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Turkish man shaving

 Magazine Feature Features Archive  
March 2000 Email this to a friend
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Taking It All Off
Hair keeps us warm & makes us beautiful. Sprouting, receding, & graying, hair marks life's transitions. Why do some people get off shaving it all away?
By Bill Andriette

If the hairs on the body of a forty-something Cincinnatian named Al had any sense, when their owner gets horny, they'd quiver in their follicles. For when Al gets sex on his mind, he reaches for a razor.

His sexual escapades may be hair-raising, but Al is no Jack-the-Ripper. Indeed, he prides himself on leaving the bodies of his sexual partners denuded, but showing nary a nick nor drop of blood. Nor is Al's own skin mangled by scars. But if it were, there'd be no hiding them. "Right now I have no hair from my neck to my cock and balls, except for a little five o' clock shadow," says Al, waxing about a sex life that's wrapped up in the entirely peaceable practice of shaving.

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"I enjoy the pleasure of taking it off," Al says, summing up his philosophy about hair. "I do the first half inch and then some more with the clipper, until it's time for the razor," he explains. "I'll do it all different ways I may start at the top and make my bush into a diamond, and maybe that will do me for that night. And then in a couple of days I may go back and cut that in half, until I've finally taken it all off."

But whether he's shaving himself or a trick, Al tries not to lop everything in one fell swoop. When it comes to stripping a man of his mammalian cloak, says Al and other shaving aficionados, getting there is more than half the fun.

When smooth as a whistle, Al can't keep his skin to himself. "I love to show it off when it's all shaved," he says. He'll display his hairless eight-and-a-half inch uncut dick at the bar pissoir, and if he gets a second glance, he figures he's found an interested party. Guys he goes home with may be coy at first, wanting, oh, just a little hair taken off, and, please, no place that it will show. Maybe it's the persuasive way he wields his disposable Schick, but Al reports he hasn't yet found a guy he's gotten together with for sex who didn't eventually agree to a total shave of the pubes, ass, and chest, followed by hot towels and a massage with aloe vera gel warmed just-so in the microwave.

Al's partners need not fear their hair will go to waste. Like romantics who cherish locks of their beloveds, he preserves the harvest of his sexcapades in labeled Ziplock bags, numbering now some 30 or 40. Going a step beyond storybook romance, Al reports that he sometimes freezes a few of his prized hairs into ice cubes, which he then enjoys in a vodka cocktail. When the ice melts, the hairs float into the drink, like worms in tequila. "I can't help but to ingest it," he reveals, "and it's the biggest turn-on in my little world."

Hairy, scary

Hair is a sign of the bestial, of our unavoidable animality. A wart is bad. A hairy wart is worse. Finding a puddle of blood is bad. Finding blood matted with hair suggests scenarios truly horrific. Making themselves at home in our hair, the busy legs of lice and fleas help weave humans into life's teeming tapestry.

Yet hair for homo sapiens is not like fur for a dog or rabbit-- something so intrinsic to the creature that it would be wholly pathetic without it. On humans, hair is almost an ornament, a crowning glory extruded by the body yet no more alive than a polyester shirt. Hair is part of you, and at the same time not. It does not hurt to have cut, contrary to the fears of children who mistakenly see the barber's chair as kin to the dentist's. Yet hair extends vulnerably off the body, like cock and balls. Your hair may be that by which you are caught by a zipper, a drug test, or the police, should a strand bearing telltale DNA from the follicle linger at the scene of your crime. For the very lucky, a hair provides the precise margin by which they escape situations that are themselves "hairy."

Hair on the human body is an exuberance. It has its functions, of course-- keeping us a tad warmer than otherwise. On our brows or crown, hair wicks away sweat and rain. Under the armpits and in the crotch and ass, hair lubricates and abets the bacterial ferment of perspiration and pheromones that conveys our signature smell and readiness to rut.

But it is hair's excess beyond its usefulness that lets it pack such symbolic punch. Life's necessities are universals-- cultures and individuals are defined by how they expend their surplus. Children get along without evident body hair, as do body builders, and women who fall for the come-ons of Epilady and Nair. Hair may be as proteinaceous as steak, but as anyone knows who's given a blow job or had the soup of a careless cook, hair does not (generally) delight the palate. Even the carnivorous cat finds hair indigestible. In the end, hair is so apt a canvas for barbering, braids, gels, sprays, shavers, depilatories, dyes, bows, curlers, straighteners, highlighting, and stylish cuts precisely because it isn't terribly functional.

But exactly as mere ornament, human hair has served perhaps its most vital purpose. Think about it: if our bodies were furrier, more adequate to a world that is cruel and cold, then our intelligence might never have found reason to evolve. The sapiens in the homo emerged from vulnerability: our slow gait, long childhoods, and naked flesh. What to do with one's hair is a perennial human concern, all tangled up in identity and eros, capacities with which humans are richly endowed in part because of our spareness of hair. And one of the things people think to do with their hair is to shave it all off.

Young and clean

Glenn, 48, of Carlsbad, California, says he first got the idea for shaving his body three years ago from watching porn, around the time getting hairless began cropping up as a popular theme. Glenn had never particularly thought about his body hair, which he says is not especially plentiful, but watching the videos sparked a fascination. "There's an equation for me between being shaved and being super-clean or super-smooth, whereas hair I tend to associate with being maybe dirty, unkempt, or disheveled," he says.

Glenn fooled around with a razor, but found some of his hairy places hard-to-reach, and anyway, not much fun to clear out on his own. At a party he connected by chance with a professional "body barber," who Glenn says has been known to command up to $300 a shave. An appointment was made.

The barber himself didn't turn him on, says Glenn, but he recalls the scene as very hot. Glenn was spread naked on a bed for the procedure, with the barber's handsome assistant looking on. "It's a very fine line between shaving and sex," he says.

Finding a barber up for giving a body shave isn't always easy, however. "There are all kinds of these people in Hollywood or L.A., and nobody around San Diego," Glenn complains.

Shorn of body hair, Glenn not only feels cleaner, but younger. "When the pubes were gone, I'm looking down and it was like seeing myself as young boy again," he tells The Guide. "Having been molested as a child, I somewhat understand pedophiles and have been drawn to that, but have not ever acted on it. I wouldn't survive prison," Glenn adds-- a place where he could have close shaves of many kinds-- "and I wouldn't want to mess up anyone's psychology. But all the sudden I was my own prey."

The hair and now

Hair by hair, the body counts time. Old Man Time's flowing gray beard is a measure of the long duration, while five-o'clock shadow sums up a face's change-in-a-day. Hair adorns the body's major transitions. Its growth around the genitals, under arms, and on a boy's face heralds sexual maturity. Sprouting in nose and ears like weeds through a sidewalk, hair is a tell-tale of middle age. So is a man's receding hairline, a perverse effect of the testosterone that makes males the hairier sex. Graying hair gives away middle and old age, as does a woman's mustache. The drumbeat of hair growth goes on even when life's has stilled: hair keeps sprouting for a while after a body is pushing up daisies. And long after skin and viscera have turned to mush and dust, hair takes a stab at eternity.

Gilding nature's lily, cultures often use hair to mark their own transitions. It's an old custom to denote the passage from infancy to boyhood by cutting off locks that had been allowed to grow girlishly long. There are good reasons for shaving the heads of soldiers or prisoners living at unhygienically close quarters. But that's not the only reason that new recruits and inmates get buzzed. The shearing of hair suggests a break with prior attachments, a new austerity, and brings home the power of the authority holding the razor. If hair defines some of our individuality, taking it off strips identity away. Shaving head and body may figure in regimens of brutalization. But softening the self's shell and sense of specialness is a necessary part of bonding and love. Rendering oneself naked and child-like before the cosmos is a theme also of religious experience. With their conceit that man takes God's form, Western faiths tend to let nature dictate hair's course-- think of Hasidic curls, Christ's flowing locks, or Islamic injunctions shaving the beard. Eastern religions, by contrast, emphasizing life's tragicness, often proclaim their ideal of ascetic resignation and worldly escape with a shaved head.

Monastic tonsures

Ed Robichaud got his start haircutting when he became a brother in a Catholic order back in the 60s. "I was assigned the job of being a community barber," he says. Every new seminarian passed under his hands, but the work didn't require much imagination. "We just shaved the head off, a buzz cut," he says. The radical tonsure was maintained while the seminarians were in training, after which their hair was allowed to grow out. After a few years, Ed became a social worker, switching his ministrations from the surface of heads to the stuff underneath. He continued in this line, working with young people, after eventually leaving the order. Looking for a change in career in the early 80s, Ed thought again of barbering, so he got his license and opened a shop in 1987 in Boston's gay South End.

It wasn't long after putting out his pole that requests came in to cut hair in places besides the head. Ed would oblige, setting up such appointments after hours. A few years ago, a customer invited Ed an upcoming shaving party. A local gay man had put out the word, and some 25 men gathered in an apartment. A shaving impresario who ran parties around the US was on hand. His tools were a razor and baby powder, the better to lubricate fleshly landmarks one wouldn't want accidentally obscured in snowdrifts of shaving cream.

"Even I was impressed with the guy," recalls Ed, who prefers an electric clippers for intimate shaving. "He took a straight edge and just went from the top of the body down to the toes, and not a scratch on anybody."

Judging by his clientele, Ed thinks the high-water-mark of body shaving is a few years past, with "bear" edging out "bare." The cutting of hair in his shop is now pretty much limited to heads. "I think more people are discovering that their lovers can do it for them, or tricks, or other people," he says. "A lot of customers will tell me that they take care of themselves, usually in the shower."

But even if there's a little less hair to be cut, there's still plenty of reason to drop by the Berkeley Barber Shop, which preserves the old-time feel of a men's enclave. "One of the things we try to do here," Ed says, "is make it a center where people can come in and chitchat, meet somebody they haven't seen in a while, and hopefully sometimes see somebody they would like to meet."

Hair and the man

The masculinity of the barber shop, traditionally the local men's social club, points to the tight connection between hair and gender. The barber shop is a dying institution, like nude swimming at the Y, victim of the demise of a casual, unspoken homosexuality-of-everyday-life whose loss has been mourned by Gore Vidal and Boyd McDonald. Citizens of the age of its decline, we tend to think today of the barber as a place to go for a haircut, but its traditional stock-in-trade was the shave. Barber traces back to the Indo-European root for beard, whose daily growth creates need for potentially daily attention. Today, shaving has been rendered a wholly domestic, commodified, and private activity, whereas previously, like bathing, it was public and shared, one of life's basic social pleasures.

And yet the relation of hair and barbering to masculinity, like masculinity itself, is not a little conflicted. The thought that taking a man's hair is akin to castration goes back to the story of Samson and Delilah, in which Samson loses his superhuman strength when Delilah shears his locks as he sleeps. The connection is not just one of legend. Barbers were traditionally minor surgeons. In a Turkish or Egyptian village, the barber is called upon even today to perform circumcisions, and barber-surgeons in poorer neighborhoods of pre-20th century Europe helped supply Catholic church choirs with their castrati. It's odd that an institution bound up in effacing the signs-- and sometimes much more-- of the masculine should be such a resolutely male zone.

And yet such contradictariness goes to the essence of masculinity, which it is fashionable in post-modern theorizing to regard merely as a performance. Shaving is indeed a form of drag-- it leaves flesh even more hairless than a baby's bottom or a woman's bosom, for even seemingly smooth human skin has its fine mammalian coat. Shaving the beard is a feminization, insist Islamic fundamentalists, who decry it. But it is a feminization that the real man can face without shame, just because he is so rooted in who he is. Thus would-be Mr. Universes strut in bikini briefs that show off bodies as carefully depilated as Miss America's. The embrace of such contradiction is a source of masculinity's strength, as is the balancing of opposing forces in a building or bridge. The opposition does not deconstruct masculinity into nothingness, as contemporary feminism claims. Rather it points to the paradox basic to life, which is felt most acutely when ventured in pursuits important enough to risk death.

Hair is the stuff of both silken locks and sandpapery stubble. The brute animal power that pushes forth hundreds of thousands of hairs through our flesh, day in and day out, is visible symbol of the body's ceaseless churning. Shaving asserts a temporary control over this mysterious force, yet only by revealing the basic human condition of naked vulnerability. "I like the look of it, the feel it, the feel of feeling it, the feel of having someone else feel it," Glenn enthuses about shaved skin. Is he talking about hair or life? "It's the gift that keeps on giving." **

Author Profile:  Bill Andriette
Bill Andriette is features editor of The Guide
Email: theguide@guidemag.com

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