We’re getting balder—and hairier.
It should come as no surprise that, as men age, some begin to lose a great deal of hair in one area, while gaining coarser, darker hair in others. As I reluctantly inch away from my mid-20s so, too, does my hairline from my forehead. Like many of my friends, I began showing signs of baldness right after secondary school. I remember noticing a few hairs on my towel or in the sink after my shower. At first, I was, admittedly, a little discouraged and disappointed. Like most men, I didn’t want to be bald. I wanted to have a full head of hair like so many of the guys in the locker room.
But as I continued to lose more of my hair—and get more creative with my haircuts and styling—I began to care less about my balding. My attention, instead, turned to the sudden growth of hair on my chest, lower back, balls, and even my ass. I started getting pubes and armpit hair when I was about 12, but I didn’t anticipate my adolescent peach fuzz turning to adult fur so quickly. In hindsight, though, I guess I should’ve seen it coming; as an Italian, I grew up surrounded by men whose chest hair stuck out of their shirt like a week-old head of broccoli being choked by a gold necklace. Was the stereotypical image of the hairy, Italian man still sexy, though? (Was it ever?)
Being an undergraduate student during the age of Instagram, Tinder, and PornHub was certainly an interesting and educational experience that perhaps taught me more about social expectations of masculine appearance and aesthetic than about sexuality. Constantly seeing images of smooth men, seemingly hairless from the neck down, prompted me to start thinking about my own body. Whenever I looked in the mirror to my hairy chest, I began to question whether I was, to young women, any less desirable or less attractive. Did girls like hairy guys? Or did they prefer clean-shaven? Cultural traditions were telling me one thing, but modern society was arguing another.
My family members and family friends used to remark that the very notion of shaving anything but one’s face and neck was absurd and feminine. A real man, I was reminded, is hairy. “It’ll put some hair on your chest” seemed like the automatic phrase whenever a shot of stiff liquor—likely homemade grappa—was poured. Apparently, boys without chest hair were considered unmanly. But if chest hair was to be one of the defining characteristics of masculinity and manhood, why were so many guys without it? Were there that many young men who were naturally hairless? Or were most guys resisting dated standards of manliness to opt for a contemporary, groomed look?
Even now, I think about what’s natural and beneficial for men. If men are indeed abandoning the conventional image of the hirsute “man’s man” for a more vogue, metrosexual figure, aren’t they still subscribing to a socioculturally constructed, hegemonic form of maleness? Understandably, there’s a degree of redemption in and something to be said for change, but are we, as men, just working to replace one stereotype with another? Are we manscaping to feel truly confident and comfortable in our own hair, or so that our partners will think more highly of us? Perhaps both. As a daily manscaper, I can honestly say that I like the way my body looks now, but I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that I groom regularly because I know that my girlfriend prefers it, too.
It would be a stretch for me to suggest that Western society pressures its men into believing that body hair is unsightly but equally problematic to suggest that the ongoing growth and success of an entire industry has nothing to do with shifting societal perceptions and norms of male beauty. When I purchased my first body shaver over five years ago, I thought that manscaping consisted of trimming one’s chest, armpits, treasure trail, and the so-called “sensitive areas.” However, the burgeoning body-grooming market now encourages the use of its products to trim and/or remove all unwanted hair on one’s hands, arms, shoulders, back, legs, and feet. After all, I guess there aren’t that many people out there with a fetish for Hobbit toes. (Hair or no hair, I’m still the same nerd).
As I continue to see advertisements for services and products focused on male grooming, I grow ever more curious about the notion of a guy’s (expected) appearance and, more importantly, how willing men are to discuss their manscaping, especially with other men. Though the web is home to thousands of social media personalities, blogs, and YouTube channels dedicated to exploring how to effectively and safely “groom the groin,” there seems to be a sort of disconnect between the mainstream business of manscaping and the level of comfort that men have conversing about the often taboo topic. Websites, commercials, and infomercials promote grooming tools and kits (sculpted pecs and abs not included) for men who want to be less hairy, the process of which—a consumerist, capitalist critique notwithstanding—makes manscaping commonplace and normal. The market itself, then, creates a space wherein men can more freely explore grooming options.
Many of us are manscaping, but are we actually talking about it in productive, educative ways that benefit us as men? Whether cisgender, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, or bi-sexual, body hair, and the grooming thereof, is a topic that, like sex, directly affects most men. So, why did it take nearly a decade for my close, male friends and I to discuss it openly? For years, I had used the internet to look up reviews and information about shaving, grooming, waxing, sugaring, and even laser treatments—at the same time that my buddies were doing the exact same thing. Never once, though, did we feel comfortable enough asking one another for an opinion, despite the fact that most of us have known each other since junior kindergarten. What was holding us back? For me, it was the thought of coming off as awkward. Vain. Homosexual. Feminine. Insecure.
I am fortunate in that my friends, each of whom I consider a brother, can and do talk about pretty much everything from local politics to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We pride ourselves on being strong conversationalists with diverse interests and backgrounds, and we are always so supportive of each another, particularly in times of hardship and affliction. It was that much more surprising, then, when it occurred to me that manscaping—that act that all of my friends do every day—was never really addressed. It wasn’t until my girlfriend and I talked about laser treatments that I had begun to brainstorm an appropriate, organic way to bring up the topic with my buddies. In my head, I played out the conversation several times. If I was this worried about introducing the subject to my close-knit group, I could only imagine what other guys might be contemplating.
We were at a golf course celebrating my friend’s 27th birthday. We had ordered a few drinks and, while waiting, I asked one of my buddies if he had gotten a haircut. He nodded. “It looks good,” I said. “Did you get a straight razor shave, too? Your neck looks pretty smooth,” I asked. (In all fairness, I had not anticipated that my friend would have gotten a haircut, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use it as a segue). He told me that he had recently received laser treatments on his neck and was contemplating getting them done elsewhere on his body. Openly, he explained that, for years, he’d been manscaping daily, but the process had become far too time-consuming.
“Man, I know what you mean. It takes me so long to shave my chest now,” another friend noted. “By the time I shave my face, my neck, chest, and my balls, I’m in the bathroom for an hour!” he added. I couldn’t help but laugh and agree with him. “Don’t forget about your ass, too,” I decided to say, half-jokingly. “You shave your ass?” My heart dropped as he locked eyes with me with a degree of suspicion. “Thank God,” he continued, “I honestly thought I was the only one!” “Wait, you both shave your asses? Holy shit. Me, too!” As more of my friends heard what my buddies and I were talking about, they drew nearer and shared their own responses. We talked about how painful it is when the razor nicks your dick, how challenging it is to look like the guys who never have to shave anywhere—ever—and what products to use for the least irritation and best results.
Because most of my brothers are also of Italian descent, they, too, shared thoughts regarding the mixed messages they received—and continue to receive—from their partners, family, and media. “I’m a fucking beast,” remarked one of them, “For some, it’s OK, but for others, they hate it, man. They want everything to be completely smooth. It’s tough. I basically have to trim my entire body. Even my legs.” For over 30 minutes, we talked about our bodies and our manscaping techniques and rituals. We weren’t embarrassed or ashamed. We didn’t feel on guard or reserved. We didn’t have to hide behind the thin, illusive walls of heteronormativity and hypermasculinity. We were just guys talking about being guys; men exploring what it means to be a man in today’s society.
That evening, we were able to challenge gender norms, desexualize the male body, and dissolve an unspoken stigma surrounding the discourse of manscaping within androcentric environments.
Before getting into our cars after our round, the guy whose hair I had commented on approached me and said, “Gian, thanks for bringing all that up. Honestly. I’ve been wanting to ask you guys for a while what you guys use to shave but I never knew how to without it sounding…weird.” I suspect that what he meant to say was “unmanly.”
Why should boys and men ever have to feel weird or unmanly for wanting to talk about their body hair? Is the hair on one’s chest really that different from the hair a few inches above it? My friends and I have seen each other naked. We talk about sex and joke about who carries “the hammer” in the group. Yet, the topic of hair—which we routinely discuss in the form of male pattern balding—was perceived as unmentionable.
As men, we must recognize that hair is hair and, more importantly, that men are men, regardless of where and how their hair grows. Whether we’re touching up our sideburn or our scrotum, we’re still engaging in an ordinary practice that brings us even closer together as a gender. If, mutually, we can feel confident chatting about manscaping, we are able to challenge prescriptive notions of manliness, the process of which might inspire us to question other forms of gender performance, too. While I carry on with my grooming, I am happier knowing that, despite my hair falling out up top, I haven’t fallen out of touch with my manhood. Armed with dual-sided, skin-friendly foil shavers, then, the world of men continues to prepare in solidarity for the great (Italian) manscape.
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