The matter of Anthony Weiner provides a chance to discuss many aspects of contemporary life—to talk about technology and infidelity, about the postmodern ego and the atavistic id, about retail realpolitik and wholesale Schadenfreude. But let us take a moment to flap onto the accident scene like pop-culture vultures feasting on the carcass of a reputation. Let us consider the photo evidence—not the bulge portrait, please, and especially not the explicit portrait of the schmuck, thank you—but what we might call Exhibit B, the shirtless self-portrait that perhaps looked best on the front of Tuesday’s New York Post. The congressman is flourishing pectorals distinguished by their impressive development and smooth texture. We are, in short, wondering if Weiner waxes his chest.
Perhaps there’s a four-in-five chance. According to “Notes on the Hairless Man“—a minor classic of a Weekly Standard article by David Skinner—only 20 percent of adult white males are totally without “terminal pigmented chest hair.” Although other depilatory options—creams, potions, dedicated electric razors—are forever proliferating and the concept of full-torso electrolysis is no more crazy that other aspects of Weiner’s behavior, I would prefer to baselessly speculate that he gets his chest waxed at the Grooming Lounge. Situated on L Street in Washington, D.C., the joint is a men’s salon where a waxing will set you back $70. According to a year-old New York Times piece, the Grooming Lounge makes sure to keep sports blaring and beer flowing—the better to assure clients that what they are doing is not unmanly, as if such assurances were strictly necessary in this particular age of human follicles.
Anecdotal evidence: The other night, stopping in at a book party for just one glass of white wine and 19 asparagus-and-prosciutto thingies, I got to talking with a journalist who once, years ago, had his body hair stripped away for a story. Thus, he submitted to an experience more thorough than the “sack, back, and crack” procedure Christopher Hitchens once endured for Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair, as Hitchens didn’t epilate his top front half. (“The furry pelt that is my chest stretches southward over the protuberant savanna that is my stomach, and then turns into a desert region.”) The guy at the party had written the story for the debut issue of Condé Nast’s Cargo, a sort of metrosexual shopping guide that shortly ran out of reasons to exist, not least because metrosexuality ceased to matter as a concept. The distance between the primped virility of Jersey Shore goons and the pouting polysexuality of a Calvin Klein ephebe is fairly slight. In his book The Naked Man: A Study of the Male Body, Desmond Morris points to the reputed waxing of Brad Pitt and George Clooney as evidence of “a general shift in a female preference for shiny, smooth male skin.” Are we all pretty boys now?
Or are we simply reverting to a natural unnatural state? Men have been removing their chest hair for 4,000 years or so, with Egyptian priests going body-bald because it connoted purity and Greek men doing it because it made them look like Greek boys. The latter association has contributed to the ambient idea that body-hair removal has, historically, been an exclusively homosexual concern. But—roll film—Hollywood is here to complicate the matter.
In Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, author Steven Cohan devotes a whole chapter to the sleek chests of our Brandos and Lancasters, lavishes much attention on the Picnic pecs of William Holden, observes that shaving/waxing transforms animal nakedness into neutral nudity, and connects it all to both the classical ideal and postwar bodybuilding culture: “Removing body hair not only makes muscles look bigger and more sharply defined (or ‘cut’), but it also removes traces of secondary sex characteristics … in order to render the male body a ‘safe’ object of ‘aesthetic’ contemplation by the eye of either men or women.” But also—and here we risk getting lost in a semiotic thicket denser than Burt Reynolds’ chest in his Cosmo centerfold—it is not to be denied that paying such attention to one’s body, indulging vanity and contemplating tactility, has an erotic quality in itself.
In any case, let’s suppose that the filmic ‘50s actually ended in 1962, when a modestly hirsute Sean Connery hit the beach as Her Majesty’s Sex Symbol in Dr. No. Then let’s go a step a further and credit the British, generally, with encouraging furry fronts. The phrase “chest toupee” has appeared in the New York Times exactly twice, first in a 1966 Russell Baker column classing that hairpiece as a London fad to rank with the miniskirt. (The other occurred, seven itchy years later, in a humorous travel article about how to impersonate an Italian.) “What explains this English obsession with hair?” Baker wondered. I don’t care—nor do I want to peer too deeply into the flocculence of an era that sometimes equated unruliness with liberated authenticity, as embodied by, say, Joe Namath.
I will point out, however, that the muscle-culture action heroes of ‘80s Hollywood wore no hair on their chests; that when Daniel Craig is shirtless as 007, he is clean from chin to treasure trail; and that an agonized chest-waxing is now a common trope in popular entertainments that dare to reckon with postmodern masculinity. The torture-by-tonsure scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a certified classic; The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, a recent memoir by the cross-dressing book-party animal Jon-Jon Goulian, finds the author likening his first waxing to a moment in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where a Japanese soldier is skinned alive. Trends in menswear—high and low, from the plunging necklines of Milan menswear to the American Apparel deep V-neck—would seem to reward those who believe, “No pain, no urbane.” This is not mention that a race of people plugged into smartphones and MP3 players all day long are closer to machines than to animals and that it is only fitting they should be as glabrous as androids.
What does all of this mean for Weiner? Try considering his perfidy in light of Skinner’s Weekly Standard thoughts on non-piliferousness: “What has been lost as the hairless man, an eternal boy, has become our male ideal? Real romance, for one significant thing. The hairless man is perhaps searching for romance, but only insofar as it supplies self-fulfillment.” This strikes me as prescient. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pluck the first gray strand I’ve ever noticed on my sternum.