DON'T ASK ME HOW I had the occasion to be the host for two 16-year-old girls at my house for an afternoon recently, and don't ask me how the subject came up, but apparently there's something very disturbing going on among men that must be stopped immediately. No, it's not thousands of years of male domination. It's not even empty promises to call after dates. It's ... body hair.
(Cue "Psycho" theme music here.)
According to my adolescent sources and, moreover, the grooming industry, men aren't just "the new women"; they're the new seals. Though statistics are hard to come by, it's no secret that ever larger numbers of men are getting their body hair waxed and lasered off. The unofficial term: "manscaping."
Manscaping has actually been visible for a while, appearing first in the gay community, which I don't think has sanctioned chest hair since the hirsute cast of the 1980 film "Cruising," and then in the metrosexual arena, where, thanks to media influences such as Men's Health magazine and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," men are finally catching up with women in the self-loathing department.
As much as misery loves company, most women don't exactly ooze sympathy for men when it comes to appearance anxieties. Yes, men have to contend with the specter of going bald and, yes, actor Dennis Quaid recently admitted that he has suffered from an eating disorder (dubbed "manorexia" by the media).
But most guys don't pick up a fashion magazine when they are 12 and spend the rest of their lives unable to fully enjoy their professional and intellectual triumphs because of nagging concerns about the degree to which they do or don't resemble someone on "The O.C."
Until now. Maybe it's a function of the intelligent design movement, but these days, at least among many teens and twentysomethings, men are expected to remove all traces of their primate origins. And we're not just talking shoulders and backs. Men are waxing their chest, arms, hands and, occasionally (or so I'm told), their pubic region.
If certain feminists still don't feel sympathy for men forced to live under this tyranny, I dare say it might be because they've never gotten waxed themselves. Anyone wanting to know what it might feel like to have the most delicate skin on your body set on fire and then extinguished with Grand Marnier need only undergo a bikini wax. If you always wanted to know what it was like to be gored from behind by a rhinoceros but were afraid to ask, just tell the aesthetician the password: "Brazilian."
But we must remember that the female preoccupation with advanced technologies in hair removal are a fairly recent phenomenon too. It could even be argued that all this attention to grooming is a minor rebellion against the major rebellion of the 1960s and '70s, when hair did double duty as a personal statement and political act. Unshaven legs and armpits might have been an eyesore to some people, but they were highly efficient means of identifying one's place in the culture. You did not, for example, approach a woman with hairy legs and ask her to greet you at the door with a martini and wearing a Saran Wrap dress.
As women have known throughout time, even the smallest personal grooming choice (shaving the eyebrows and drawing them back in with a pencil, for example) has the power to express what we might not say out loud ("I'm certifiably insane").
But men, some of whom are only now starting to realize that bragging about their ability to withstand a back waxing isn't exactly tantamount to recounting a mortar attack, haven't yet figured out how to politicize their body hair. Whereas women once fought off the patriarchy by throwing their razors at it, men still seem confused about the semiotics of the whole movement. Does hair removal imply a vanity that makes them less masculine, or does the pain of waxing connote a machismo that overrides the girlie factor?
Given that the trend started in the gay community, are gay men going to rebel by growing pelts reminiscent of Tom Selleck? Will body waxing become the new tattooing, with young men waxing their girlfriends' names into their chests? (That is, if they can find girlfriends who will tolerate the hair.)
Indeed, the tables have turned. And that, ultimately, is what's most interesting about this trend. Although women have a long history of altering their bodies in ways they believe will please men, we're now seeing men pour hot wax on themselves in an effort to please or, according to my 16-year-old sources, "not gross out" women.
But if there's anything women have figured out after eons of beauty tyranny, it's that one of the best things about getting older is being able to ignore the opinions of teenagers and twentysomethings. So maybe it's time men realized it's OK to grow up. Of course, gentlemen, if you're older than 40 and still trying to date very young women, a little pain may be in order.