Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing


Since male jocks are such fine specimens of manhood, why are so many of them as hairless as a Cub Scout?

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.

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

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