Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Anthony J. Gretz.
Do you remember that part in The 40 Year-Old Virgin where Andy (Steve Carell) goes to a salon and gets his chest waxed? The camera focuses on his face as he screams and yells out a string of obscenities while strip after strip of hair is ripped from his body. I don’t remember much about that movie. But I remember that part getting a huge reaction from the audience (myself included). Like many other guys, there is something about watching other men in non-life-threatening pain that makes me laugh- no matter how emotionally mature or “well-rounded” I think I am.
Yet as a man who has struggled over the years to accept my own hairy-chestedness, there’s something about this scene that doesn’t sit well with me. Andy ends up at the salon in the first place because his friends think waxing his chest will make him more appealing to women. Normally, I’d hesitate to read too deeply into a movie like The 40 Year-Old Virgin. But the idea that removing a man’s chest hair makes him more attractive is pervasive in our culture. Most actors and male models are boyishly devoid of any body hair, while guys with furry torso’s are typically the butt of jokes and/or ridicule. For every Tom Selleck , there are five hairless Justin Timberlakes or Taylor Laughtners that our culture holds up as being the “ideal” male. That sends a message to guys that having chest hair is gross and unappealing.
The Art of Manscaping
So what’s a hairy guy to do? Those of us who have been endowed with active, thriving follicles face a strong temptation to do something about our body hair. In recent years, the practice of manscaping -shaving, waxing, trimming, and/or scuplting body and facial hair -has gotten more and more attention. Some of this is practical – my friend David, for example, shaves around his nipples because he is a marathon runner, and he has to cover them with bandages on long runs so they don’t bleed. Totally practical.
Most of it, however, is out of a desire to appear less hairy than they actually are. Men of all stripes are doing things to their bodies that would either make our grandfathers wince and turn away or burst out laughing.
Yet who can blame them? Until I met my wife Anna, I was very self-conscious about having hair on my chest. And stomach. And back. And shoulders. I hated it, and I thought it made me unappealing. In high school, I can remember before and after every football game at least one person staring at me for way too long with a goofy smile on their face, or making a comment about “taking my sweater off before I got in the shower.” (Years later, I still get this every time I go to the beach with friends).
Oftentimes when I was in the shower I would compulsively pull or tweeze hair off my body in an attempt to “thin it out.” There were also several attempts to “shape” the hair on my stomach, which predictably resulted in an unnatural pattern of hair and gross stomach-stubble. One time, I even made a half-joking (but secretly curious) attempt to use my mom’s Nair to get rid of the hair at the top of my arm – the result of which was gross, oily arm hair and irritated skin.
Yet I now believe these actions, and the steps that many men take as part of their regular grooming routine, were unhealthy. There is a difference between grooming to honor an honest request from your partner or spouse, and being driven to alter your appearance by insecurity. I know that as much as I laughed off the jokes and the teasing, I resented looking different from most guys. I worried that I was physically unappealing, and I wanted to do something about it.
The Truth About Body Hair
So where did all this hair come from? Facial and chest hair are sometimes referred to as “androgenic hair,“ because their growth is regulated by testosterone and other hormones called androgens. These hormones occur in higher amounts in men than women, which is why men develop more facial, arm, leg, and chest hair than women (Auntie Gertie’s mustache not-withstanding).
In spite of a biological disposition for growing body hair, the amount of hair someone grows is mostly dependent on genetics. In researching this article, there does not seem to be a consensus on why this is. Some theorize that hair is destroyed by over-exposure to heat and sunlight, and thus, over time some cultures would develop a gene-pool where body hair became less prevalent. However, this does not seem compatible with the prevalence of body hair in many Mediterranean men. Others argue that losing body hair was necessary for survival against fur-loving parasites, although some scientists point out that hair can actually protect against insects, and that there has always been enough hair on our heads to make us vulnerable to lice and ticks.
Still, those of us with a torso that’s more like Chewbacca then Luke Skywalker have reasons to celebrate. Having body hair may make you self-conscious, but it can actually be quite useful in landing a date. Our bodies contain something called apocrine glands, which are located under the arms and near the genitals (two of the hairiest spots for most men). These glands produce an odorous chemical that acts to attract members of the opposite sex, like pheromones in animals. Body hair tends to trap those odors and amplify them, projecting the scent farther than it would otherwise go.
In addition, despite what we’ve come to believe through popular culture, many women actually find a hairy man to be quite attractive. According to a survey by Askmen.com, 76% of women said they like it when men have some chest hair. Just as men are attracted to the distinct characteristics that make women, women-such as breasts, smooth skin, and hips-women are attracted to the things unique to men-such as our muscles and body hair. My wife says she likes my body hair because it’s natural and masculine looking. “Some men are supposed to be hairy, and they would be incomplete without it,” she said. Most women find security, confidence, and stability at least as attractive as physical attributes. “Men who alter their appearance to look like someone else compromise that.”
Embrace Your Inner Selleck
It is my hope that many of you who struggle with your hairy lot in life will learn to accept, and even embrace the man that you are. Being hairy isn’t something to be ashamed of – if it’s the way you’ve been made, it’s part of what makes you, you. Part of the decline in manhood so often documented on this website stems from our willingness as men to let culture tell us what kind of man we’re supposed to be. You can keep manscaping if you want, and if your partner likes you less hairy, than there’s nothing wrong with compromise (women certainly do a lot of shaving for us) . But I’d encourage you to look in the mirror the next time you pick up a razor, and ask yourself why you feel the need to alter your appearance. If you can come to accept yourself for who you are, you will become a better, healthier, and more attractive man than any grooming could ever accomplish.