Up at the Skyway Restaurant, an old farmer wedged his truck into the space next to mine and slowly emerged. His oily green John Deere cap shaded a weathered head with deep-set eyes and jutting jaw. In profile at first, I thought I saw a long wispy gray beard, but on closer inspection, this was a kudzu patch of long wavy chest hairs extending about 4 inches from the open collar toward his coveralls. I’d never seen such extensive chest hair. Truly, long enough to be a beard, and reminiscent of an old ram’s chin. In puberty and adulthood, rams arch their backs to pee on their beards. It’s an important aspect of ram-hood, I thought, but not very appealing from a human perspective. As he rambled in and politely removed his cap exposing a faint rim of gray, I pondered the intertwining of hair and masculinity in my own life.
Sometime several decades ago, I noticed the faint blonde fuzz above my ankles was being supplanted with delicate dark hairs. This was accompanied by the appearance of other dark curly hairs at junctions not usually viewed in public. I must have been about twelve or thirteen at the time, but it seems strange that I can’t recall with greater precision the onset of this great event because the emergence of these dark hairs was a much anticipated, long awaited manifestation of puberty, with all the privileges and honors thereto appertaining.
The next few years were filled with the glorious prospect of shaving. Consistently, my physical development lagged noticeably and painfully behind that of the classmates I most adulated. These guys seemed to have spent very little time in the peach-fuzz stage of facial hair. Frustrated that my face was that of a nectarine, I eagerly awaited peach fuzz status. With a chin still as soft as a newborn kitten, and with even less hair, my physiology finally mustered enough testosterone to support a fragile sparse lawn of slightly darkened hair between my nose and upper lip. Not sufficient to be impressive. Too little to shave. Just enough to announce this miserable transitional state, this developmental purgatory. Time wore on. Seconds turned to minutes, minutes became hours, hours became days, and yet this scrawny metaphor of manhood failed to progress into the burly, brutish, exuberant growth that boldly proclaimed….. proclaimed….. well, I don’t know what, but surely a bushy mustache proclaims something of importance. I grew impatient, and depressed at the prospect of never having more than a velvet smudge above my lip. I resolved to shave what little was there completely off, perhaps precociously joining the ranks of those who participate in that gender-specific ritual. I distinctly remember this occasion when I was 16 years old. I sauntered over to the neighborhood store to purchase my first razor. I could have stealthily borrowed my Dad’s, but I was intimidated by his chromed double-edged razor, which to me, appeared to me to be better suited for skin removal than hair removal. Studiously reading the bold claims of each manufacturer, I inspected the twin-blade designs, eventually settling on a hefty model that should be able to withstand the abuse I hoped to eventually inflict upon it. With the great self-consciousness of a teenage condom buyer, I finally approached the cash register, hoping for an uneventful check-out. Operating the register as usual was Mr. Rooks, a middle-aged meddler who had manned the store as long as I could remember, and had probably sold baby food to my mother who spooned it into me. Apparently the purchase of my first razor was a momentous event for Mr. Rooks as well, considering the ribbing he delivered. “Gonna shave for the first time? Well, well…” he mused. “You sure that’s what you wanna do? Once you start, it’s something you have to do regularly. Gets to be a nuisance, you know” he said, rubbing the two-day stubble on his chin.
What was he thinking? At 16, one of the things I wanted most was to need to shave every day. How glorious to be able to grow thick black hairs, visible beneath the skin even immediately after shaving, forming an unmistakable dense contour on my face. What was he thinking? I wanted so much facial hair that a single shaving would render even the best Schick blade ruined after a single use, like an axe battered and dulled in an encounter with a steel cables. I didn’t want a smooth shave. I wanted hair so dense and tough that no amount of shaving cream could ease the process. Electric shavers would stall like lawnmowers in a wheat field. Are you kidding? A nuisance? Nectarine-face? Not any more. Peach fuzz….too immature. If faces were fruits, I’m shooting right past kiwis and more toward the unmistakable rough-hewn masculinity of a coconut or pineapple. Big time stubble. Bring it on!
Red-cheeked from Mr. Rooks advice, I hurried home. Consulting the miniscule instructions on the can of Barbasol shaving cream, I wet my face before applying enough foam to snuff a redwood forest fire. Then, with close scrutiny in the mirror, I mimicked the TV ad shavers who felt it necessary to push their nose to the side to access those pesky crevices. With no more than four strokes, I was done except for rinsing and a stinging splash of Aqua Velva. More mirror inspection. Sure enough, the thin haze of hair was gone. Disappointed that there were no dark roots threatening to emerge, I was disheartened to think that I appeared to have re-inflicted the nectarine stage upon myself after having struggled so mightily for so long to achieve peach fuzz status. But with my tongue, I could feel with pride the prickly roughness of the skin above my lip. That felt good. I spent most of the next day exploring that patch of skin with my tongue so that by the next evening, I was sporting an Olympic caliber crescent of chapped skin almost to the base of my nose. Sadly, the chapped skin healed weeks before I had to shave for the second time.
During the many months when I fretted with my fledgling mustache, my buddies had advanced to sideburn status. How I longed for coarse curled hairs anterior to my ears. I hoped for luxurious growth, dense coils like a steel wool pad. What I got was a wimpy encore to the upper lip peach fuzz. I dared not shave until I could be assured that the boundary between the shaved and unshaved part of my jaw formed a conspicuous line that proclaimed….proclaimed…. well, I don’t know what. But surely, bushy sideburns say something about virility.
It wasn’t until I reached my third decade, struggling in graduate school, that I was able to eke out a patchy beard that looked like a botched Nair test. After months and months of growth while eating a high protein diet, I managed to produce only longer hairs, not denser. It must have been unimpressive because one of my uncles asked me “Why do you cultivate on your face what grows wild on my ass?” My mother, my wife, and indeed all persons with good vision greatly appreciated it when I finally cleared away this scraggly spare vineyard. Later, in my forties, I grew another beard, this one more only slightly more respectable than the first, but pitiful nonetheless. I kept it for a semester, and shaved it off to honor my favorite aunt’s last request of me. Dying of cancer, and barely able to speak, I leaned close over the hospital bed in which she would die the next day to hear her hoarsely whisper, “I’ll give you a quarter to shave that mess off.” Comparing my clean-shaven face a few weeks later to a passport photo of the bearded me, I knew she was right. Shaving that beard was a form of community service, the elimination of a public eyesore.
Facial hair is important because everyone sees your face, and thus your state of physical maturity. Chest hair is an entirely different matter. Only on rare occasions was chest hair an issue, but those were important occasions. For example, it’s important to have a respectable quantity and distribution of chest hair as a teenager when trying to impress young ladies at the beach or pool. No problem for me. I usually swam with a shirt on for a different reason. The story goes like this. I was in my doctor’s office for a routine physical during my early teen years and had reached the milestone at which I had to completely disrobe, don a paper apron, and wait anxiously for the humiliation of having to cough while organs not normally associated with respiratory functions were tugged upon by a doctor with cold hands. Later on, when my mother re-entered to exam room to be told of the results, I was alarmed to overhear something about “pectus excavatum.” Surely pectus is Latin for “pecker” and excavatum implies an unhealthy deficiency, so I quietly worried about my potential as a lover and a father. It wasn’t until much later that I learned pectus excavatum is the medical term for “sunken chest.” In other words, my ribs curl inward at the breastbone such that instead of a broad expanse of rippling muscles from armpit to armpit, my chest had a hollow that formed a deep lake when I laid in the bathtub. Although I had asthma as a child, I had never been overly concerned with breathing. But at that first mention of pectus excavatum, the chilling prospect of incompetency at breeding was truly life-threatening. Aware of my sunken chest by comparison to my normal younger brother, I had always worn shirts to conceal this deformity. When playing team sports, I much preferred being a “shirt” even if it meant playing against athletic “skins” who were proud of their chests and began stripping at the prospect of a game.
I wasn’t very hopeful regarding chest hairs. My dad, who has normal ribs and breastbone, had scanty chest hair so I reasoned that genetically there was little hope for me. Still, I was aware that if chest hairs were people, I’d be the sparsely populated state of Wyoming. Comfortable with the prospect of life-long security of wearing a shirt, I nevertheless longed for an impressive carpet of chest hairs that burst forth from my collar, deep enough to support a gold necklace that late-middle aged men were sporting in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Some men were so hairy that the extent of each shaving stroke ended abruptly on their neck, looking like a cornfield adjacent to a golf green. Such hair, so much and so thick, I never dreamt of, for this was beyond the capacity of my barely mammalian genes.
In college, some guys in my dorm had so much hair on their backs and shoulders that they looked distinctly beastly and quite manly. I had a good friend who could effortlessly clog the shower drain with his own fur each time he showered. Back then the only possibly of me getting hair on my back was to borrow one of their used towels to dry off after my shower. According to the TV commercials and soap operas popular at the time, great romance was possible only if the man possessed sufficient chest hair for his mate to twirl wistfully in her fingers before or after the big event. I even considered inventing the chest wig for hair-deficient guys like me, so that we could confidently leave several buttons undone to reveal a potential playground for women so inclined.
Alas, now at age 44 my chest hairs number slight more than my years. But this is too little, too late. Fashion has changed. These days magazine ads show men with glistening hairless skin stretched over bulging muscles. Body hair is out at a time when my chest is starting too look less like Wyoming and more like Missouri. I’m puzzled. What do passionate women twirl wistfully now? The old adage “Grass doesn’t grow on the playground” had never quite consoled me. And why of late do lonesome long shafts erupt sporadically from my shoulders?
Eyebrows. Almost everybody has a couple. Some unfortunate people have only one, what I call a mono-brow that spans the bridge of their nose. Content with my unremarkable pair, I never gave much thought to eyebrows until I met a visiting philosopher on our college campus. I have completely forgotten the circumstances that lead to my meeting with this old sage or the conversation we had. The only thing I do recall is being completely distracted by his robust gray eyebrows which grew rampant like ivy, straggling over and beyond the frames of his glasses. Since then, I’ve noticed that old men tend to have bushy brows that sometimes sprout uncontrollably and, if untrimmed, can actually perform their evolutionary role of entrapping particles before they enter and damage the eyes. I got my first few “wisdom hairs” in my early 40’s when two or three eyebrow hairs spontaneously grew rapidly to triple the usual length and began tickling my eyelids. I was inexplicably pleased by these, though my wife found them unattractive and volunteered to pluck them. What? When I’m at last getting exuberant hair growth, I’m not about to pluck them out. Trim them, maybe. Pluck? No.
At about the same time she noticed scattered strands of gray in my temples. She seems to think that these should upset me. The few gray hairs she has really concern her. But I’m not at all bothered by graying temples, mine nor hers. I suppose graying temples proclaim…. proclaim…..well, I don’t know what. Maybe it means we’re aging, but that’s fine with me. Hair of any color on my scalp is preferable to the alternative.
I don’t think she’s noticed the thick bristles that now sprout from my ears and nostrils like weeds. These I do keep close-cropped, for they signal an era past the prime of manhood, of misplaced priorities, of misdirected testosterone. Something’s cruel when hair ceases to grow on a man’s scalp and instead grows in and on noses and ears, making us look more like camels than the sex objects we so long to be. These wisdom hairs are not the soft tendrils of youth. They are the unwanted coarse Wisteria of overgrown gardens, gardens that have exceeded maturity and have entered decline.
The story of my life: hairs in the right place too late. Hairs in the wrong place too soon. How futile was the fretting and anticipation of youth. Maybe my rude uncle was essentially right… let it grow wherever and whenever it will, and wherever it doesn’t grow naturally, don’t force it. Only now that I have wisdom hairs does this advice seem sensible. But my son, almost 13, is getting faintly darker hairs on his shins and a puny premonition of facial hair. Peach-hood looms with all its anxiety. Not much I can do about that, but when he has that first gripping physical exam, I’ll be sure to boost his self-esteem as I mention his pectus collosus within earshot.
G.R. Davis, Jr.
August 20, 2001