A Hairy Chest Makes a Man

Humans veered toward bare skin when the cost-benefit analysis favored having "fewer parasites" over a "warming, furry coat." But does it make me seem less virile?
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Ernest Hemingway (AP)

Given that I come from a clan of hirsute Russian Jews, it is a particularly personal disappointment that my chest is bare, save the circum-areolar growth and few stray hairs in the center that continue sparsely toward my happy trail.

Head hair, I have in droves—a shock of tufted auburn fro that any barber will tell you is the thickest around. And beard growth is no problem—a rabbinical brillo coat can appear on my face in a couple weeks flat; a couple months will render me a castaway shaman.

Despite my embarrassment of keratinous riches, the baldness of my bosom is disconcerting to my virility. Yet somehow last year when I turned 26, my body grew tired of this deficiency and started—in a never-say-die attitude—to muster a few wispy patches on my sternum.

Hope springs eternal. And so did little black strands from my chest in what seemed like a much-delayed second puberty.

In my wedding vows last year, I credited my wife with my increased happiness and my newfound boost in masculinity.

“My breast, once bare, has sprouted chest hair,” I said to a barn full of amused guests.

Though there was progress, it was ever slight. I was left to consider whether—given that chest hair develops as testosterone levels rise—my lack of a built-in Semitic sweater made me less manly.

The anecdote about how the hairy-chested Ernest Hemingway in 1937 burst into an office at Scribner to confront Max Eastman celebrates the bravado a hairy chest can bring.

Eastman had written an essay called “Bull in the Afternoon” that eviscerated Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and posed the following challenge to Papa: “Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you."

In person, Hemingway bared his chest and asked Eastman whether the hair was false before he insulted Eastman’s hairlessness. Hemingway then knocked the critic in the face with a book containing the riposte.

So did my middling pilosity make me less vigorous?  And more to the point: was I to wither away a pasty weakling?

It depends on your outlook. Of course, the loss of body hair was a distinguishing evolutionary feature when human beings departed from our primate brethren. Body hair kept us warm, and we lost it for specific advantageous evolutionary reasons.

One prominent theory, according to Dr. Mark Pagel of the University of Reading in England and Dr. Walter Bodmer of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, holds that human beings rid themselves of body hair to avoid fur-infesting parasites. The lack of fur passed through natural selection and onto sexual selection, where those who weren’t prone to fleas and ticks were deemed to have a higher fitness.

As confirmed by Markus J. Rantala at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, human beings veered toward bare skin when the cost-benefit analysis favored having  "fewer parasites" over a "warming, furry coat." To boot, Cambridge University zoologist Charles Goodhart postulated that because men preferred the “hairless trait” in women, they passed along the trait to their offspring, both male and female.

Today’s use of hair-removal products—among both sexes—demonstrates the hands-on continuation of the human striving for hair-free bodies. Far from a Neanderthal, maybe I am an evolved modern man.

Tastes evolve. If we look at the manly archetype of James Bond: contrast the Sean Connery of the ’60s, with a chest like the coat of a Welsh ram, to the waxed Daniel Craig of today’s films. The world has embraced smooth pecs as debonair. Even bombshell model Kate Upton campaigns for guys to keep a hairless chest in a new ad from Gillette’s “What Women Want” series.

But the hairy chest is still often associated with machismo. This past summer brought the appearance of a $3,000 Man-Fur Coat made from discarded male chest hair. The fashion statement was created by the British arm of global dairy company Arla.

The coat was apparently supposed to help promote Arla's new Wing-Co. chocolate dairy drink, with 40 percent more protein than average chocolate milk. The idea is to “man up” by getting the proper intake of nutrients so you can demonstrate macho phenotypical characteristics.

"We commissioned the Man-Fur Coat as a wakeup call for the nation's gents," a Wing-Co. spokesman told food-industry website The Grocer. "A way to encourage them to re-adopt the values of assured men's men from yesteryear."

This sartorial statement implies the contemporary male, whose shiny chest pales in comparison to the black wires of his ancestors, is no longer a “man’s man.” It’s fashion as reverse evolution. And I’ll have none of it.  

I am happy to report that no bugs are chewing on my chest. My nips are minimalist, free of decoration. As a sentient biped with a beard and a poufy mane, I am satisfied with my manhood in all respects, chest hair be damned. 

Just consider the biblical tale of sensitive-skinned Jacob and his brother Esau, the shaggy hunter.

“Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man,” Jacob says to his mother as they plot to trick his father, Isaac, into bequeathing him Esau’s birthright by dressing Jacob up in the  “skins of the kids of the goats” to disguise his hairless skin. Better to be wily and successful than hairy-chested without an inheritance.

But then cue a recent morning—a scene on the Upper West Side.

There’s a hint of fall in the air, and my skin lacking the breast beard, populates itself with goose bumps. My wife has her head resting on my bare chest. I walk to the bathroom and shiver a hairless shiver. As I look in the mirror, I am prepared to confront my life with a hairless chest. I have accepted myself as evolved.

But still, perhaps unconsciously, I suck in my gut and stick out my chest, trying to push out from the root just a few more strands of hair. 

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Ross Kenneth Urken is a writer and editor based in New York City. His work has appeared in New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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