“Sociologists and anthropologists of medicine have largely focused their research on sickness and illness, thus obscuring social scientific investigations of health and healthiness.” — Robin Saltonstall, 1993 (p. 7)
“Apparently so have psychologists!” — Rick and Jack, 2010
The practice of male body hair removal dates back to ancient cultures. The Egyptians and Greeks favored the look of warriors with cleanly shaven torsos and limbs. While long out of vogue through medieval and modern times, there has been a resurgence of the practice among Western men today and what we might call an emerging “hairless ideal.” Of course, bodily hairlessness had long been an accepted part of the competitive bodybuilding “subculture.” But a widening circle of fitness- or appearance-minded guys are now shaving their chests, backs, groins and arms not for the bodybuilding stage, but simply to look better, citing greater cleanliness, sex appeal, and heightened muscular definition.
And that’s where the “problems” begin. The new trend hasn’t escaped the attention of psychology/psychiatry researchers, who have begun studying “body depilation” in American and Australian men as if it were a strange and exotic custom among some long-isolated, aboriginal population. And, just as those who investigate such cultures often find their practices and rituals bizarre or different by their own, ostensibly “civilized” standards, body hair removal is already along the well-traveled road to being “pathologized” as an indicator of mental illness. Which isn’t surprising, given its association with the bodybuilding lifestyle, which itself has long been pathologized by a cadre of psychiatrists as symptomatic of various forms of mental disease, including a body image disorder supposedly prevalent among bodybuilders they’ve named “Bigorexia” or Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder. The message here is “Ifwethink you are big enough, then youarebig enough” and “If you disagree, then clearly, you’re sick.” It seems that wanting to improve one’s self in “normal” acceptable ways (e.g., the ways the researchers – just plain folks – would use) is fine, but that a desire to set and pursue one’s own personal standards of appearance, rather than accept what others are willing to live with, makes one “abnormal.”
So, following in the direction of research that has marginalized and pathologized the bodybuilding lifestyle, along comes this body shaving thing and a whole new opportunity to create a problem from which researchers can fashion something in need of psychological treatment, with alarms sounding in articles like “Body Depilation in Males: A New Body Image Concern?” (Boroughs & Thompson, 2005). As one doctor of nursing science solemnly put it, “[A]n assessment of the reasons for engaging in depilation can alert the clinician to underlying body image concerns…” (Porche, 2007, p. 14). So your physician is going to assess for psychopathology simply because you choose to shave your body? Apparently, just as muscularity was once considered an indicator of criminality (e.g., Sheldon, 1940), and muscular guys accused in absentia of drug use (e.g., Pope, Phillips, & Olvardia, 2000), now shaving your arms or back in a desire to look or feel better is an indication you may be a whackadoo. It’s always tough times for bodybuilders in the land of psychology/psychiatry (interestingly, contrast this with the sociology literature which often takes a more positive approach to bodybuilding; e.g., Monaghan, 2001).
The researchers stretch even further. “Extreme anxiety related to hair removal might conceivably lead to social avoidance and, potentially, to [Body Dysmorphic Disorder],” noted one study, suggesting that “[f]uture researchers should target weightlifters/bodybuilders…” (Buroughs, Cafri, & Thompson, 2005, p. 641). Huh? Why? Consistent with this notion, researchers recently suggested that criteria for androgenic-anabolic steroid dependence incorporate body image concerns (Kanayama, Brower, Wood, & Pope, 2009). It appears that concern for how one looks, for setting a personal appearance standard and working to achieve it, is a screening factor for mental pathology. One wonders why there is less interest in understanding those who have no such personal standard, who look in the mirror and find nothing concerning about their pear-shaped, pot-bellied reflection. Nowthatseems to us to reflect potentially harmful body image distortion. But let’s face it – if we go down that road, there isn’t much that we do as humans (including conducting research and seeking tenure) that cannot, at some point, be considered disordered. While not the best measure of such a trend, is it a coincidence that the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952 was less than half an inch thick, while the current (2000) version is closer to three? Is this a matter of discovery, or creation?
Let’s be frank: bodybuilding, a viable and vibrant subculture, and the practices inherent to it have long served as a whipping boy of greater society. Why? Likely because it is statically rare – something “thosepeople” do – and because, quite frankly, big muscular people are probably intimidating and disconcerting to some folks. So researchers are using that rarity/concern yardstick as a way to assign pathology. All that is needed then is to take society’s “concerns,” amplify them, and lend scientific credibility to them. The bodybuilder is seen by researchers from outside of the subculture as a strange alien specimen, with every behavior worthy of microscopic examination. What would motivate researchers to necessarily view body hair removal as pathological? Men’s hair and beard styles come and go as do clothing fashions; what’s rare today is common tomorrow. Why are other vicissitudes of style accepted while body shaving is viewed as sick? Hello? Who at Harvard is studying people who wear their hats sideways or backwards or their pants down around their knees with their boxer shorts exposed for the world, regrettably, to see? Perhaps, while wider cultural differences are accepted in the name of diversity, the condemnation of the bodybuilding lifestyle is a truly cross-cultural phenomenon; drooping pants and backward hats are acceptable expressions of identity – a lean, muscular body and body shaving … not so much.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, both individually and culturally. What cultures deem to be attractive can vary widely. In some “primitive” cultures, neck elongation or lip plate insertion are the shiznit of beauty. It makes sense for sociologists or even anthropologists to study such unfamiliar, extreme and (yikes!) permanent body alterations, although when placed in their cultural context they can hardly be considered pathological. Even studying the current popularity of tattooed body art and body modification seems reasonable. But for psychiatrists and psychologists to study the motivations and consequences surrounding shaving your back hair seems like much ado about nothing. Why do some guys shave or trim their body hair? Because they think it looks better, and who says they’re wrong? The reasons are pretty similar to those underlying getting a monthly hair cut. Many people may become anxious if they go without a haircut for too long – we see people getting a haircut and wonder which one they had cut – shall we diagnose them with “follicular dysmorphia” (Boroughs & Thompson, 2002) as well? Understanding why people do what they do is the purview of psychological science – tirelessly labeling as “pathological” those behaviors that are rare, unusual, or at variance with larger culture is not.
The far more intriguing question concerns not the hair-shavers, but the researchers. What are the motivations and anxieties of researchers, in general, and in this case, those who are so preoccupied with the practice that they spend time studying it, publishing about it, and building it up as pathological? What drives them? They are after all an isolated minority, a sub-culture. Fortunately for them, they have their own megaphone, their own venues in which they become the arbiters of what constitutes illness and are not likely to turn that microscope on themselves. But what is it, how do they see themselves and what is the ideal image they pursue? Is their motivation anxiety over the struggle for scarce research grant dollars; do they add up the bottom-line and find themselves wanting? Is it the feeling of inadequacy caused by having too small a resume list of Curriculum Vitae? Maybe we should add “Research Grant Dysmorphia” or “CV Dysmorphia” to the ever-growing assortment of new mental illnesses? Seriously, why does body depilation so intrigue them that they overlook the simple answer that some people think clean limbs and torsos look better on the beach than being mistaken for a hibernating bear? Neither personal preference should make you “mentally sick.” Could it be that researchers somehow have a lower standard for personal appearance than their subjects? Anyone want to pony up some grant money to examine whether conducting silly research is more dysfunctional than a dude shaving his arms?
Boroughs, M, Cafri, G, & Thompson, J.K. (2005). Male body Depilation: Prevalence and associated features of body hair removal.Sex Roles,52, 637-644.
Boroughs, M., & Thompson, J.K. (2002). Body depilation in males: A new body image concern?International Journal of Men;s Health,3, 247-257.
Kanayama, G., Brower, K., Wood, R., & Pope, H.G. (2009). Clarifying the diagnostic criteria for anabolic-androgenic steroid dependence.American Journal of Psychiatry,166, 642-645.
Monaghan, L. (2001).Bodybuilding, drugs and risk. Routledge: New York, N.
Pope, H.G., Phillips, K.A., & Phillips, R. (2000).The Adonis complex: The secret crisis of male body obsession. Free Press: New York, NY.
Porche, D.J. (2007). Male body depilation.Journal of Nurse Practitioners,3, 14-15.
Saltonstall, R. (1993). Healthy bodies, social bodies: Men’s and women’s concepts and practices of health in everyday life,Social Science & Medicine,36, 7 – 14.
Sheldon, W.H. (1940).TheVarieties of Human Physique. Harper and Brothers: New York, NY.