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Why are we still scared of a hairy back?

The body positivity movement is pushing for us to embrace our natural body fuzz, but back hair seems to be getting left behind

The first time I became aware of my body hair was around the age of 16. What now is a full vest of fuzz covering my frame, was then just a sprout of what I considered to be my ‘manhood’. A few strands of chest hair were fine, quite empowering even – you know, just the right amount that I felt matched my now-deeper voice. But as that carpet began to thicken, a set of wings started growing on my back. Suddenly and almost over night, I noticed a set of blond hairs covering my shoulders while looking at myself in the mirror which made me instantly freak out and question what was happening to me. Was this normal

The first point of contact in this emergency: my dad. He barely had any hairs on his back, and the little he did, my mum used to wax once when it came to summer months. So she did the same for me, but after a few weeks, they grew back and grew larger, thicker, and stronger. And that’s how my battle with back hair began. 

I used to wax my back every time I went for summer holidays, and during the winter, I was very aware of changing with my rear to the wall so no one could see the forest growing behind me. No one ever made direct comments about it – I didn’t give them enough time to notice. But there were definitely passing conversations that my female friends had about the “hot guys” – I had to notice that none of them had anything more than a gentle triangle of hair in the front. 

It didn’t help that my favourite TV shows at the time had nothing nice to say about this topic either. Remember when Charlotte almost broke up with Harry because he has a full carpet covering his back on Sex and the City? Or when Buffy’s Willow is presented with a scary scenario of meeting someone online but then discovering they have back hair? These moments might seem like tiny drops in the inappropriate universe of late-90s, early-00s TV, but were definitely part of my growing insecurity that almost took over my summers. This anxiety grew so bad that there came a point when I spent a whole week on the beach wearing a shirt in order to avoid anyone noticing my transformation into some sort of scary creature. 

According to a Harvard university study, 25 per cent of people grow upper back hair and 26 per cent grow lower back hair, while a large part of the two categories intersect. So, if we consider that over a quarter of all people have to deal with growing hair on their back, why is there still such a mystery around this topic?

“Back hair is definitely used as a way to describe ‘grossness’ and an extreme kind of masculinity that is deemed as unattractive,” notes 28-year-old fashion designer Nathan who explains that the complicated relationship with his own body hair has been part of coming to terms with his own sexuality and Jewish heritage. “It always felt inappropriate for some reason, like I was walking around with my arse out, even though nobody ever made me feel that way,” he adds. “It was entirely internal and probably linked to how I was realising I was attracted to guys with hairy legs at the same time as I was becoming one.”

The hairless ideal popularly favoured over the past five decades – a shift that even made James Bond go smooth when Roger Moore replaced Sean Connery – has not just evolved out of the blue, but has been nurtured historically. It dates all the way back to ancient Egypt where both men and women were removing any sign of hair from their body in order to avoid filth. The Sunan al-Fitra, a personal hygienic code in Islam, specifically instructs all men to remove hair from the armpits and pubi area, and in some interpretations includes all body below the neck.  

Another important point when discussing back hair is recognising its strong connotations in the conversations on gender and sexuality. “It has a lot to do with it being an almost exclusively male trait and men are less accustomed to having conversation around their body, shame, and desirability,” explains Daniel, who is genderqueer and traces their personal insecurity around it to “aspirations of being soft and feminine.” But in reality, back hair has never been just a thing of masculinity.

Along with all other kinds of body hair, it can be a side effect of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) – a condition that affects 40 per cent of the female population. While armpit, leg and pubic hair are becoming increasingly embraced by the body positivity movement, though, it seems like there are several other parts of the body that have been left behind, back being one of them. “It’s viewed as gross and unclean which is extremely false if you're a human who showers or cleans themselves,” says Miranda Nodine, a PCOS and hirsutism advocate who remembers having having holes in the bottom of her shirts from pulling it down to hide her back when she was a teenager.

After years of struggle though, she now uses her social media platform to celebrate her body and encourage others to do the same. “I receive pretty positive comments usually, mostly from other women who are living with the same thing and/or love celebrating their bodies as they are. Hair or no hair. I tend to get some negative comments but that doesn't happen as often as it used to,” she reveals. 

In recent pop culture, there’s either negative or no representation of back hair, despite the body positivity movement being considered on the uprise. Even Wolverine has got a smooth back and he’s supposed to be part furry animal. It doesn’t really help that every single result of a quick Google search of back hair results only with advice on how to remove it and the horror stories told by people who encountered this “monstrosity.” However, social media can be credited with having a positive impact in this shift from the norm. “Thankfully, the gay-desired image narrative has expanded a little bit to include hair diversity and now I can look around and see both masc- and femme- archetypes of gay men who show their back hair with pride. This just reminds us that gender, identity and expression, vanity, and sexual appeal are all performative social constructs, hence products of the given political and cultural zeitgeist,” healthcare professional Manel says, crediting drag performers part of the Glory, K-Hole, and Pxssy Palace collectives with moving the conversation forward.

Breaking ground on the other side of the pond is Meatball, LA-based drag queen and Dragula alum, whose natural body hair has become somewhat of a signature. After growing body hair as a 13-year-old boy and being called out for it in school, she went through severe levels of pain in order to mask the natural hairiness – including shaving it without any cream at night. “But by noon my entire body was covered in itchy red bumps, and I had to keep running to splash cold water on my ass crack and down my back.”

In drag, she tried hiding it by wearing high density nude illusion mesh, but the hairs just ended up poking out. Inspired by other hairy queens like Pinche Queen and Lucy Stoole as well as the fact that “some women just are hairy,“ she said fuck it to the razor. “I do remember the first night I went out with my hairy little titties out. I was so nervous about getting dragged for not being a hairless creature of christ drag queen but it felt great, I wasn’t itchy or covered in fabric. I was just walking around with a giant wig, a bad attitude and my back hair breathing. What a treat!”

“I remember the first night I went out with my hairy little titties out. I was so nervous about getting dragged for not being a hairless creature of christ drag queen but it felt great, I wasn’t itchy or covered in fabric. I was just walking around with a giant wig, a bad attitude and my back hair breathing” – Meatball, drag queen 

While most of the people in this story have learned to accept our own body hair, back hair removal is indeed on a rise. According to Jack Dunn, the owner of an eponymous male waxing salon in London’s City area, back waxing is the most popular men’s waxing they offer – it’s what 80 per cent of their clients do as part of their treatments. While it might seem the world is becoming a much more inclusive place, Jack notes the shift in frequency of these treatments.

“When I first started waxing there were mostly clients that only came for their wax when it was their annual holiday,” he says, adding how this has become a much more regular thing over the past few years. There’s also the option of permanent laser hair removal, which I considered, but realised it’s not only a costly but also a pretty unpredictable option. You might end up paying hundreds of pounds, and still come out as hairy as you were. 

Even though I’d like to believe it was my maturity that helped me overcome this anxiety, I can admit it was in fact the vanity of finding people that love me and/or find me attractive despite (or because of) my back hair that helped me get over it. It took one big sexual awakening and an undisclosed amount of sexual encounters for me to realise that: a) it wasn’t just me who had back hair, and b) some people found it hot. The final resolution for me came courtesy of finding a boyfriend who I was comfortable enough with to open about this topic and admit this insecurity. Spoiler alert: I now proudly parade my back hair despite the occasional comment from a drunk friend about the hairs poking out of my t-shirt or a work colleague who declares back hair chat as “inappropriate.” 

While you might want to remove it, you can’t simply erase its presence. As Miranda notes, coming to terms with back hair shouldn’t be about trying to fix it as much as it is something that needs to be “figured out”. It’s about realising there are plenty of people out there who have back hair, even though you can’t see them on your TV screen. It’s about talking about it with your friends even though you might be uncomfortable at first. It’s about taking off that shirt on the beach and realising it doesn’t make you any less attractive. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to raise a glass to a Love Island contestant with a full carpet covering their back. Here’s to hoping!