For a while now, the metrosexual has been out of favour. After just a few years of shaving, waxing, primping and preening, a lot of men are apparently already bored with the effort it requires to appear mannequin-smooth. Women have been subjected to scrutiny and ridicule if they betray a hair of imperfection (remember the furore surrounding Julia Roberts’ armpit in 1999?), but men can get away with doing as they please – as long as they bear the insight that they have no persistence.
Anyway, this is not an entry about sexism – forget the women. I want to discuss facial hair and body hair, and the roles that these play in defining a man’s masculinity and his “realness”. My own father has a moustache, and I have always adamantly refused to follow in his footsteps. As a child I was often told how much I looked like my father, and I wanted to carve out my own identity to set myself apart from him (for various reasons). I remember my mother always saying how weird my father looked without a moustache; I once had the privilege of seeing him without it, and he did indeed look strange, like a whole other person. So this proves to me that facial hair can be something that forms part of, and reinforces, one’s identity and the way that they are recognised by others.
I went through puberty early (in my last year of primary school), and I was the first boy in the school changing rooms to have body hair that I couldn’t hide. There was no way for me to disguise that I was different from the others, so I just had to wear it on my sleeve and my legs. But when I started to grow chest hair, I immediately began to shave it. Is it because of this childhood trauma? I don’t really think so; I just think that at the start of my adolescence and realising my sexual identity, all of the hot guys in the boy bands and teen magazines that I fancied were super-buff. Body hair does nothing to show off muscle definition, and so I guess that the fact I never saw it reflected in the media meant that it was something I wanted to get rid of. Is this an internal infantilisation of myself? I don’t think so. Does Abercrombie & Fitch ostensibly ban body hair from its models to appeal to a younger fanbase? Quite probably.
And then, let’s throw into the mix that my boyfriend is hairy. And I love him and it. It’s sexy, it’s warm, it’s comforting; it’s also simply part of who he is. So it’s not that I don’t find body hair attractive; I’ve never fallen for the twink-ish type. But then, reading last Autumn’s issue of GQ Style, there was an article tucked towards the back of the issue in defence of body hair (its tagline: “From head to toe, from back to crack, a hairy man is a happy man… / Having hair all over is ace”) featuring this model, Micka:
Is this a bit extreme? I think that this goes beyond the dandy/Victorian/retro style that is apparently in vogue for “real men” “going back to basics” “in a recession” (my fingers are tired from air quoting) to something almost niche. The article says that “It’s him; he’s all hair and he’s not apologising for it.” Wonderful, I applaud! And then I go to GQ’s website and find the following contradictory advice from no less than The Style Guy :
“It is your son’s duty to trim that stuff down, at least so it stays in the shirt and we don’t have to look at it. I am for moderation in body hair, and the ladies tend to agree. You don’t have to go as bald as a competitive swimmer, but it’s good to look a few strides ahead of the ape.”
So I’m confused as to what GQ are actually trying to say; these messages are diametrically opposite to one another. Should men be themselves and embrace our bodies’ natures however they might be, or should we groom and primp and shave according to how someone else wants us to look? What about what we might want? What about, alternatively, doing things for a more important cause? For the past two years, I have been aware of “Movember”, as colleagues have sported moustaches (with varying degrees of success) to raise money for charity. It’s slowly establishing itself as an institution (though with my fear of facial hair somehow unsuspectingly transforming me into my father, which I don’t know if either I or the mirror will ever be ready for, I will never do it), and I have been intrigued by the implied thought behind it. “In western society, there’s surely no way that someone would voluntarily grow a moustache!” “You are sporting that moustache? It must be for charity. Come into our pub and have a beer to commend us for your efforts!” So confident are drinking establishments that men with facial hair in the month of November are doing it for charity, that I would be tempted to grow a moustache just for the free booze. My ex-boss (who has lived in countries throughout the world) noted that attitudes towards facial hair in the UK are quite unforgiving, and I hadn’t really given it much thought before then. But think of villains in western films and cartoons; they often twirl their moustaches. Is this left-over from Caucasian “us-against-them” racism? Is facial hair an easy way to vilify a character? What about the buffoonery associated with a bushy moustache? A quick Google Image search of “famous moustaches” brings up multiple pictures of Hulk Hogan, Borat, Charlie Chaplin and Will Ferrell in Anchorman before we even get to a semi-handsome picture of Brad Pitt.
So if body hair is something as old and unavoidable as time, and links us back to neanderthal man, then isn’t elegance also synonymous with classic, timeless style? I also have the current issue of L’Officiel Hommes Italia, whose sole headline is “Essere eleganti” (“Being elegant”).
Note the lack of facial hair; the pure, clean-cut figure of the cover model. Flicking through the issue’s pages, I can count on two hands the number of men in both the adverts and features who have facial hair (stubble discounted). This dwindles further once I subtract those who are artists/musicians/actors. What message does this send out? Whatever may be forecast, it wouldn’t appear that fashion trends are going to make room for facial hair in any meaningful way. Which is a shame, because the couple of young models who do sport a sharp moustache and a beard that’s thick enough to move past the “stubble” phase look really good. It’s not that facial hair can’t be sexy – like everything, it takes the right look, the right confidence and a balance of care and carefree. After all of this, I’ve come to the same conclusion that I come to so often these days when it comes to fashion: be yourself, be as true to the core of you as you can be, express that through your clothes and grooming, and then just do what you like.