While mulling over the male quest for muscularity a few posts ago, I brought up the notion of the "sanitized ideal" that has recently become de rigueur for the mainstream masculine body image. We're talking hair-free, sweat-free, odor-free; in other words, the same unrealistic standards peddled to women for so long, à la leg and underarm shaving. And like the hairless female ideal, it isn't just the most visible fur that men are tending to these days; statistically, men groom their pubic hair more than any other type of body hair (sans beards).
This notion of the hairless male particularly piqued my interest since it's a relatively new grooming habit among men these days. It isn't a minority of young men fussing over their follicles, either. Brown University psychologist Michael Boroughs began studying male body depilation (hair removal) in the early 2000s, and his 2009 dissertation found surprisingly high rates of body hair removal among male participants. His follow-up research since has continually confirmed this emerging behavioral pattern, which is consistent among gay and heterosexual men alike.
"It's very possible that [body hair depilation] is a sociocultural thing that's happening among men as well," Boroughs told me in a phone interview. "There's something happening out there with regard to appearance concerns and that the change in men's behavior relates to something that's happening in terms of culture and practices for appearance."
For starters, the gender gap in body hair removal (not including facial hair) is narrower that you might think. According to Borroughs' and others' research:
- 90.1% of women depilate
- 80.9% of men depilate
Moreover, for both women and men, a negative correlation exists between body hair growth and dissatisfaction. In other words, the more body hair that grows on the groin, chest, arms, the less people tend to report liking that anatomy.
So what's the self-reported motivation for these hairy hangups among younger males (Boroughs' sample populations have largely focused on college-aged cohorts)? Says Boroughs:
...Quoting some magazine publishers, for example, they'll say there hasn't been a magazine cover that has displayed a man with chest hair in 10 to 15 years. So, one of the things we're doing is looking at sociocultural influences on men's body hair reduction or removal behaviors. The reason that's most often cited for a variety of hair removal and reduction behaviors is cleanliness, and the original hypotheses we went into with these studies is that we thought men were doing to it for the purposes of improving appearances surrounding muscularity.
Six years after Steve Carell got a chest wax in "40-Year-Old Virgin," male body hair removal also has become something of a pop comedy trope. The recurring jokes acknowledge that the practice exists and dodges the normative femininity associations by cloaking the behavior in humor.
"I've seen no less that three episodes of Two and a Half Men where the issue of body hair removal has come up, and the same is true for Family Guy," Boroughs said. "So it's kind of this thing where people who in high school and college are watching, they're already talking about this in a joking kind of way."
The big difference between how the social pressures to shave applies to men and women comes with the decision to quit shaving/waxing/tweezing, etc.
...Men and women are very close in the number who report depilating, except that men have the option of stopping. And they probably have an option of stopping because they're not going to receive negative social feedback if they were to let their hair grow back. Whereas, there have been studies where women have received negative social feedback when they allow their hair to grow back on their bodies naturally.
In that case, men clearly still have more leeway to their hair grow as it will, but perhaps the social pressure is mounting—especially when it comes to the appearance of pubic hair. Just as the shorn vulva has become the sexual (and arguably infantile) beauty standard, the clean-cut penis is becoming par for the course.
Breaking down male hair removal by body part, men in Boroughs' studies pay more attention to hair down there than anywhere else (remember: this excludes facial hair):
- 59% of men reported trimming groin hair
- 41% of men reported removing groin hair
"Many experts in the body image area have regularly asked me about the question of whether men are reducing or removing hair at the pubic area in order to have their genitals appear larger, which is a great hypothesis," Boroughs said. "I imagine there may be something to it, except that it...wasn't endorsed for very many men for any of the body sites including the pubic area."
However, that isn't to say that the idea of optical illusion doesn't play a factor, even though study participants aren't eager to admit it.
Boroughs says, "For men, at the pubic area, 5.1 percent of men in my sample said 'Makes body part look larger.' A majority said 'Sex appeal,' and what does that mean? The next largest group was cleanliness: 22 percent. Then, 'Youthfulness.' So this is one of those areas where further qualitative research is needed, I think."
When Boroughs began investigating male body hair depilation around 10 years ago, he thought it could be a fad in the same vein as Tom Selleck's mustache. Considering that a majority of young men groom their body hair, and that manufacturers now offer "male" depilatory creams, body hair clippers and other specialized products, this clearly isn't just a trend. Now, the big question on Boroughs' mind is whether men will pass down these behaviors to succeeding generations, or if today's younger men will give up the grooming ghost once they couple up and settle down with mates.
"If we look at what happened with women as a model then it's very possible that the future will hold that men will be talking to their sons about keeping their body hair in check, whether it be through clipping or shaving or whatever they might do," Boroughs said. "It seems like at this point we would believe that middle-aged men and men generally don't engage in the behavior, and younger men do pretty broadly. The question is whether or not that will be sustained."