The first truth about hairy chested men is that they like the hair on their chest. If you can understand that simple fact intuitively, then the rest of this essay will probably sound like common sense to you. If you find that fact somewhat puzzling, it's because you think like a woman. And that can only be an insult to a very few people, mostly men who have shaved their chests.
Some time ago, I forget when, somebody asked me if I had shaved my chest. At the time I laughed and said no, and three seconds later I thought what a bizarre question that is. The funny thing is that as I was answering the question with the implicit understanding that it was something of a backhanded compliment. I thought of an old Eddie Murphy routine about a Jamaican dude named 'Dexter'. And that brought forth the image in my head of a black man walking down the beach who looks roughly the star of the current Old Spice commercials. To be precise, the Old Spice model is broader chested than my image of 'Dexter', whose pecs are a bit thicker nonetheless. In both cases for Dexter and the OldSpice dude, chest hair is absent. Now if you remember, Morpheus tells Neo that what he looks like in the Matrix is his 'residual self image', it's the perfected you of you in your dreams. That was my residual self image. Sorta like this guy here in stone-washed jeans. (me, San Felipe, Mexico circa 1987) I never was able to figure out that diet and excercise thing to the extent that I wanted. I ate a lot of fish and rice and Japanese food in college and couldn't figure out why I still weighed under 170 pounds. For me, all those many years ago, that was too slim, and so I couldn't have what I considered my own perfect pecs, and never bench pressed 175 in my entire life. Odd, now when I think about it.
At any rate, in my estimation, the cultural event that solidified the new standard of American male beauty was the Janet Jackson video starring Djimon Hounsou. Sure Michael Jordan helped guys like me make the choice to shave the head, but anything that could possibly get us closer to Janet was magic, and Djimon had it. Looking back, I see that video as a feminine style of thought as well - idealized and fantastic as romantic music videos should be, but fundamentally a female fantasy. Guys who wanted Janet Jackson (like me) wanted to look like the guys she like in her videos. There's an ironic twist to the fact that Janet's actual boyfriend, whom I saw with her at a Michael Jackson concert at then Irvine Meadows, looked more like El Debarge - nothing at all like the models in the video. But that was a few years earlier. My point is that I was in the mode of thinking of conforming myself to a feminine ideal of manly beauty, not the other way around. It just so happens that I didn't have the hairy chest and that was the way I liked me anyhow.
I don't think I'd be too far off the mark to suggest that today's American manly image is more feminine than it was in the 80s. My adolescence was marked, in the late 70s, by the style of the Marlboro Man (hairy), but in real life most primarily by Mohammad Ali (not hairless), Joe Namath (long hair) and Burt Reynolds, (much hair). In that period with those trinity of ideals, there wasn't much question about which way men were headed. It was not towards a feminine ideal of manly beauty but something more ruggedly male for male's sake. And that period lasted through the end of Magnum PI and the beginning of Miami Vice. El Debarge, thus, was a bit ahead of the curve for the transitionary period of the mid 80s. (Think 80s metal bands). Sure there was a lot of hair there, but it wasn't hairy chested. It was punky hair and weasel chested.
It has been a long time since America has embraced the hairy chested man, and I think that's because of the feminine ideal has not wanted such manly implications, and American men have signed onto the feminist agenda for male looks. But I think it is also because gay men have had a larger impact on standards of male beauty. My theory here is thin but my speculation is that there is a sort of anti-feminine thinking in gay male ideals that have undermined the credibility of the Marlboro Man image. To be a man's man in today's thinking is to be considered anti-woman, or to return to my example - to look other than the men in Janet Jackson's video is to suggest that you don't want Janet. So from a woman's point of view there's something wrong with a hairy chested man. There's something wrong with a non-metrosexual man. He's got woman issues to be looking like that. Which might be safe to assume if the man is gay, a presumption that more American men must deal with socially than ever before.
I have been writing this essay over a period of days, and it has been hijacked by the following image into something that must include class more explicitly. This is the picture of a man who is a rebel in Libya, a foot soldier in a true people's liberation army of irregulars. And I am forced to consider him a Marlboro Man in his country. He is a man for whom I presume many American women would have considerable ick factor to overcome. I can't see his chest, but I find it difficult to imagine it not being naturally hairy, and if it is not, I find it inconceivable to imagine it shaved. There he is with his shotgun, his ax and his cigarette. He claims victory. Forget about geopolitical strife for a moment and think about American men. Think about a bearded, hairy chested American man with a shotgun, an ax and a cigarette. Could he claim any sort of victory with American women, or is he Larry the Cable Guy?
I don't mean to suggest in all of this that there is something fundamentally wrong with feminine ideals of manly beauty. Like with most things I write about, I see the issue as a matter of degree and balance. My desire is push back to socially acceptable and desirable standards that don't require a man to shave his chest, moisturize his skin or use more than two types of soap.
As something of a globalist, due to my affiliation with scientific discipline at the crossroads of information technology and the liberal arts, I pay lots of attention to the extent to which America is out of joint with the rest of the world's population. I am far from wanting one world government or culture - heck no to that, but I do tend to focus on philosophical and economic dislocations. An American man should not be so isolated from any man, and vice versa, and therefore the amount of social experimentation we do here in America should be limited. I raise my old Baldwin quote:
Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.
It is in our fundamental nakedness that we should gain acceptance. Everything on top of that is functional to a degree, but that degree should not dislocate us from our basic selves. Men need to be men. Women need to be women. The way we think about each other should not ignore what's underneath.