the hairy pendulum swings

This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.

The Hairy Pendulum Swings:
How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century

When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.

In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.

And then came the 1980s.

What has happened to male body hair over the past thirty years requires an understanding of the pendulous evolution of style and culture. The first male nude photography of the 19th and early 20th Century featured common men and wrestlers with thick mustaches, physiques gained through honest labor, and body hair left to grow as nature intended. But these gave way to a new, idealized imagery in the 1920s and ’30s, influenced by the naturist photographers of Europe and the cinematographers in Hollywood, producing artists like Kurt Reichert, Gerhard Riebicke, Leni Riefenstahl, George Platt Lynes, and Edwin Townsend. The predominance of smooth athletic physiques persisted through the 1940s and ’50s, with the popularity of the new bodybuilder culture and the “beefcake” photography and magazines that glorified them.

Keep in mind that this is what was celebrated in popular photography. Our dads and brothers and mechanics, even our coaches, meanwhile, were not altering their chest hair or going to the gym. That was for matinee idols and studio wrestlers; real men had real lives, real jobs, and no gym memberships or body clippers.

Ultimately, the Hollywood censors sealed the trend, often requiring film stars to shave their chest hair and wear their swimsuit waistbands up over their navels, codifying these male physical characteristics as too overtly sexual. Which is, in large part, why both hair and navels came bursting onto the screen in the 1970s with the cultural and sexual revolutions. Low-slung pants and torsos thick with hair were not just a style; they were a statement of sexual freedom in opposition to the repression of the previous decades. Male nude photography itself—liberated from oppressive US postal laws that, only a few years earlier, had sent some of the most famous beefcake photographers to jail—was suddenly raw, explicit, and hairy. Artist Tom of Finland and photographer Jim French of Colt Studio lead the pack with beautifully composed imagery of large, muscular, hairy men like Ledermeister and Bruno—men who embodied the kind of masculinity normally associated with playboys and jocks—engaged in startling, unapologetic, passionate homosexual sex. Tom’s and French’s men became poster boys for gay liberation, influencing mainstream publications like Playgirl and art photographers from George Hester to Robert Mapplethorpe.

Why the trend swung back to “smooth” in the 1980s can be credited to several culturally significant shifts, including Reagan/Thatcher conservatism, the fitness trend that brought Soloflex into the home and Gold’s Gyms to our shopping malls, and most of all AIDS. With this new disease in particular, formerly mustachioed gay consumers were suddenly facing bodies aging and dying too soon. Sexual freedom was suddenly in question and adult masculinity was no longer as attractive as youth: smooth, healthy, idealized youth.

Over the next three decades, hairlessness would morph from Marky Mark to manscaping, with such bizarre turns as male models with Velcro-strip-like Brazil waxes and Brooklyn tough guys with eyebrows plucked down to Joan Crawford arches. Body hair was resigned to small fetishistic, counter cultural groups like the “bear” and leather communities, or to comic antidotes in advertising and movies.

Though marginalized, the contemporary artists represented in this book continued to create widely varied homages to hairy men, from the hyper-masculinity of works by Joe Oppedisano, Bearfighter, Bradley Rader, and InkedKenny; to the glamorized physiques of Tom Bianchi, Rick Castro, Robert Richards, Guillem Medina, Dylan Rosser, and Joan Crisol; to more realistic explorations by Chris Komater, Peter Skirrow, David Goldenberg, Alan Charlesworth, Isauro Cairo, and Ivan y Gabo. Many of us have enjoyed great success with our work, and attracted appreciative followings, despite our distance from the smooth, idealized mainstream.

Yet now, it appears the trend may be shifting in the mainstream as well. Shaved
heads, manicured goatees, and naked-mole-rat groins might just be too “pre-Enron self-indulgent” for the new generation left to mop up the mess in menial jobs. The trend in big cities like New York, Paris and Berlin has recently swung to big full-on beards and natural body hair. And yet, for this to be more than a brief fashion trend, it will need some philosophic or economic backing. When Yves Saint Laurent introduced hairy uncut model Samuel de Cubber in 2002 as the new body to sell their M7 cologne, it was only a blip in the body hair discussion. What we need is a revolution with the backing of a philosophic shift like that of the 1960s and ’70s, or of an economic empire like the one that currently backs hairlessness.

Real change may just be around the corner, but until that happens, I’m going to enjoy the work of the artists within this volume. We are the ones who carry the torch for fur, no matter which way the hairy pendulum swings.

Jim Kempster
Hair (Bruno Gmünder) 2010
[ISBN-10: 386787137X]

Find the book online.

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