable for men to wear compression tights without taking secondary measures to cover up their “junk.” Quora threads inquire, “Are running tights for men immodest?” and “Is it ok for men to wear leggings in public?” Most commenters recommend embracing the tights-only look, wearing shorts over them, or using compression shorts underneath.

Amid these threads, I witnessed not a single mention of dick towels.

I began to doubt my dick towel hunch. Perhaps the towel was merely a piece of The Rock’s personal flair. Maybe he used it to wipe his hands in between reps. It could even be the beginnings of a canny marketing campaign, seeing as Johnson is developing a high-tech moisture-wicking gym towel. There also remained the fact that The Rock occasionally posts photos of himself in compression tights without the towel, or with shorts worn overtop.

I forged further, mass-emailing a bunch of personal trainers, and was met with silence. One guy did write back: “On this occasion, it’s not something I will be pursuing but if you have any more health and fitness related content then please get in touch.” Any health and fitness content not related to dick towels, he meant, which seems unlikely.

Eventually, Jack Kirven, a North Carolina personal trainer, breezily confirmed my dick towel hunch. “I have seen the tucking, yes, and frankly it misses the mark,” he said. “Either what they’re covering is substantial enough to create an ‘unintended’ tent effect, or it’s so insubstantial that one sees no tent at all, but in either case, it draws the eye exactly to where they ‘don’t want’ it to go.” He added, “I find it particularly entertaining when the towel is a flashy color. Boys. What can you do?” What you can do is investigate further.

Under Armour, which produces Johnson’s Project Rock Vanish leggings, apparently failed to see the golden opportunity of being quoted in an article about dick towels and ignored my request. So did several other compression tight companies. The business manager of CW-X, a company that makes compression gear, responded as though I’d levied a controversial allegation: “At this time, we have no comment on your article,” she wrote. “We haven’t received any notes from our customers about them using a towel. It’s more common for our customers to wear compression under training shorts or pants.”

A message to The Rock’s publicist asking if he might “be available for a brief comment to elucidate the mystery” of the dick towel went unanswered as well.

Thankfully, Jonathan Oe, the designer and CEO of Leorêver, which makes men’s athletic wear, got back to me. “Guys typically tuck the towel into their Compression Tights to get more coverage—especially if the material is flimsy and not supportive,” he wrote via Instagram DM. “They will pretend it’s to dry their hands to get a better grip, but [it’s] much more about modesty in not overexposing themselves.” There is an exception to this rule, however: if a guy tucks a towel into shorts worn over compression tights, “then the towel really is about performance,” he says. This is an important distinction to make, lest we indict all towel-wearing men as concerned about their groin.

I reached out to several fitness buffs on Instagram and the consensus was that shorts worn over tights are much more common than a towel worn like a loin-cloth. Dean Reyes, a 27-year-old with 12,000 followers, said he hasn’t noticed the dick towel phenomenon at all, but allowed that it’s a “clever” solution. He says he’s only seen a tiny fraction of men wearing compression tights without shorts on top, and suggests that more men should go without. On a few occasions, he has posted a pic of himself in compression tights with a smiley emoji edited over his crotch like a friendly version of the black “CENSORED” box.

David, whose account chiefly consists of photos of himself in compression tights alongside hashtags like #menintights and #spandexmen, estimates that he’s the only guy at his gym who regularly wears compression tights. “I definitely don’t tuck a towel and the only other guy I’ve seen wear tights at my gym doesn’t either,” he says, although he’s seen men do it on Instagram. “People are going to stare whether you’re wearing tights sans towel or with.” He added, quite reasonably, “I work too hard on my legs and ass to cover them up with baggy shorts past my knees.”

Often, the Reddit threads on compression tights evidence men’s self-consciousness and sense of modesty. “Are there less revealing tights? Does anyone care if they see an outline of my stuff? Long story short, how do I keep my man parts modest?,” asks one poster. Earlier this year, Zac Efron told Men’s Health, “If you pull it off and it works… I just have to wear something over them or I feel too self-conscious.” A later Men’s Health article—which ran with the headline, “Why Men Should Embrace the Leggings-Only Look”—reported that several men interviewed “referenced how exposed they feel without the buffer a pair of shorts provides between their privates and the world, not anything about the physical comfort or functionality of the setup.” Left unspoken are anxieties about dick size, although one must assume, given that they are compression pants.

But there’s also an undeniable undercurrent of shame and homophobia in the shorts-over-tights discourse, as evidenced by the attitude that the vague hint of a man’s penis is, specifically, an affront to other men. One Reddit commenter wrote, “Nobody wants to see your compressed/squished dick and balls, just wear shorts over them.” A 2016 article in Macleans explored how the rise of compression tights was bending gender norms by recasting tights as masculine, although it noted that many men still felt the need to wear baggy shorts over said tights. The writer, Meagan Campbell, suggested that eventually “time may pull back the curtains, and men may start letting tights accentuate their sculpting in entirety.”

However, the dick curtains, in their multiple forms, seem firmly in place, given headlines like this one: “Is it ever really OK for men to wear tights?”

Yes, for crying out loud, it’s fine. But the dick towel presents a Rock-approved™ modesty option beyond running shorts and oversize tees. One day, maybe men will feel as free as women to wear tights, sans towels or shorts. Then conservative culture warriors can wring their hands about people of all genders, not just women, wearing yoga pants to the grocery store. For now, though, let us take joy in this fact: It is, indeed, a dick towel.

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