The Magazine


Jun 21, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 38 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Men without chests -- that was C. S. Lewis's striking description of graduates of the postwar English schools, with their faculties trained to dismiss the virtues of patriotism and piety. These Englishmen, Lewis worried, would become lifelong enemies of the sublime, unable and unwilling, when push came to shove, to defend themselves or their countrymen. American men, I am happy to report -- even the sensitive new age guys -- still have something of a chest, thanks to our enduring fitness mania. But have you noticed how bare those chests are? Late twentieth-century America is increasingly a land not of men without chests but of men without chest hair.

I first realized this a couple of years ago while watching the otherwise forgettable B-movie romance Picture Perfect, starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon, who was then just under 40. As the two characters get ready to, well, put the 13 in PG-13, Bacon takes off his shirt and his chest is completely hairless. Okay, Kevin Bacon may not prove much. But not long after that, I saw Al Pacino, whose fuzzy talent has graced the screen in such classics as Scarface and Serpico, appearing as hairless as an angel in The Devil's Advocate. (Once you're aware of the hairless-man phenomenon, by the way, you can no longer see a movie without noticing it. Sorry.)

Now, only 20 percent or so of adult white males are totally without what's technically referred to as "terminal pigmented chest hair." And yet, in the last few years, practically every Hollywood male sex symbol, when standing half-dressed for his more intimate scenes, looks as if he has absolutely no chest hair. Tom Cruise. Matt Damon. Keanu Reeves. Brad Pitt. All of them look like boys. One even sees older actors depilated to look like the boy-man stars who now capture every significant romantic role. The traditional Hollywood aesthetic in which old was never sexy has been carried to a new extreme: Now only the immature is sexy. Forget heroin chic, the hip aesthetic of the early '90s; say hello to permanent adolescence. And this new look trickles down. A big-city cop of my acquaintance confided not long ago that he shaves his chest. For several years now waxing salons have not been for women only. One of these days, no doubt, a cosmetic surgeon will come up with the philosopher's stone of our age -- how to transplant hair from men's chests to their heads -- and make a fortune.

But the hairless man represents more than just a simple change in cosmetic fashions, like the widening and narrowing of ties. These men without chest hair carry on, knowingly or not, quite a tradition. In ancient Rome and Greece, the romantic associations of men and boys were jeopardized by the appearance of facial and bodily hair. It meant the boy was now a man, which meant he was no longer available. The Roman epigrammatist Martial lampooned men who plucked their hair to stay boyish.


Why pluck the hairs from your gray fanny?

That's a chic touch which men admire

In girls, not in a flagrant granny.

Martial also took issue with a man who insisted on calling him brother (fratere), a term that also meant lover:


I'm shaggy-legged and bristle-cheeked

Daily you depilate

Your silky skin. Your voice is light;

You lisp in a charming way --

My voice, as my loins can testify,

Is gruff, and so, I'll say:


We're less alike than eagles and doves

Or lions and does, so Mister

Don't call me "brother," or

I'll have to call you sister.

Obviously today, as ever, the phenomenon cannot be disentangled from the romantic ideals of male homosexuals. As Salon columnist Camille Paglia authoritatively noted in a recent piece, "depilation has become highly fashionable in the gay male world. . . . Not since Greek athletes scraped their oiled, sandy bodies with the strigil . . . have men had such a fetish for girl-smooth skin." But what is most interesting about the hairless man is that he is no longer exclusively gay; he is, rather, the American male ideal.