You must touch my chest hair. It feels like the underbelly of a Persian cat. A thicker hairline snakes down the middle of my torso and then fans out to the sides, onto my back and over my shoulders. When I go to parties I invite friends (and new acquaintances… and strangers) to run their hands through my magical carpet. They stare in horror as I lift my shirt. ‘Real men have hair,’ I say.
I take their hand and, after I’ve overcome their physical resistance, I place it into the thick black jungle that extends an inch from my chest. ‘See?’ I say. It’s hard to tell exactly why they’re smiling – politeness, fear, disgust – but I think it’s because they’re truly impressed. ‘And I don’t even use shampoo or conditioner. Isn’t it beautiful?’ Usually at this stage they reclaim their hand and back away. ‘Wait. You should feel it against your face.’ Areas with more nerve endings have greater sensitivity.
When I travelled through Asia, children stopped me on the street and pulled on my arm hair – without invitation. I felt like a cat. If their parents had a camera, they asked for a photo. I didn’t mind. In ancient Egypt cats were sacred animals.
All the men in my family, and some of the women, are hairy. I’ve come to accept it, mostly. My back is the only place where I’m not too pleased to have that extra layer of insulation. I used to go to St Kilda Beach and feel ashamed to take off my top, so I’d look for other pilose backs to sanction the manoeuvre. It took some searching – like Where’s Wally, except his sweater’s made of hair. Over time, my insecurity grew with my back hair and I tried to get rid of them both. Numerous times.
I tried various means of removal. Shaving scared my hair and drove it inwards – each ingrown hair that followed felt like a baby chicken struggling to hatch. I tried that white cream that’s supposed to ‘wipe away the hair’ – so say the TV commercials – but it irritated my skin. And with my Middle Eastern blood, the hair grew back before I had even put my clothes back on.
Waxing resulted in a horrible eruption of pustules that took three months to heal. And let’s not forget the incredible pain of the procedure. It felt as though arrowheads were being yanked from my dermis. My hair doesn’t like to let go.
I also went through a phase of burning the hair. That’s right, burning. Repeatedly reaching behind my back with a cigarette lighter, in the garage in the middle of the night, like some monstrous Quasimodo. I don’t mind the smell of burnt hair, but burnt skin smells like rusted copper pipes. And I burnt myself plenty. Despite all that agony, I thought I was making myself look better. I thought it was worth it. I was wrong.
Whenever I used to undress in front of someone I fancied, I turned towards them and let them see my flaccid pectorals rather than my hideous back. The first time my girlfriend saw me naked – before she said anything – I apologised. ‘Sorry, I’ve got a really hairy back. I hate it. I tried to get rid of it but my skin develops a reaction every time I try.’ She didn’t care. Many people don’t. But it does stop me from taking up offers of free massages, and I still worry what others think when I stroll topless along the beach. ‘Aaarrrgghh… It’s a monster.’ Small children are trampled in the panic that ensues.
Who decided that body hair is not an attractive feature? Have people forgotten that we share a common ancestor with the great apes, the most handsomely hairy primates of all? What happened to the very first primate that was born with moderately less hair? Was it ousted from the troop? ‘Be gone from here,’ was perhaps what the elder primate said. ‘You are an abomination. Your bald, glabrous skin makes me lose my appetite for ants.’ If that primate lived in a Western society today, it would be hailed for its relatively barren, frictionless skin. And oh how it would laugh at the irony.
People now go to great lengths to rid the hair from their bodies. I once went out with a girl who on our first date said, ‘I gave myself a Brazilian wax.’ I found that a bit odd, but I tried to put myself in her shoes. I thought about the expectations that must be placed upon her to go to such lengths. I thought about covering my pubis, genitals and perineum in hot wax – I believe ‘sack and crack’ is the accepted nomenclature – and then ripping it away as fast and hard as possible, with the sound of industrial-strength Velcro being separated. The image that holds in my mind is of a long strip of wax-covered paper with a bloody testicle hanging on one end of it. It feels like that could happen.
When I was travelling along the coast of Panama, my launch stopped at many small islands and crowds of the indigenous Kuna people usually came out to meet the boat. They were mostly dark skinned with dark features, but there were also albinos sparsely intermingled among them. They stood out like white jellybeans in a jar of liquorice ones. Completely white hair, and skin so white it’s pink. Their bodies lack melanin. In Panama, the albinos are revered as ‘moon children’ but in other parts of the world they’re ostracised by their families and communities. They’re ridiculed, feared and even killed. They are different.
When I lived in the UK, I was shocked at how much the British make fun of ‘gingers’. But those with blonde hair are celebrated. Who decides these things? Me, on the other hand, with dark hair and dark features, I’m often stopped and questioned by random police checks. ‘Do I look like a suspicious character,’ I asked one police officer. ‘Yes,’ he said, as he scrutinised my ID.
A few years ago, after months of hitchhiking across Europe, my beard had grown thick and curly and tangled. I bought a pack of cheap, disposable razors and commenced shaving. I sheared the right side first and, having spent two razors, I took a break. My arm was tired and the right side of my face was raw and bleeding from the crappy blades. So instead of completing the job, I decided to sport the half-beard for a few days. I was curious how people would react. Would I be judged?
The results were surprising. Radicals who I thought would accept me – hippies, squatters, freethinkers, young people – seemed mostly confused or annoyed by my facial experiment. Many of them rolled their eyes at me. I thought they’d understand the concept of self-expression. Isn’t my appearance irrelevant to my soul and essence? Does it matter how I look or dress? Does having half a beard make me half human, or half ape?
But then there were people who I thought would be completely judgemental who smiled and started conversations with me. Business executives, meaty security guards and Jesus (my bank manager). They asked me if I had a half-beard for any particular reason. They joked, ‘Did your razor break halfway through shaving?’ One suit on the train laughed into his chest and then looked up and said, ‘Thank you.’
And I realised that I had been just as judgemental as the radicals. The reactions I expected were based on people’s appearances.
Our bodies are merely vehicles that transport our souls. They are our Earth-suits. Some people choose to dress them in outrageous clothes, others have them well groomed in fine attire. Some have completely white skin, others have their back, sack and crack covered in hair.
It has taken many years, but I have finally embraced my hairiness. I’m no longer ashamed of the lustrous fleece covering my body. Now, I want to share its greatness with all those around me. So come on, touch it.
Image credit: Glen Bowman