In this club, with this body HAIR, I am an ogre. Coloured light plays off dancing torsos; they gleam like waxed car hoods. This T-shirt of mine is witty but, no, it does not gleam. And beneath this snug fit, I bristle in certain unforgivable zones.
The shadowy stranger I’m entertaining begins to finger the fabric. He thinks he’ll pull it over my head. He wonders why anyone would cover up.
But it only takes him a moment to discover the briar patch of dark hair that huddles above my ass.
“What’s that?” By his eyes, I can tell his first guess is a tail. His hand pulls back from where it wandered.
Hair can be protective, I think. Like barbed wire.
I shout an apology, both embarrassed and annoyed, under the club’s music. The guy doesn’t hear me.
I go through all this with my boyfriend at 2 am, crawling in beside him. Nicholas twirls my soul patch between his fingers, offers to braid it and falls asleep. His lips are open against my shoulder. I listen to the beat of our bedside clock for a full minute before dozing off.
Beers on the sun-drenched patio, a few days later. The episode is laughable only because the rest of the table has taken pity on me.
“Of course I clip,” says the journalist under the window. “You have to.”
A silent chorus of nods amazes me. I feel as though my friends were secretly druids who sacrificed goats every weekend before I showed up. What do they clip?
“Legs, if it’s warm out.”
“Back, if I’m going swimming. But it’s better if you wax.”
Exhausted, I turn to the boy next to me and blurt out, “I’m thinking of waxing my ass for summer.”
“Oh, do it.” He sounds relieved.
I fold. But I wonder: have we, as a culture, been upping the ante?
Yes, we have. The leading market research firm Euromonitor recently reported that sales of male-specific cosmetics and toiletries in Western Europe jumped 43 percent between 1998 and 2003, well above the growth rate for the industry as a whole.
Not one to miss out on a good thing, L’Oreal Paris introduces its new Men’s Expert skin care line this May. Early reports suggest that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy star Kyan Douglas will be its endorser. Douglas will be backed by $50-60 million in advertising aimed at metrosexuals and homosexuals age 20 to mid-40s.
Meanwhile, in the amazing race for hairless bodies, Nair is mecca for the baby-butt-challenged.
The follicle-withering product specifically targeted the gay male market in 2002 and 2003 after its research showed that gay men are twice as likely to remove body hair as the general population.
Whether these numbers reflect a growing desire by gay men to obsess over grooming, or whether they simply reflect a shrewder market more willing to exploit us and capitalize on our trends, the message is clear: gay body culture has gone mainstream. And mainstream companies are in hot pursuit of the pink dollar.
Not wanting to go about things half-assed, I select a five-star hotel and make an appointment with its built-in spa.
I am given lemon water and abandoned in a candle-lit room to disrobe.
There are speakers, tucked behind silk flowers, emitting a disconcerting medley of whale songs and roundly “ethnic” chanting. The combination lends a dramatic air to my striptease.
I pile the clothes neatly on a chair, climb onto the heated table, and am immediately seized by the need to urinate.
But I remain prostrate, adjusting the sheet, as instructed, to coquettishly reveal only the top half of my bum.
By only waxing half at a time, some modicum of discretion is preserved. I’m unsure whose nerves are being spared-the beautician’s or my own.
After a suitable pause, she knocks quietly and enters. The hot wax, when it comes, feels like a localized bath, the white strip, tenderly applied, like the gauze for some wound.
The act itself, the yanking out of my ass hair, hurts less than I imagined, which is not saying much.
Somewhere in the middle of the project, she pauses, coughs and wonders how far I want to go.
“Shall I continue?”
To call out “yes, yes, please go on” seems rude, presumptuous even. So I demure that “I feel done.”
She shrugs, applies moisturizer, hands me a mirror, and withdraws. Alone again, I inspect the damage. What have I done?
I am a lawn, half-mowed.
In the foyer, after she swipes the Visa, the experience feels soothing and bitter at once. The whales, malevolent, sing on.
The New York Metro, in a well-orchestrated attempt to embarrass me further, waxed poetic lately on the idiocy of such experiments.
“Denuding oneself is literally a form of infantilization,” says the Metro. “While many men have naturally smooth or sparsely haired chests, a bald underarm or crotch is a retreat, of sorts, to dewy youthfulness.”
The cooler half of New York is coming around to where fur is hip again.
Joe, a fresh arrival from the Big Apple, tells me: “In New York, the two competing gay neighborhoods have totally different takes on hair. In Chelsea, land of corn-fed Falcon models, a lot of time is devoted to lasering every last pubic hair.
“In the East Village, indie-boys and post-electro sluts might clip, but will never talk about it and avow that it’s all natural. If you shave in the East Village, you risk being called a Chelsea boy-and that spells social downfall.”
Even as straight men clamour to catch up with smooth-operator gays, there seems to be a return to a more “natural” presentation on the cutting-edge of gay culture. Nude is so nineties.
A bit of hair, insists the new wave, is hot.
A bit of hair. Not too much.
Douches. Enemas. Herbal Cleanses. Laxatives. Waxing is not the only way to purify an ass.
While shitting through the eye of a needle is only the height of glamour for a very few of us, increasingly “being clean” is perceived as a necessity for partygoers, club kids and anyone on a first date.
What’s more, we exfoliate, we scrub, we pluck our faces raw to the point where a fellow fag can be spotted a block away by the glare off his perfectly polished forehead.
What exactly is meant to be squeezed, eventually, from these bodies? How soiled is the gay man meant to be? And how did gay men become the prime target for sanitization, anyway?
The teeth whitening tool, Crest Whitestrips, has taken pains to sponsor major gay events in recent years and even launched an interactive contest, “Reveal Your Whiter Smile,” where gay men could rank online contestants to see who had bleached his teeth the most successfully. Matt Skallerud, of GayMediaExpress.com, cheers, “How great is that?”
Is all this scrubbing and plucking really about nothing more than appearances and hygiene? Isn’t it more likely that we’re attempting to rid ourselves of an invisible dirt, some unclean element we’ve been convinced of?
As women are bound by virtual corsets-the carving away at their bodies in magazines and television-so, too, are gay men (and, increasingly, men in general) told their bodies are unsuitable for public consumption, unless processed through a never-ending mill of reduction.
Mark Simpson at Salon.com offers a historical perspective: “In the Eighties, the moustaches were shaved off and the male body became more smoothly, invitingly aestheticised and commodified by media regents such as Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts and Calvin Klein.
“Two decades on, and the hairless-perpetually adolescent and available-dazzlingly toothy, muscular, masculine template is still with us, simultaneously a cliché and de rigueur in an Abercrombie & Fitch world.”
To celebrate my ass’ first day as a nudist, I take it out for all-you-can-eat sushi.
I also invite an ex-girlfriend of mine. Midway through an epic recounting of my previous day’s travails, she comes out to me. My ex-girlfriend, I am to understand, is a lezzie. I merely blink.
Something isn’t connecting in my grey matter and I feel, primarily, annoyed that someone I thought of as a close friend would show so little interest in my ass hair, or lack thereof.
I go back to the wax story, only later deeming it necessary to further discuss the crisis of her sexuality.
Later that day, I drag my ass to the gym, where I learn that freshly plucked skin sweats copiously.
During the 60-odd minutes I spend running on a treadmill and attempting to lift weights, I leave obscene gushes of damp on all the equipment.
So bounteous is my ass sweat that I decide to swab the goods down with a paper towel when no one is looking.
Turning, I spot a quiet woman on a yoga mat, wearing a horror-stricken face. Blessedly, she is kept from pointing in disgust by the confines of her sun salutation.
A few days later, preparing for bed, I strip with my ass to the wall, ashamed again.
It’s not a dusting of butt-fuzz that triggers embarrassment this time, but the red, ingrown spots where vanity has turned against me.
Insistent, my hair has coiled beneath the freshly waxed skin. And it burns there.
I shuffle under the covers, taking pains to keep my pockmarked flesh steered away from the boyfriend, so as not to terrify him.
Only after I lean over to kiss him do I realize it’s all for naught. Nicholas is fast asleep.