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