By W Goodwin
I still remember the evening my kid brother announced to the family, “Guess what! We’re mammals!”
He was 12 and looked it, but only a few months later his androgenic hormones began ripping the hinges off the doors of his metabolism. The spreading shadow of a beard started changing his boyish face. Every day we saw newly emergent hairs growing from his body. Chest. Arms. Axilla. Legs. Crotch (described, not shown, thank god). So far so good, according to mom. But the hair kept coming. Chest hair became contiguous with arm hair which soon spread to his fingers. Then, “Oh my god!” hair on his shoulders and back. Sasquatch was living in our house, also according to Mom. Sometimes, when her cruel streak was really cooking, she called him Cousin Itt. The memory makes me grimace.
Mammals have hair; whales a little, orangutans a lot. Our various human genders average 2,200 hairs per square inch of skin surface. That adds up to around
follicles piercing the epidermis of every male and female. We all possess more-or-less equal numbers of hairs, but other than their scalps women tend to have hair that is lighter, thinner and shorter than men’s. Some geographical and racial variations occur too, but generally speaking, humans are each allotted about the same number of hairs.
My brother’s body was hairless until puberty. Then in the space of a few months he caught up with or exceeded the likes of Robin Williams, Tom Selleck, James Caan, Alec Baldwin, Dan Hedaya, Mark Ruffalo and Nick Offerman, to name a few of the movie stars who did alright despite being hirsute.
Throughout his teens, those prime and primal beach years, you never caught my brother shirtless. No tank tops or wife-beaters either. He considered himself a member of a minority and his embarrassment over this made him furtive about his hairy body. Even now sometimes. A sister notices these things.
When my brother was getting interested in science he asked me, “Have you seen the Cro-Magnon exhibit at the museum? They looked just like modern people except the men had more body hair. I could have been a model for the Cro-Magnon dudes!”
With my imperfect understanding of psychology, I concluded he was “compensating” for what seemed to be a wide-spread social disdain for hairy men. He felt like the poster-boy for Cro-Magnons cave-boys in a world where women preferred smooth-bodied jocks. My brother suspected this alleged preference was a creation of popular media, but nevertheless he internalized a self-negating perception that women found his hairy body disgusting. For years he was a bit of a social introvert.
I decided to look for some research, sociological or biological, that might illuminate this pressing issue of our times. That’s me being facetious, but when women disparage a man’s natural hair and men joke or bully him about it, this becomes a life-shaping issue for a young, hairy-bodied man.
I soon discovered female responses to hairy-bodied men fall along a spectrum, outright lust for that hairy animal on one side, abject disgust with the beast on the other. Indeed, many women do prefer glistening, hairless males similar to those entirely shaven or otherwise depilated shirtless men depicted on screens. So when my brother began dating, he was surprised and no doubt grateful to discover there actually existed females in the pool (swimming or genetic) who love lots of hair on a man. It would be years before he discovered there was also a contingent of gay guys with a fondness for “bears” — big hairy men — but his new-found gratitude remained focused on women who appreciated his “condition.”
By the time he was going to concerts and beaches where other males were bare-chested, he was still keeping his body rug covered with at least a t-shirt. As far as I know he never indulged in any of those NAD products, waxing strips, hair-removal creams or the body shavers, but when he started surfing, he always left the house wearing a “skin” — a spandex shirt surfers wear to prevent chafe — and he would still be wearing it when he returned. Then one day he came home from a surf session at Malibu and told me he had seen a famous surfer who was hairy front and back. He seemed to interpret this as permission for all hairy-bodied men to shed their shirts in public. Now he seems to have embraced his “minority” status and is less reticent about going shirtless, but I notice his unease whenever a shirtless situation arises.
After years of observing my truly hairy brother and talking to other women about hairy men, I have some observations to share. It seems the most important precondition for a woman to like a man with a hairy body is for her to have a similarly endowed father. There is even some research supporting this, for example, a 2010 study from Finland showing women with fathers or mates who had hairy torsos were more likely to look favorably on other hairy males.
And yet I find other women whose fathers or mates are not gifted in the hair department who find hairy men more manly than “smoothies.” Some of these women wax lyrical about how they love to stroke and cuddle their hairy men, and apparently my brother has heard such stories too. At his wedding reception his new wife exclaimed, “And I’ll never again be cold in bed!” although it was obvious she appreciated his hair as more of a sexual turn-on than a source of warmth.
I also learned that a woman who appreciates abundant facial and body hair in her men probably also prefers all that hair be groomed. Even my brother knows a forest of untrimmed furriness does not get the love, so he now keeps his longer body hairs under control with judicious use of an electric trimmer.
Be hairy and prosper. Independent of what women think and feel about hairy men, body hair might actually make a man healthier, and thus presumably sexier. Body hair can emit sexually-stimulating pheromones. It can also reduce friction between two bodies. Stimulated by a lover’s caresses, nerves at the hair follicles can enhance sexual feeling. Hair can actually promote healing and, as it did for our Cro-Magnon ancestors, body hair helps protect our skin from solar radiation. There is even the notion, supported by research, that hairy toes correlate with better-than-average circulation.
So girls (and guys), check out my brother and other exemplars of pilosity. Just don’t judge them or anyone by their freaky furry appearance.