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When did male body hair become a bad thing?

A hairy chest used to be a sign of virility. But a new survey has revealed that one in seven British men now regularly remove their chest hair

Daniel Craig emerges hairless from the sea in Casino Royale. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex Feat

It is puerile, politically incorrect and not for the squeamish. But the infamous “waxing scene” in Judd Apatow’s 2005 hit comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is also for those of us who must traverse the shifting sands of male vanity for a living, one of the key markers of a change in masculine grooming habits: from chest hair, to no hair.

The setup is simple. For the first time in his life Steve Carrell’s hapless naif has a date with an actual woman. His friends decide he needs help. First order of business: lose the chest hair. What once would have been a point in his favour – a thick rug traditionally signifying virility – is now a liability. Not to mention kind of gross. The scene – a stern Asian woman rips out his hair in strips, while he screams agonised curses – is very funny. But more than that, it says a lot about modern man’s attitude to his body: what makes it desirable to others, and what doesn’t.

David Beckham: the narcissist’s narcissist. Photograph: Glen Luchford/H&M/Rex

The other significant Hollywood moment in the recent history of male chest hair (not that I keep lists of this kind of thing) is the scene in Casino Royale in 2006, when Daniel Craig emerges from the sea in a tight pair of trunks, as hairless as a hammerhead shark – or Ursula Andress. Women – and some men – swooned, other men shriveled, and we style-watchers noted that James Bond’s once brushable chest mat – as modeled by Sean Connery – was no more. In the 21st century, even 007 depilates.

Yesterday came confirmation of what we have known for a while. Research by retail analysts Mintel revealed that 60% of 16 to 24-year-old British men now regularly remove their body hair. Of those surveyed, 13% said they had removed chest hair in the past year, 12% shaved their armpits and a tonsorially troubling one in three men removed hair from his pubic region. Manscaping is the – depressingly predictable – agreed-upon neologism.

Like the popularity of misspelled pseudo-spiritual tattoos, the desirability of rock-hard abs and the habit of speaking in a soft yet squeaky voice – see the male cast of TOWIE – all this will, inevitably, be blamed on David Beckham. And, in truth, the narcissist’s narcissist does have a lot to answer for.

Mark Simpson, who coined the term metrosexual in the early 90s, recently came up with a new category. The spornosexual (not as catchy, is it?) is a man who is influenced in his appearance by the stars of sport and pornography, men such as Beckham, Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and the supermodel David Gandy, whose enormous hairless torso can currently be seen on bus stops advertising his new range of underwear for M&S. Becks, Ronaldo and Gandy are lean, muscular, chiseled, and smooth as barbells. This is the look the young men of Britain, protein shakes in hand, now seek to ape.

Cristiano Ronaldo: the epitome of the ‘spornosexual’. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX

It is hard to suppress an exasperated sigh at these new findings. Women, as we know, have suffered the tyranny of obsessive tonsorial maintenance for years. Must we men, too?

By the way, the 40-year-old virgin’s date – Catherine Keener, no less! – loved him just the way he was, hairy chest and all.

Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of Esquire.

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