Smooth Operators

What do you look for in a male professional athlete? Strength? Agility? Rakish good looks? A ripped physique?

Me, I look for shaved armpits. Not because that’s, ahem, my preference but because I’ve become oddly obsessed with the spectacle of pro athletes, particularly basketball players, whose depilation routines increasingly extend south of the neck.

Chests are one thing: We’re used to muscle-bound goombahs defuzzing to bring their pecs into greater relief. But armpits. Armpits! There are, far as I know, no underarm muscles whose greater glory necessitates deforestation.

Yet every time I watched a b-ball game last season, I spotted a few sets of hairless or lovingly trimmed underarms. NCAA rising star Carl English would smoothly swoop toward the net to reveal he’s … smooth down there. Spurs giant David Robinson, hoisting an arm in celebration just before his retirement, showed off five-o’clock shadow south of his triceps. Latrell Sprewell, reaching for the ball, would reveal that he’s prickly in more ways than one. (Naturally, I’m looking forward to the new season to find out what hair-removal tips other players have picked up over the summer.)

I started noticing all this thanks to the slow-motion-replay feature on TiVo: One day, I relived a spectacular rebound and discovered an NCAA player whose pits were more grammar-school than collegiate. (Amazing the peculiar little details TiVo slo-mo reveals; I can hardly wait for a TiVo-HDTV combo so I can obsess over sitcom stars’ plastic-surgery scars.) Once you notice one hairless hoopster, you notice them all—on TV, on the sports pages, in Sports Illustrated. They’re everywhere.

Of course, some athletes have always lived life on the (razor’s) edge: swimmers (who allegedly shave to cut down on drag) and cyclists (who shave so that leg scrapes can easily be bandaged for faster healing) and bodybuilders and professional wrestlers (who have always been just totally weird about their bodies). But basketball players—and football players (like Jeremy Shockey, who proudly shows off his noticeably sleek pits by hiking up his jersey sleeves)—define masculine norms in America. Where pro athletes in this country go, average men follow. And at the moment, pro athletes are straying into territory once occupied mainly by transvestites and pre-op transsexuals.

In fact, they’re not the only ones: A friend who’s an obsessive Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan tells me that Buffy’s buff vampire buddy Angel, who’s always taking off his shirt for some reason, frequently flashes bald armpits. And manly reality-television grunts from Survivor 2’s Colby to Big Brother 2’s Will to The Bachelor’s Bob have all shaved it all off.

What a curious moment. Just as the Queer Eye team is remaking blue-collar lunks and feckless clerks into stylish chaps, straight athletes—the culture’s Über-males—are grooming themselves in ways that even gay men haven’t routinely explored.

In other words, some straights are out-gaying the gays. It’s awfully precious, this shaving where few men have shaved before. It’s not only more than a bit pervy (remember the 9/11 hijackers, who were said to have ritualistically shaved their entire bodies, pits and all, just before the attack?); it’s a defiant denial of basic biology. It’s self-emasculation—a labor-intensive rebuffing of one of the key secondary sexual characteristics of male Homo sapiens. (Of course, shaving above the neck involves the same sort of denial: presenting a sleek, civilized face in public. But shaving below the neck represents a newly intensive focus on taming the animal within.)

And speaking of homos, pit pruning has obvious thematic continuity with chest shaving, which, of course, was emphatically championed by homosexuals before becoming a Madison Avenue cliché. Since Madison Avenue clichés have a way of becoming Main Street USA clichés, the once-gay signifier of the perfectly smooth chest rode its way into heartland hearts via the Bruce Weberized Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues and Calvin Klein ads.

But the hairless male underarm, upon further consideration, doesn’t necessarily, uh, sprout from the contemporary gay sensibility. Right now there’s actually a backlash in the gay community against follicularly challenged muscle bunnies (so nineties!) in favor of more proportional, non-steroidal, manly physiques—and not just among gay “bears,” who have always hankered for the hirsute. In an admittedly unscientific recent survey at, 26 percent of straight men said they think of armpit shaving as mandatory (and armpit hair as “really gross”), as opposed to 16 percent of gay/bi men. (The most frequently checked response among gay/bi men, in fact, was “A man should not shave his armpits.”) As for the trend-setting world of professional nakedness, Benjamin Scuglia, editor of the skin-trade bible Inside Porn, tells me that in gay porn, models with chest hair and treasure trails are coming back big-time, baby. “There’s a giant shift away from the creamy-smooth style that everyone blindly subscribed to for years,” he says. “It’s the big issue: The studios have been getting tons of e-mails demanding that models be allowed to remain hairy.”

Of course, outré sexual ideals can hardly remain outré when they’ve been endlessly appropriated by Middle Americans. If Bruce Weber’s hairless boys once represented a naughty, cutting-edge representation of masculinity, well, the cutting edge has dulled.

Meanwhile, in the straight-male world, the razor’s edge has only advanced. It’s an almost sitcom-worthy rever-sal: Straights are going femme just as gays are getting in touch with their inner butch.

But back to the NBA. We can reason, of course, that basketball players are special cases: that they’ve fetishized the armpit because their sport fetishizes the armpit—puts it on constant display.

“Where pro athletes in this country go, average men follow. And at the moment, they’re straying into territory once occupied by pre-op transsexuals.”

Still, that doesn’t do anything to explain away an entirely different sort of ball player I keep on hearing about. To wit: A twentysomething female friend of mine tells me of a group of her straight-male friends who, somewhat astonishingly, recently “sat around a private room in a New York steakhouse discussing the fine art of pubic-hair trimming—brands of shavers, hair length, technique, and angle, all discussed in great detail.” A “huge number of the straight men I know are suddenly doing this,” she adds. In American Wedding—the latest unfortunate American Pie sequel—the character played by Jason Biggs decides to shave his balls before the ceremony for reasons that are never entirely clear but qualify, of course, as quintessentially “American.” Meanwhile, Men’s Journal, which seems to pride itself on being the least fey of the men’s monthlies, recently offered a step-by-step guide to “grooming’s final frontier.” (Among the tips: “Before taking a blade to your boys, you’ll want to use an electric sideburn trimmer to shape the battlefield, as they say.”)

The irony here is that women seem to be retreating from overdoing it down there. Sex and the City recently celebrated the “full bush” aesthetic for females, while Kate Moss went shaggydelic for W magazine. And the New York Observer’s Simon Doonan, who knows about these things, has declared Brazilian-wax-dependent thong underwear to be over.

It’s no surprise that, just as gays have gentrified neglected neighborhoods, they’ve gentrified the male body. And now that the straights are arriving, the gays are once again moving on (to, uh, new homes, where they may or may not decide to mow the lawns).

But the really queer thing is that in emulating gays, straights are not only getting in touch with their inner homos (and/or inner girlfriends) but getting in touch with their inner youths.

Denuding oneself is literally a form of infantilization. While many men have naturally smooth or sparsely haired chests, a bald underarm or crotch is a retreat, of sorts, to dewy youthfulness. (If you don’t have any hair down there, you never have to watch it turn gray, I suppose.)

It’s not so much that all these straight Peter Pans don’t want to grow up. It’s that they’re uncomfortable with aging, so they’re trying to turn back the clock.

In that sense, of course, straights are once again following the gay lead: Gay men have always been pioneers of youth worship, not to mention a (night)lifestyle that suggests never-ending adolescence. (Gays were the first to really obsess about how much adulthood—and aging—sucks.)

Bring on the Lady Bic, boys.

Smooth Operators