I am 17, standing next to my best friend at his parents’ house one summer afternoon.
I have a full beard already and I’m growing my hair out.
Someone comments on my facial hair and my friend boasts that I have the hairiest shoulders.
Before I can protest or run, he grabs my shirt sleeve and lifts it up, more in admiration (probably) than maleficence.
They’re bare. I’d just shaved them.
The moment comes and goes and no one thinks twice. Except me.
This event lingers in the forefront of my consciousness for the rest of the night. I’m equal parts mortified and relieved. Is it worse that I’m hairy as a werewolf, or that I’m self-conscious enough to do something about it?
Two years later, we’re on a family trip and I find myself in the bathroom of our vacation rental.
I’ve just showered for the first time in a few days and I’m starting to see the stubble on my back and shoulders. What teenage boy has a hairy back? I find some clippers in the drawer and go to work decimating the fledgling forest of my pubescent masculinity.
My silent struggle began as soon as I started growing hair in places I didn’t think it should be.
Models on billboards, men in movies, especially men in porn—none of them had hairy backs. Chests? Sure. Backs? No. Shoulders? Gross. Thus rambled my internal dialog.
I never wanted to be a gross, hairy man.
We spend a lot of time talking about female struggles with body dysmorphia, and for good reason. Women are consistently told that not only should they look a certain way, but that their worth depends on it. This is a real issue, and I don’t mean to be detractive.
I’ll admit that I never found my entire identity wrapped up in my physical image. However, I have always felt a deep sense of self-loathing for the way my body chooses to express these particular genes. I know I’m not alone.
Fast-forward 10 or so years, and I am, by all counts, an adult.
I work an executive position at a prominent nonprofit, have three kids, have been married and divorced, and do all manner of adult-ish things.
I am now at the point at which my teenage brain imagined I’d have discovered some magical, unending well of self-confidence.
And in some ways, I have.
The years leading to, and following, my divorce taught me countless sources of fortitude and self-actualization.
I feel confident in my intellect, my social prowess, and my ability to survive whatever life throws my way. But damn if I don’t still spend every other Sunday morning in the bathroom wielding clippers while my children watch cartoons.
Staring into the mirror, I contort my arms to reach the far corners of my back, carefully navigating the arches and crests of my muscles and bones. I move wrong and catch a bit of skin. I barely blink at the pain, but a neat row of bleeding points on my shoulder blade betray my wavering sense of self-worth.
Number two clipper guard on my chest hair.
I still want it there—just not the untamed forest that would abound should I let it grow wild.
While I’m at it, I trim my beard and mustache. Afterward, I’ll take a razor to my neck and clean my neckline all around. I’ve learned to feel my hairline around the back of my neck with my other hand so I can trim it without seeing. This skill feels a little like an alcoholic gloating about being able to open a beer bottle with his car key.
I’m done—trimmed and triumphant—the image of proper masculinity I’ve been sold and keep on buying.
I’ve been with enough women who say they don’t mind my body hair. I’m not sure if I don’t believe them, or if I’m more concerned with satisfying my own impossible expectations.
I sweep up the mounds of coarse fur littering the bathroom floor, wipe the counters, and replace the rugs. I’m careful to remove any evidence of my mild self-loathing. What I wouldn’t give to just look this way all the time!
I guess one thing I have overcome is my self-consciousness about curating my image. I’ll own my insecurity and lay claim to the actions I take to look good.
We all get haircuts. I just prefer my haircuts to be a little more…extensive.
I’ve discovered that I can be both confident and imperfect. That I can be embarrassed about my body hair and also laugh about it with friends.
Though I don’t look quite the way I want, I also still love my body. I appreciate the things it does for me and revel in the fact that, by and large, it works pretty well. A little manscaping here and there is but a small inconvenience.
I now consider my trimming to be akin to how most women I know approach makeup. It’s something I choose to do because I like the way it changes my image. Will I hide in a corner if I can’t trim for a few weeks? No. Do I want to look a certain way? Sure.
The next step in my healing is to truly work toward embracing my hairy self, to find comfort in my particular gene expression, and come to terms with the simple truth that bodies are perfect however they are.
Maybe I’ll get there, and maybe I won’t.
But in the meantime, I’ll be taming the jungles and working toward overcoming my demons—one step at a time.