Tom Stephan on the correlation between hairiness and masculinity.
By Tom Stephan
When I was a kid I would look at video of Tom Selleck, Lee Majors, Lee Horsley, Burt Reynolds and think, “I can’t wait to have hair.”
I remember being so excited that I would have one of those mega mustaches, that winged badge of chest hair, the hairy athletic legs. It represented everything about being grown up, being a real man.
My father wasn’t hairy, but he was pretty much the most amazing, strong, masculine man I knew. He was Navy-enlisted, and his friends had those lean military frames, all young and tanned with that easy athleticism I one day hoped to be part of. These days you’d call it that Matthew Mcconaughey alright alright alrightness; it permeated the senses and gave you visions of running along a beach, being effortless in some early 80s healthy-sweat California fantasy.
The reality was that I was one of those shitty, flabby kids who looked pretty much like a Judd Apatow protagonist.
I was tall for my age, chubby, awkward, acne-prone, stinky. I was the type of kid who thought getting wet was the same thing as taking a shower. My childhood school photos basically all looked the same: a pale thumb-shaped human who was shiny with grease and wearing standard issue 80s kid glasses that roared back into style in 2010 and are now completely unaffordable.
But I had dreams.
I waited and waited and waited. And one day around 14, there it was! The tiniest of patches swirling about my belly button! I was ecstatic. The line of delicate hair crept upward from my navel towards the center of my chest where I knew, I knew, it would explode into the Selleck/Reynolds firework I had craved, transforming my soft tube-sock of a mortal shell into something amazing, sexual, sensual, hungry, and feral like a panther mixed with a bear sprinkled with James Bond.
You may be surprised to learn it didn’t work out that way. Instead, it stopped. The line trailed up to the center of my chest and just… stopped. My armpits, crotch, and leg hair kicked into high gear, turning me into this unfortunate fat mole cricket.
And my facial hair? Oh, that didn’t happen either. Instead of my father’s stunning bottlebrush mustache and goatee, God thought it might be amusing to scrape some armpit hair up and scatter it randomly across my face. Thanks, God! Thanks for that. I’m gonna Yelp about this later.
When I started college, I threw out the razors and began cultivating the unfortunate “scrote goat” (which is what you call a goatee that looks like it was transplanted from your taint), much to the chagrin of my mother.
“He’s going through a phase,” she warned the world. But I wasn’t. This was my thing; this was what I needed to feel like I wasn’t a child anymore. My father and mother did a good job of parenting me, but I never felt the need to actually grow up. Sure, there were the “adult moments,” and the “you have to do this on your own,” but I assumed that adulthood was a physical thing that involved actually turning into an adult. Caterpillars become butterflies; girls become women; Pokémon evolve, but not men. Men just get taller, with one additional way to play with our penis other than peeing standing up. Facial and body hair was supposed to signify that I was something different, something more capable than the vaguely clueless man-child I was.
And it wasn’t there. So I gave up on my dream of the magic body hair transformation. I threw myself into acting and teaching and learning and growing and writing and living, which is what you do when you’re waiting for things to happen. The years between 22 and 36 were a patchwork of fractured ideas and ideals, careers gone sideways, packing the car while crying (three times), and wondering whether I had the strength to start over.
Those years keep running back through my mind lately. They don’t tell you how fast they go, and then you wake up and think “Last night I was 23, and now… now what?”
That’s the thing about the human clock; the hands are capricious little bastards. They run forward whether you pay attention or not. Sometimes with the velocity that gives the illusion of reverse motion. But mostly they leap from moment to moment, and while you never truly waste a moment of your time, you can spend a good amount of it waiting for something that doesn’t really matter.
Like for your hair to grow.
Recently I saw a photo of myself taken at a river rafting weekend. I was shirtless — a big thing for a fat kid — and looking at it, seeing my joy and the comfort of friends frozen in time around me, I realized I had somehow ended up with this glorious forest of body hair. It isn’t Tom Selleck, and it’s a little overgenerous in the back department, but it’s all there, save for the bald spot in the center of my chest where the line of hair from my navel had trudged upwards and then taken a permanent rest. It’s there.
And my facial hair, too; over the years, it’s traveled from Ron Jeremy to Ron Burgundy to Ron Swanson… but it’s there, full and dense, with as much variety as a calico cat, including two ever-spreading patches of white that give me comfort. I’ve arrived in my own skin and become a man somehow. It only took 20 years longer than I’d planned.
I have a theory that my body only gave me as much masculinity, maturity and hair as I was capable of managing at the time. It’s a ridiculous notion, but it gives me comfort.
We are all getting older. I can’t say if we’re adults yet. But we’re certainly getting older. Perhaps the most successful of us at life are those who come in the house after a lifetime of hard playing, ready for cookies and milk and a nice restful death.
I intend to stay out past the time when the yellow lights flicker on and the cicadas stop singing, and then, only then, will I stroke my beard and consider the call of home.
About the author
Tom Stephan: I’m a writer. I write stories. Then I take photos and put them with the stories.
Photo courtesy of author.