An Appreciation of Male Body Hair
Chest hair removal harkens back to ancient Egypt, where hair removal was common to protect against fleas, lice and other infestations. In ancient times, lack of body hair was often indicative of civility, with ancient Greek men removing their body hair to appear more youthful and refined, and ancient Egyptian priests practicing hair removal in order to present a pure image to their gods.
Male body hair removal was less common in Europe, as body hair was generally accepted in early Christian Europe and even considered lucky by certain groups, such as Jewish Europeans in the Middle Ages. For the longest time, body hair simply wasn’t an area of concern for European men. The influence of Europe in global fashion trends helped hairier men to be seen as sexy throughout the 1960s and 70s.
In contrast to the mild popularity of hairless chests in American films in the 1950s, such as Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire, European productions showed masculine chests in all of their hairy glory. Sean Connery and his furry torso on the beach in the very popular James Bond film Dr. No helped usher in a fantastically hirsute era in which the Burt Reynoldses, Tom Sellecks and Alec Baldwins of the world could bare their sexy man-rugs without shame.
Sadly, a recent poll suggested that these days, 49% of women prefer hairless chests. Part of me wonders how this preference has evolved. Like many of the pressures put on women and their bodies, this figure is undoubtedly heavily media-influenced. The late 1980s ushered in another era of hairless chests – from the covers of Harlequin Romances to a hairless Sylvester Stallone slugging out an equally hairless Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, to a hairless, shirtless and ripped Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise or Fight Club in the 1990s. Thus began a pervasiveness within the media of hairlessness as the new norm. It is rare that one sees a chest these days with much more than a treasure trail adorning it.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine confessed to shaving his chest frequently. He said it started when he started to read GQ and saw how different he looked from most of the men in the magazine. He’s an attractive, muscular guy, but felt hopelessly inadequate because of his body hair. I laughed at him at the time and made fun of him for being a metrosexual, but looking back on the experience, I regret teasing him. His shaving wasn’t a result of metrosexuality, but a response to the way men are now taught that they need to look. While the media’s unrealistic expectations of women is well-known and questioned within feminist communities, we need to also address the pressure put upon men to look a certain way.
Men shouldn’t be ashamed of their body hair, just as women shouldn’t be ashamed that they’re not necessarily a size two. Your body hair is a part of who you are and it’s not worth being self-conscious about it. Whether you have a hairy chest, a hairy back, or only a patch of fuzz in the centre of your chest, you’re sexy. Nothing feels better than lying next to you and stroking your manly chest hair.
I beg the men out there to stop shaving, waxing and plucking your excess hair. The modern media might not encourage your body hair, but it is sexy and natural. Men need to start questioning the media’s portrayal of male body hair and accepting themselves for who they are.
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ASK AN EXPERT
From an evolutionary standpoint, why is it beneficial for men to have facial and chest hair? — Tash
If you look at some of our relatives, we primates are a fairly hairy bunch.
Primates tend to have all sorts of interesting facial and sometimes even shoulder hair, so humans are not odd in this regard, says anatomist Professor Ian Gibbins from Flinders University.
In fact, Gibbins suspects it wasn't that long ago that we sported a pretty impressive fur coat of our own. The evidence for this comes from goosebumps.
But evolution is usually pretty prompt at getting rid of features we don't need, says Gibbins, so the reason men still have facial and chest hair is more likely due to sexual selection.
At some stage while we were losing our excess body hair either women found hairy men more attractive, or men preferred non-hairy women.
"The usual argument," says Gibbins, "is that [sexual selection] is some sort of surrogate for your overall fitness."
"So if you're a good enough feeder or hunter or breeder, or whatever it is, to have enough energy in reserve to make some flashy show then it means you're probably ahead of the pack."
Basically if you're a very hairy man and hairy men are in, you get the girls.
However there are some caveats to this argument.
Firstly, hairiness can vary quite dramatically between different ethnic groups, so to make general statements about male hairiness is fairly difficult. For example, men from a Mediterranean background generally have darker and thicker hair, whereas men of Asian descent often don't have much facial hair at all, says Gibbons.
Secondly, men and women have approximately the same number of hair follicles, what differs is the coarseness of the hairs.
We have two types of hair on our bodies: the coarse, usually pigmented terminal hair which includes our head hair, pubic hair and for men their facial and chest hair; and the finer, less visible vellus hair.
Hair growth and size is modulated by hormones, in particular androgens like testosterone, which kick in during puberty. As men generally have higher levels of testosterone than women they tend to have more terminal hair. Testosterone also increases the size of hair follicles on men's faces at puberty so that they begin to grow visible beards.
While the rise of the metrosexual have seen growing numbers of men shave, wax and laser their way to less facial and chest hair, Gibbins says don't expect a hair-free man to evolve anytime soon.
"Evolution is much too slow for that sort of quick cultural stuff," he says.
In fact, manscaping is more likely to subvert evolution than help it along.
"It's a classic example of cultural aspects completely overriding any evolutionary pressures," says Gibbins.
Men who are unable to grow hair may be a bit jealous of those can do so easily. I have also realized that genes and culture have a lot to do with the amount of hair on a man. It’s a shame women force their men to undergo desperate means to rid them of what nature gave them to prove their manhood.
Goosebumps: evidence of our hairy past?
"Since most of our hair is so thin nothing much happens except the goosebumps. However, if we had more substantial fur in our follicles, like a cat or a guinea-pig, then this action would fluff up the hair," says Gibbins.
Cats use piloerection to trap air in their fur when they're cold, and to make themselves look bigger when they're under threat.
Humans still have a complete set of neural pathways for both these responses which suggests we were using our piloerection system properly until sometime fairly recently in our evolutionary past, says Gibbins.
So when you next get a 'chill down your spine' just imagine how scary you'd look with all your hair standing on end!
Professor Ian Gibbins was interviewed by Suzannah Lyons.