“Welcome back, chest hair,” the New York Times declared a few weeks ago in the Styles section, ratifying that thicket of manliness by quoting a trend-forecast analyst who pronounced, “We’re seeing a return to ’70s fashion.”
I found the story intriguing but incomplete. While I welcome the shift away from the male bosom’s moment of peak sleekness, the paper of record still left me tasked with a summertime grooming ritual that manages to be humiliating, time-consuming, and incredibly difficult. At least once a week, from Memorial Day onward, I can be found hopping around the bathroom, holding a very sharp razor in shaving-cream-slicked hands, while contorting myself into the unlikeliest of postures, all in an effort to reach my body’s equivalent of New Zealand.
Which is to say, shaving my back.
The chest hair arrived in college, and while it wasn’t exactly a welcome addition to my physique, I could live with it. But in my early 20s, hair started inching both up and down my back before ceremoniously meeting in the middle, like the transcontinental railroad.
It seemed puberty would never end, with new indignities visited upon my body every day, alongside old friends like acne and lack of executive function. I spent much of my 20s (and a good few years of my 30s) terrified that a chance sexual encounter would reveal my true, lycanthropic form. Thankfully, I never found much luck in that arena.
To be clear, I have not been blessed simply with hairy shoulders or a patch of hair on my lower back. No, the entire damn thing, front and back, is covered in hair. To let my tonsorial torso go untended for more than a month would likely result in the return to some atavistic, pre-sapien state. I say “likely” because I have never let it get that far.
I tried getting waxed a few times. As anyone who has subjected herself to the process will readily tell you, it’s not a pleasant experience. More troubling was that, in the days afterward, my skin developed the bumpy texture of raw chicken breast.
And then there was the laser. That I managed once.
In private musings, I have often wondered how I would stand up under torture, how I would deal with the privations of the prison camp. Subjected to that simple beam of amplified light, I found out: Apparently I am a collaborator.
I have tried to find inspiration, brotherhood even, in ’70s forebears like Albert Brooks and Roger Moore and Robin Williams (perhaps cinema’s hairiest lead since Lassie). But the tolerance for back hair was not to last, mown down in the Reagan era by the well-oiled planes of the Italian Stallion, Austrian Oak, and Muscles from Brussels.
Nigella Lawson claims to love men with hairy backs. I’m told they’re quite popular in rarefied pockets of the gay community. And Seth Rogen has been praised in this very publication for his embrace of rearward topiary.
I am a big fan of Rogen, but that’s not back hair. What Rogen sports is the dorsal equivalent of a 12-year-old’s “mustache” — it alludes to back hair, but it just ain’t the real thing.
Still, I salute these men. I wish I had their courage. Add it to my list of failings.
And so, with the wisdom of age, I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that there is no escape from my private hell. Meditation has proved incapable of helping me transcend my corporeal limitations. I have sprawled in sweat lodges with men whose bodies would make Lucien Freud wince, and yet I was not delivered. I’ve considered Buddhism, but it seems like they’re always shaving their heads, and the last thing I need to do is add more surface area to my daily ablutions.
Still, the spiritual-ascetic life of religious orders is appealing, and I’m already wearing my hair shirt.