by NINA FUNNELL
“That’s, like, disgusting!” croons one teenage boy.
“Ewww. Gross!” rejoins another, screwing up his face.
“I just don’t get it. Why don’t they, like, shave their pits?” enquires a third.
It’s a Friday night. I’m at a friend’s family function and the house has been divided in two. In the back half of the house, the adults are eating canapés and getting suitably sloshed. Meanwhile the kids and teens are in the front half of the house eating cheesy-macaroni and watching the Olympics. When I join them, I find them deep in discussion, debating one of life’s hairier little subjects: fury underarms.
Only it’s not women’s underarm hair they’re interested in. The kids are watching the men’s trampolining event. As each athlete’s name is called, the competitor steps forward, raises his arm to salute the crowd, and- much to the horror or relief of the kids I’m with – reveals his underarm-muff status.
One competitor has no sign of underarm hair. The teen boys nod approvingly. Another has shaved his underarms but has a tuft of chest hair sticking out the neck hole of his uniform. The boys comment that he should have shaved that off too.
Then one competitor raises his arm to reveal a thick slick of licorice black hair proudly displayed for all to see. The kids go positively mental. Or at least the boys do. The girls seem quite content to just watch the gymnastics.
Meanwhile I’m wondering how on earth these boys have gotten through life without ever seeing their dad’s underarms. And when did boys become so anxious about body hair anyway?
Before I go on I should clarify that not all teen boys would have had the same reaction. I’m sure that plenty wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But more and more I am beginning to notice a bizarre and somewhat disturbing trend with the teen boys I work with.
Recently I was invited to speak at a prestigious co-ed private school. I was there to present to the students on media literacy, photoshopping and body image. Because there were boys in the audience, I decided to throw in a bunch of slides showing how men’s bodies are also being photoshopped- often to give them bigger guns and firmer abs.
I showed them how magazines like Men’s Fitness artificially alter the guns of top athletes like tennis player Andy Roddick. I pointed out how hypocritical it is for them to run articles like “How to build big arms” next to a picture of a man with fake massive arms. I also showed them how easy it is for magazine editors (or anyone, really) to give a celebrity someone-else’s body.
This gallery gives you an idea of the extreme photoshopping that happens on mens’ bodies as well as women’s. (NB: Post continues below the gallery)
Everywhere men turn, they're confronted with sculpted bodies and the 'ideal' look.
The boys were captivated. After I got off stage, the year director spoke to me. He told me that he was really glad that male body image was covered because the school was having real problems with boys becoming obsessed about their workouts and appearance. He also told me about a trend that had taken off in their school where boys were shaving their legs.
Yes. You read right. Boys. Shaving. Their. Legs.
And not for practical reasons (like cycling). The teacher explained that the older male students (year 11 and 12) were shaving their legs for aesthetic reasons and that the naturally hairy boys were quite embarrassed and anxious about their hirsute state.
It instantly made me feel sad. Teenage girls have always been shamed over their body hair. The fact that boys are now also feeling a level of scrutiny does not point to a situation of equality. It just points to more unhappy teenagers who feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
It’s difficult to know how to address the issue of body hair with our teenagers.
I’ve seen teens look like they were about to faint when it was suggested that female pubic hair was perfectly acceptable.
I’ve also seen teen boys recoil in shock when shown classic paintings of nude women avec-le-pubes.
We are so accustomed to seeing hairless, baby smooth, perfectly sculptured bodies, that when confronted with a body that does not measure up to the mould, plenty of us flinch in shock or even disgust.
And at the same time that all this body-shaming and body-policing is going on, there are plenty of people spruiking the idea that it’s “empowering” for women to wax every inch of their bodies.
To be clear about this, I think that women – in fact all people – should be free to make choices about what they do with and to their bodies. And if a woman chooses to wax her lady-bits, she shouldn’t be judged anymore than the woman next to her who chooses not to.
But just because waxing, shaving and the like may not be inherently disempowering, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that these things are inherently empowering either.
And just like teen girls, teen boys aren’t going to be magically empowered by trends that make them feel anxious and self conscious about their appearance. It’s a reminder that we don’t need to change our bodies. We need to change the rules.
Nina Funnell is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. You can follow her on Twitter.
Do you think the pressure on teenage boys to look a certain way is increasing?