Remember that scene when the protagonist of your favorite show ripped off his shirt to reveal a chiseled body and a muscled, hairy back?
You can certainly recount muscular, hairless men removing their shirts, and probably even muscular men with hairy chests (Hugh Jackman in X-Men: Days of Future Past jumps immediately to mind). But when it comes to cultural beauty standards, especially standards perpetuated through pop culture, the hairy back is still an object of ridicule. Unfortunately, without any clear explanation as to why, and despite the recent revolution in acceptance of hairy men, back hair remains unattractive.
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A recent flurry of articles have addressed back hair, some positive, many not, calling it the new pubic hair, praising celebrities who choose not to wax and one particularly ambitious article asking us to "throw off the shackles of back-hair phobia and usher in a new era of body tolerance." Unfortunately, the most indicative article is probably GQ's "Guide to Body Grooming," which flatly declares, "Back hair is never sexy."
The back hair taboo seems out of place, given that hair in general for men has been so trendy in recent years. Mustaches see a surge every Movember, chest hair had its share in the spotlight and beards have become decisively sexy. Yet men still feel uncomfortable.
"I am more self-conscious about back hair... because people have told me that it's 'unattractive,' whereas no one has ever told me that about leg hair, arm hair, beard, mustache, etc.," Chris Clemente, 25, in Los Angeles, told Mic. His sentiment captures that of the five other millennial men who spoke with Mic about back hair and body image for men. Only one even took a shot at explaining why back hair is considered singularly unattractive.
Stephen Demarais, 26, from Washington, D.C., says, "Chest hair says that I'm a manly tough guy, my beard asserts that I could cut down a tree if need be, but my back hair just says that I'm a gross middle-aged dude."
Hairless legs on an otherwise hairy man would certainly be considered strange, and the idea that a man should be selectively hairy — that some hair is OK, but only in certain places — is ridiculous, but nonetheless expected. After all, many women in the U.S. put themselves through a gauntlet of shaving, waxing and plucking in order to fit society's image of the ideal — read, generally hairless — female. Unfortunately, women are not the only ones who suffer from seemingly hypocritical and increasingly unattainable standards of beauty.
Mike Gilman, founder of Grooming Lounge, a website which sells men's grooming products, and owner of two high-end barbershops in the D.C. area, knows all about men's anxieties and expectations when it comes to male hair and body image. Gilman told Mic over the phone that "men are now much more aware of their personal grooming and how they look." This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Gilman acknowledges that some of that emphasis on aesthetics, "unfortunately, bleeds into self-esteem issues." He also confirmed that, among his clients, back hair is "considered to be the least attractive" of the body hairs.
Aisha Masac, a Wax Specialist at Salon Nardos in D.C., confirmed to Mic that her male customers definitely seem more worried about their back hair, noting that "most men are self-conscious at the pool (or beach) with hair on their back as it is seen as unattractive to women and kids," according to her clients.
To be fair, there may be room for flexibility. Movies like 300 and Superman Returns sell a very specific standard of sexy — a hairless one. And yet it seems hairy chests have piggybacked on the recent pro-beard train, carving themselves a place in our image of male sexuality. Still, back hair may have a harder time overcoming its stigma.
Despite what seems like a clear consensus on the sexual potential of back hair, it's important to remember that the expectation is inherently illogical. Body image issues, for men and women, are all born from similarly unrealistic expectations, and we as a culture have been getting a little better at at least acknowledging that women shouldn't feel obligated to be super skinny and men shouldn't feel obligated to be super buff. Hairy legs, hairy chests, hairy faces are all OK, but backs are off limits? Sounds unrealistic to me.