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?
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.

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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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