By Ricky Altieri ’15
Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012
At the 6th grade end-of-year pool party, I waddled around in my swimsuit with my arms tucked to my sides, trying to invent excuses for why I didn’t want to swim. Like most people who invent excuses for not swimming, I didn’t want to reveal what my shirt normally covered. But I never stood a chance. “Ricky!” A friend inevitably called. “What’s that brown stuff underneath your shoulder?” Like the extras in a teen movie, a crowd of kids emerged from nowhere, formed a perfect circle, and fell silent. “Let’s see,” my friend said, more as a stage direction than a request. I held my arms up—exposing the light brown, threadlike hairs that had begun sprouting from my armpits. Even the kids who nearly failed “Reading,” could suddenly crack wise. “How often do you have to water those?” sang one chirpy voice. “You could hide an army in there!” declared another. I ran and found my shirt, draping it over my body. But the word had spread, and soon a new crowd had formed around me, demanding to see the hair beneath.
Sixth grade marked only the first budding of my body-flowers. As the weeks passed to months, a lawn, fueled by Italian genetic Miracle-Gro, flourished across my chest. I’ll leave my post-puberty cartography as follows: if I wanted a tattoo, I would have to put it on my forehead.
Modern beauty standards hold the hirsute in low esteem. Over the years, my body hair has garnered plenty of attention from friends and romantic interests. “I can think of nothing more repulsive than your chest hair,” Will Savino, fashionista extraordinaire, once said. “I mean, you look like a little monkey,” a high school sweetheart once told me. And even when I’m fully clothed, people will comment, sometimes out of genuine curiosity. “Ricky, I’m looking at your arm hair,” a friend once told me at a social event, “and it looks thick all the way up to your sleeve. Like, where does it end?”
Among teenage body concerns—men have plenty of them, too—hairiness is one of the better problems to have. Still, for many years, the parade of mostly hairless, often boyish-faced men in magazines and on camera left me insecure and kept me away from the pool. At the beginning of a new school year, when I would switch to a new gym locker, I would say to my peers, as I undressed before them for the first time, “Look out, I’m hairy.” The ensuing questions and playful spectacle would always turn out better if I initiated them.
Unpleasant as it may seem, body hair serves a few natural functions and hardly constitutes an abnormality. In most ways, body hair and hair on the skull—an important part of beauty for both men and women—serve the same purpose. Each is an effective conductor of thermal heat, both into and out of the body. And each provides tactile input, warning of potentially harmful insects. Over the course of human evolution, experts believe, natural selection reduced the ranks of the hirsute, as many parasites thrived in body hair. By contrast, facial hair may have become a more common trait because women found it attractive. Like many other antiquated features on the male body, such as nipples, body hair seems to have lingered, appearing in varying amounts on different men.
These post-puberty days, when I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, my body hair doesn’t bother me. It feels natural. And the steady flow of remarks—“You should really shave your legs,” most recently—doesn’t irritate me, either. But with the years, the prospect of my hairiness interfering in my romantic life has become a real possibility. Natural as it feels, I have no strong attachment to it, and the choice (should it ever arise) between removing it and missing out sexually couldn’t be easier. You might reply that someone who wouldn’t hookup with hairy Ricky but would hookup with hairless Ricky may not be worth pursuing. I just don’t know if that’s true. And I’m not going to live by a cliché and miss out on romantic possibilities. Additionally, as much as random hookups may seem shallow, they sometimes lead the way to a more meaningful relationship: through hooking up, people may find they enjoy each other’s company and would like something more. This same seemingly shallow principle holds in modern dating. You may initially date someone only because you find that person attractive. Through dating, though, you may find in someone the qualities and connections that make relationships work.
For this reason—and partially out of curiosity—I’ve tried a few deforestation techniques over the years. The process has proven more difficult than I would have imagined. First even other hairy friends cringe when the topic comes up in conversation. Second, the culture of men’s hair removal remains in its developing stages. Through Wikipedia and Internet forums, though, I’ve found some recommendations. I’ve shaved, but you can only shave so much. I’ve Naired, but Nair doesn’t last long. And if you want your back Naired, you have to say to someone, “Will you please Nair my back?” which is the kind of question that can instantly dismantle friendships. I once allowed a friend that very privilege; the process left the bathroom a mess, embarrassed both of us, and left my back irritated and itchy for a couple of days. Additionally, I worried about stories he might tell afterwards, and seeing my buddy in the hallway meant thinking about—if not talking about—the status of my back.
And so there I was, in the waiting room of Salon E, a few minutes early for my back waxing appointment. I had signed up and told my friends about it; there was no backing out now. I pretended to flip through one of the coffee table’s housekeeping magazines while I mentally replayed the scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin in which Steve Carrell gets his chest waxed and screams like a hyena well-studied in English profanity. “It’ll be an adventure,” I kept telling myself. The few Advil I’d taken half an hour beforehand—suggested on all Internet forums about men’s waxing—now seemed painfully inadequate.
A few moments later, Liz, the hair stylist, emerged from a backroom. She smiled and introduced herself. “So remind me,” she began. “We’re doing your…chest?”
“No,” I said. “My back.”
“Oh, perfect.” She laughed. “Guys always cry when I do the chest. I just feel bad for them.”
“And the back?”
“Well, it is better, but I won’t lie: It’s like having Band-Aids ripped off dried skin.” An adventure, indeed.
I lay flat on a cushioned table in a backroom full of mirrors, shirtless and about to be covered in wax by a woman whose name I had momentarily forgotten. I closed my eyes. The first touch of her hands felt only warm and soothing. As she rubbed, Liz broke the tense silence with the usual series of college-kid-you’ve-just-met questions. “What school do you go to?” she began. And she had gotten to “What’s your major?” when she finished applying the wax and placed the first paper strip at the bottom of my back.
“Philoso—aauch!” I replied. The paper strip had come off so fast you could hear a whoosh and the whip of resistant, crackling hairs. In the next two seconds I expected an angry, painful report to arrive in my brain but I only felt a quick dart of discomfort.
“Philosophy, huh?” Liz said, quickly readying another strip. “Thinking about law school?” The flow of questions continued. We talked about college parties, basketball, and the coming vacation. And all the while Liz’s nimble hands kept placing and ripping, ripping and placing. The quick darts of pain sharpened as she moved from the bottom to the top of my back, but I was able to hold a conversation throughout. And about 15 minutes after removing my shirt, I found myself putting it on again, my back now hairless.
“Anything I should avoid tonight?” I asked as I left.
“Just skip the gym,” she told me.
As I exited the building, I considered the awkwardness of trusting a complete stranger with such an embarrassing procedure. I took comfort not only in Liz’s status as a professional, but also in the thought that I could separate this experience entirely from the rest of my life. When I had my back Naired, I had to see my friend each day; by contrast, my back waxing story would enter my social circle under my own terms. While having a complete stranger apply the hot wax makes the initial situation more tense, it allows for the experience to evaporate afterwards, making it an appealing option.
I returned to my dorm, where my smooth back was highly anticipated. A few people gathered in the hallway in a circle around me. As I removed my shirt, one of my friends pulled out an IPhone to capture the moment and share it with her friends. And I felt that all-too-familiar-sensation of spectacle coming on.
“Ricky, why did you do that? That must have hurt,” a friend said, after I took my shirt off. I explained that hair could attract comments and unwanted attention.
“But Ricky, that’s your back. And it’s natural and fine the way it is. You shouldn’t change it for anyone,” he told me. “I feel like you’re judging yourself.”
My friend has a point. My furry back bends and lifts loads as well as a hairless one. And beauty standards, fickle and shallow, can mask more important qualities. But we take as routine many kinds of grooming that serve no health purpose. Would anyone argue, for example, that men should let their unibrows grow? Or that women should leave their leg-hair untouched? Back-waxing may be different in scale from unibrow or leg upkeep, but it’s no different in form. And if back hair draws unwanted attention, the sacrifice—fifteen minutes, thirty dollars, and a few darts of pain every seven or eight weeks—seems worthwhile. In general, a good balance between beauty standards and healthy ideas about body image lies in trying to look good without buying into the idea that your natural features are repulsive or wrong.
But here’s the tricky part: trying to look good can incur judgment. The people who find a hairy back gross are often the same as those who view back waxing as shallow or emasculating. As a friend of mine once said, “It seems like people’s solution is, ‘Always keep your shirt on.’” But in the coming years trends indicate that waxing for men will become a bigger part of mainstream grooming. As with most procedures, the stigma will likely fade as men feel more comfortable admitting they’d like to strive for modern beauty standards.
I don’t know if or when I’ll wax my back again. Sometimes, these days, I wake up in the morning, scratch below my neck, and for a split second wonder what the hell happened. Then I enjoy the smooth surface of the skin, throw a shirt on and get started with my day, just as I had done with a full lawn on my back.