If sport is such a bastion of masculinity – turning boys into men and girls into tomboys – riddle me this: Why is it so hard to find a signal characteristic of manhood, body hair, on serious athletes? Why don’t we ever see guys with hair on their shoulders, backs, or even chests in show-your-body sports like swimming, diving, and boxing – or, for that matter, in gymnastics, wrestling and basketball?
As a Person Living with Body Hair™, I want answers. Hairy legs and forearms and chests are broadly accepted, but if fate and DNA conspire to give you a dusting of hair or out-and-out fur anywhere else, you learn fast to keep your shirt on to avoid contending with staring, barely-concealed distaste, and putdowns that guys with other types of skin don’t have to contend with. Removing hair is a difficult, time-consuming, ongoing process, and about as appropriate an expectation as requiring dark-skinned people to bleach themselves. Would you ask Bo Jackson to undergo surgery and chemical treatment to look more like Boris Becker? I think not.
Disdain for Persons Living with Body Hair (something I call lycanthrophobia – from “lycanthrope,” meaning “wolfman”) is widely manifest, rather egregiously so in the realm of sport.
While the lovelorn and/or horny people who place personal ads in alternative newsweeklies do occasionally ask for hairy respondents, you’re more likely to see a request for “smooth” guys. So what does that make fellows like me? Lumpy?
There’s an entire subculture in the gay world devoted to hairy guys – the cult of the Bear – but the archetype there is a stout, muscular, or obese hairy guy. If you’re hairy and trim, forget it, though some Bear-worshippers might take pity on you and call you an Otter before walking off in pursuit of a major ursa.
The stigma of hirsute skin is strong among heterosexualists. Last March, the Washington Post described the lengths to which men will go to remove body hair – in part, the story rightfully contended, in order to live up to the Marky Mark-esque standards of male bodily beauty currently rampant. Shaving, waxing, and the painful, expensive, invasive process of electrolysis are all the rage with males and females. “We’ve been socialized to find back hair unpleasant,” stated a waxer at a salon, adding that “counseling skills are critical. We’re dealing with self-esteem here.”
Actually, no. It’s esteem, period, not just self-esteem. In a 1993 GQ article, “fur back” Eric Zicklin recalls “At a basketball game, when the oafish and hirsute center of our rival school stepped to the foul line for a free throw, the home fans started a chant to break his concentration: ‘Shave your back! Shave your back!’”
In a 1993 Village Voice “roundtable” on “feminism and sexuality on campus,” a woman recalled: “I remember the first time I came out of my dorm room and there were guys walking around in towels using the women’s bathroom because there was less of a line. And one of them was all covered in hair, like a walking rug! It made me very uncomfortable being around people who were more sexually open than me.” (Total crapola. That’s tantamount to saying women ought to turn into drag kings – flattening breasts and hiding hips under baggy clothes – to avoid seeming “more sexually open” than men.)
Why does bodybuilding – the “sport” in which exaggeration of another male sexual characteristic, the musculature, is the goal – require a completely hairless body for competitions? As Alan M. Klein notes in his analysis of bodybuilding culture, Little Big Men, “Bodybuilders compete semi-nude, wearing only the most brief outfits. They also shave or remove their body hair, a move that is interpreted by outsiders as feminizing (bodily hair is integrally associated with masculinity). Even within the subculture, despite the internalization of relatively questionable behaviour such as shaving of body hair or wearing posing trunks, there is a hypersensitivity around homosexuality.” (And how: Ironically enough, even last year’s Gay Games, putatively an alternative to the strictures of mainstream sport, required shaved bodies in its physique meets.)
In his new book Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog, Mark Leyner offers advice to aspiring muscleheads: “Imagine that you’ve achieved massive muscular development, chiseled definition, and perfect symmetry, and you’re ogling yourself in the mirror one afternoon, and damn it if you don’t decide then and there to... become a professional bodybuilding competitor. Let me save you time and postage with one simple word: depilation. The body hair has to go. The look that garners the trophies and, ultimately, the lucrative protein-powder endorsements is Plucked and Basted.”
Once the shaving psychosis is instilled, it’s tough to shake. Even the innumerable published photos depicting pro bodybuilder Bob Paris in out-of-competition milieux tend to show him with carefully-trimmed chest hair. Funny how Paris can come out the closet, thus being honest with the world about his true nature, but isn’t yet honest about the natural terrain of his skin.
Still, sportswriters hurry to deride any male athlete in a “real” sport who dares to shave. In a list of various ills troubling the world of sport, last year SI listed Mark Gastineau for, among other things, shaving his body hair. Déclassé tennis champeen Andre Agassi, who reportedly told Pete Sampras not to accept tokens of appreciation from Elton John (“You can’t go around getting flowers from a fag like that!”), took the gay-like step of shaving his body hair and showing it off – once in 1993, again last year. Why? “It makes me a little more aerodynamic out there on the courts, you know?” he said in ‘93. Besides, “the girls like me better that way.” And let’s not forget the attention lavished on the priggish tennis dandy after he went from a Fabio to a suedehead look up top – exactly the sort of undue attention to coiffure derided by media critics when the subject at hand is, say, a female newscaster.
Is it any coïncidence that the sport with more exposed hairless shoulders than any other, NBA basketball, is home to a coven of shaven-headed superstars? Sure, most of them are of African descent, but let’s not pretend those guys don’t have hair elsewhere: Pilose legs and backs and shoulders certainly can be found on black guys, though the hair is much less noticeable. Bald heads seem to have something of a bonding effect in sport: At the ‘92 Olympics, members of the U.S. men’s volleyball team shaved their heads in solidarity with Bob Samuelson, a teammate who received a bad call; Samuelson has alopecia, a condition of nearly-full-body baldness. An Oregon high-school basketball team did the same last February in honour of a teammate who went bald due to chemotherapy.
Then there’s swimming. Ever watched an elite swimming event on TV and seen so much as a whisker on the boys or the girls? You might suspect some kind of self-selection practice was at play here – i.e., boys with hairy bodies figure out early on that they’re going to get razzed every day of their swimming lives and opt out early – but in fact every serious swimmer shaves before a big meet. (Sometimes only eyebrows are left intact – yes, every other hair tastes the blade.) As a Canadian swimming official describes it, shaving makes swimmers feel “really clean and sharp and tingly. That makes them feel really, really good and it makes them swim faster.” It’s not a myth: A 1988 study of shaved vs. unshaved male swimmers measured a statistically-significant decrease in “active drag,” resulting in an increased distance travelled per stroke and reduced oxygen consumption, among other pluses. And oddly enough, one approach swimmers could use to reduce drag without shaving – wearing a certain model of bodysuit – was outlawed by FINA, the international swimming governing body, for adding buoyancy. (Still, you will find wetsuits on triathletes, not to mention surfers and their ilk.)
Cyclists tend to shave their legs (think of Breaking Away), though debate rages in cycling magazines, online, and at meets as to the real reason. Some contend that hairless legs facilitate healing after a wipeout – dirt is more prone to sticking inside a scratch on a hairy leg than a hairless one. But realistically, the urge to shave stems mostly from sex appeal: As in bodybuilding, a “smooth” leg is alleged to highlight well-developed muscles more alluringly than, uh, a “lumpy” leg. With colourful, shiny, skin-tight clothes, a tricked-out bike, a helmet, and alien-bug-like shades, shaving adds to the sexy-cyborg air of the serious cyclist.
So where, if anywhere, is hair accepted in sport? Try wrestling, where very skimpy, tight “singlets” show a lot of skin and leave little to the imagination even on the parts they do cover. Body hair is not often seen – as former Olympic silver medalist and current Ohio State wrestling coach Russ Hellickson explains, body hair isn’t usually apparent until “at least in the middle of their college age. Nobody’s going to get a hairy body when they’re 16.... Most of the wrestlers eliminate themselves anyway when they get done with high school.” Still, hairy athletes are more likely to be accepted in wrestling than elsewhere. One reason is physical intimacy: With weigh-ins and medical tests usually carried out en masse and in the nude (roomfuls of naked wrestlers are common at meets), and after practicing on teammates for months or years, wrestlers tend to get used to the configuration of each other’s bodies.
“Wrestling is, if you pardon the pun, a hands-on kind of activity,” says Ray Takahashi, a Canadian coach, “where the body awareness of the wrestler is quite evident, and whether someone has hair on their body or not, you know, no one really cares.... You have to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself and your abilities, and the last thing you worry about is whether you look good or not.”
As Hellickson recalls, “The line is with me is, when I get into the shower, ‘Didn’t you forget to take off your sweater, coach?’... When I was about 22, 23, I started getting extremely hairy on my body, and I wrestled until I was about 30.” The Japanese, he recalls, “would come up to me and touch it. They were just amazed at it. They would ultimately ask if it was all over my body, and I would show ‘em, and they would be in awe of it.”
Awe, huh? Must be nice. Maybe in some future utopia hirsute jock guys will cease to be epidermis non grata, but keep your shirts on: As one of the last acceptable means of insulting a whole category of men (usually white men, at that), this is one prejudice people will find too handy, and too enjoyable, to let go.
Originally published circa 1996 ¶ Updated: 2009.07.30 15:42