It was a complete revelation to me when, a few years ago, I dated a woman who liked my chest hair. Naturally, the greater revelation is that there was a woman willing to date me at all, but let’s focus on the positive here. After a lifetime spent thinking that it was disgusting, somebody actually dug nature’s decision to leave me with a year-round, all-natural Chewbacca costume.
It surprised me so much because, like so many, I had come to associate hairlessness with attractiveness. Though I’ve always been acutely aware of how media deliberately represent unrealistic ideals, I swallowed them whole anyway. This is the funny thing about being human, and being a minority especially: you can’t simply think your way out of the ways you end up hating yourself.
Still, you would think that if a world of hairless white bodies rejected my fuzzier brown one, I could at least find respite in the culture I might loosely call “my own”. After all, South Asian men are often notoriously and conspicuously hairy. Surely of all places I could turn to Bollywood to find more appropriate, personally relevant ideals of Ron Jeremy-like body thatch, right?
Alas, like most of my relationship to “Indian culture”, I got there too late. In the time I was busy developing complexes about how I was an impossibly unattractive yeti, Bollywood had hopped on the “ripped, hairless chests” bandwagon. Whether Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, or newer actors like Ranbir Kapoor and Ranvir Singh, smooth torsos with nary a stark black strand in sight were the new thing. If, in the different standards that exist across cultures I had hoped my chest hair would find a role model, I was sorely disappointed. “Thanks for nothing, India!” I mused to myself. “I thought y’all had my back!” Or in this case, front.
I was convinced that my hairy body was gross, and on top of it, was convinced that it was it was made extra gross by being brown. In my mind, being both brown and “winterized” was akin to being a short person with a limp: it was just one more knock against you, just one more way you were another step away from the idealized Platonic form that I’m pretty sure the Greek philosopher dubbed “Brad Pitt”.
So there I was, a man not only very aware of stuff like “the coercive effect of normative Eurocentric ideologies ”, but who also could come up with a pretty decent argument as to how hairlessness and global capitalism are intertwined. And yet, I was also someone who still wore t-shirts under shirts in hot weather so as to hide that mat of black and white wires on my chest.
The cool thing about human desire, though, is that not everyone buys everything they’re told and sold. I know this. It’s why, I think, that the only short story I’ve ever gotten published starts with the protagonist tracing “a network of tiny black hairs” on his lover’s back. I mean, he also ends up fucking the hot white girl in the LBD (symbolism!) but let’s not distracted. The point is this: in these small, silly, gestural ways, we can resist. And as I’ve grown older—and yes, having had the chance to grow with certain people along the way—I’ve realized that I have two basic options when it comes to my mane of manliness: a) learn to love it, or; b) wax that area around my nipples once a month. The choice was pretty clear.
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that this was just about “accepting myself”. I didn’t arrive at an uneasy peace with my chest hair on my own; it was because of others’ affection, too. It’s a point worth keeping in mind: that what we love or hate about ourselves doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s about what’s out there in the world, what we whisper to each other in the dark–and what we see in a mirror that contains far more than just the image of ourselves.