In Defense of Back Hair

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Aug. 5 2014 8:30 AM

In Defense of Back Hair

140804_OUT_HairyBack
Embrace it!

Photo by Markus Gann/Shutterstock

At the start of this summer, I purchased several tank tops—I am a gay man, and I am only human—with the solemn intention of wearing them proudly around my gayborhood. But no matter how much resolve I build up to don my new apparel, I rarely work up the nerve to leave the house sans sleeves. This trepidation stems from my heretofore secret shame, one I’ve carried since I was barely 13 years old: I have a hairy back.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

And from this day forward, I refuse to be ashamed of it.

Advertisement

For years, I’ve struggled to keep my hairy back and shoulders out of the public eye. As a teenager, I drowned my problems in Nair—for an insecure 14-year-old, a mild chemical burn is a small price to pay for shirtless self-confidence. In college, I once experimented with waxing, a scorching, chthonic catastrophe I swore never to repeat. I’ve even contemplated laser hair removal, but the procedure requires a perfect balance of affluence, desperation, and masochism that I have yet to reach.

Why do I so revile my back hair? That’s easy—because almost everybody else does. All other once-taboo forms of body hair now have their partisans, from pubes and armpits to feet and faces. The gay community, especially, has embraced hairy chests, hairy privates, and hairy faces as part of its self-acceptance ethos. But there has been no such renaissance for back hair. Beauty blogs and fitness forums, even open-minded ones, universally malign it. (GQ flatly issued this Kantian edict: “Back hair is never sexy.”) Gay men, except perhaps for a certain subset of deeply dedicated bears, quiver at the sight of it. And back hair has the dubious distinction of being the one type of body hair that straight men—who generally get carte blanche in the personal grooming department—might actually consider to be embarrassing. 

This is a strange and unacceptable state of affairs. There’s nothing inherently gross or dirty about back hair, no reason why it should be singled out for near-universal abhorrence—especially when its close cousin, chest hair, remains so widely beloved and even fetishized. It wasn’t always this way, either: As recently as the 1970s, erstwhile James Bond Roger Moore could flaunt his hairy back on the big screen—In a sex scene! In a close-up!—without losing his sex symbol status.

But those of us who grew up after 1979 have been brainwashed to despise any hair that sneaks below the neck. Most male movie stars today have the hairlessness of a pre-pubescent boy, somewhat freakily accompanied by the abs of a body builder. Even the furriest of modern idols, our Jake Gyllenhaals and Jon Hamms, boast perfectly smooth backs and shoulders. Hollywood and glamour magazines have colluded, insidiously and insistently, to convince us that the hairy chest/hair-free back combination is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Don’t believe them. A quick poll of friends, family, and Slate staff suggests that most men blessed with a hairy chest are also, to varying degrees, cursed with a hairy back. And many, tragically, share the shame I have, until now, clutched closely. One straight Slatester told me he felt self-conscious about his hairy back throughout his youth and hesitated to go shirtless at the pool. Another admitted that he’s still embarrassed by the coarse hair that covers his shoulders and recently faced ridicule from a gay friend about it.

The fact that a gay man would mock my colleague merely for baring his own body at the beach fills me with shame for my people. The gay rights movement is centered around an ideology of self-love and self-acceptance, of embracing yourself and others no matter how they live their lives or what they look like. Humiliating someone for the way his body looks clearly violates that credo. Those of us with back hair were figuratively born this way: We might not have popped out of the womb hirsute, but we certainly had a hairy future built into our genetic code.

That’s why, from here on out, I refuse to lock myself in the bathroom with a bottle of Nair twice a summer—or to hide my back and shoulders when it’s 90 degrees in the city. Our culture’s irrational and destructive fear of back hair is a ridiculous relic that deserves no respect in our enlightened times. It’s time to throw off the shackles of back-hair-phobia and usher in a new era of body tolerance. This weekend, I’m wearing my tank top. You can stare if you want—I’ll take it as a compliment. 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.