Overheard conversations, afternoons of topless football, and awkward poses in life-drawing class leave a schoolboy riddled with anxiety about the furry growth extending across his neck, shoulders, arms, back, flanks, buttocks and legs. No wonder he refuses to grow sideburns.
Text by Bart de Baets
Drawings by Stepan Lipatov
My boyfriend and I are visiting my parents for the weekend. We’re sleeping in my small old double bed, which was a comfortable size growing up, but is now too cramped, especially when occupied by two grown men. It’s a Sunday morning and I’ve just taken a shower. I left my fresh clothes and underwear in the hallway and plan to jump out quickly and grab them, wrapped in a towel. Just then my father happens to pass by. He stops to look at me and says with a chuckle: “I had no idea you were that hairy!”
I hadn’t contemplated bumping into him here in the hallway so I decide to play it cool, mumbling “Yeah… well… so…”. It’s clear the encounter leaves me a little uncomfortable. Like a doctor in need of a colleague to “Come here and see this”, he yells out for my mother, who’s in the next room. “I don’t know who he gets it from,” she says. “Your father maybe. Wasn’t he kind of hairy?” She seems more underwhelmed about it than he is, and goes back to minding her own business.
Like many kids growing up in the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s, I frequently witness the sight of my parents naked. My mother in particular never makes a big fuss about her own nudity. And because of her matter-of-fact attitude, neither do I. Gradually, however, rumours about public nudity being considered weird begin to polarize kids at school, and that affects my ideas about nudity at home. So without ever discussing it with my parents, I decide what my friends had decided long ago: from now on, no-one is ever again going to see me naked. Remnants of earlier unspoken agreements about our indoor nudity policy at home are tolerated only when I’m already under the shower, and a family member has to come in to shave or brush their teeth. At such moments, the steamy shower door reveals nothing but a ghost of me. I vow that these blurry nudes will be the last ones my parents ever see of me.
In secondary school, nine out of ten outdoor gym classes are spent playing football. Something that starts off as an innocent game changes once the pupils who play league games on Saturday have their eyes on the ball. Soon they notice my dormant interest in ‘their’ game, causing an instant divide between them and me (and two or three other geeks with no interest in running or winning).
With the hot sun out, a beautiful ritual is soon about to unfold. Initiated by the most handsome one of them all, the boys are about to take off their T-shirts. Like a dream scene in a high-school movie, he reveals his gorgeous fitness. Up next are his besties, who are skinnier but equally smooth. One of them jokes about undressing, quipping that it’s ‘gay’ to undress, but he suggests continuing the striptease by taking off his shorts. Thinking that to be hilarious, a handful of mean bullies, encouraged by the quick cool down, follow his example, and soon every boy is running around topless — including the freaks whom I trust to be my lawful allies.
Although the pitch is populated by bodies of various size, posture, odour and colour, none of them seem to care about exposing their teenage chests. But because I’m hiding something so alienating and shocking beneath my clothes, I always keep my shirt on. I feel no urgency to share that… I have hair! While I’m similarly built to most of them, my teenage frame has patches of hair on my chest and stomach and along my arms. Good god, I’m only a child! A little trail of hair even runs straight down from my chest and into my trousers. And from my buttocks to my lower back grows a thin layer of blond fur, which sounds cute when described like that, but will soon be slurred at me in a far more vulgar manner. To this day I remain insecure about taking off my shirt in public. Really, why should I?
One day at school I happen to overhear a conversation between two girls in a dressing room that forever changes my view of my own hairy teenage body.
“What do mean, you love him?”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Love! You just don’t understand!”
“That he’s nice. He buys me things. He’s hot!”
“He’s kind of cute, I guess…”
“He’s okay. He’s just so smooth, so perfect. It creeps me out. So do all of his other friends. They all look like kids to me. I like hair!”
“Hair!? Like hairy chests!?”
“Yes, hairy chests and legs and things. Facial hair, all of it…”
“All of it!?”
“Yes, all of it… I love it!”
“That’s a lot…”
“Well, I guess. Whatever, you don’t get it. Listen, we’ve got to go. Let’s get to class!”
The girls come out of the dressing room and notice me sitting on a bench, waiting for a friend to finish changing.
“Hey, what are you doing here? We’re going to be late. Come on…”
Me: “Uhm… Okay.”
In my head I replay the conversation I’ve just overheard. The girl’s frank confession spurs a revelation: for the first time I think of my hairy body as a sexual body. That makes me distinguish myself from the other boys in an entirely new way. Not only does she think the smooth boys who couldn’t keep their clothes on during gym are still kids, but her confession makes me believe that I inhabit a body that can be considered attractive.
Not so long ago, in my parent’s attic, I find myself going through a binder full of model drawings and recognize the bodies of my old classmates in all kinds of poses. Going to school in the Belgian town of Bruges means having to conform to a conservative dress code, dominated by navy blue. My school is one of those that offers lots of art classes. Modelling in the life-drawing classes of Miss Willems becomes the ultimate opportunity to introduce classmates to your snazzy weekend attire.
When it’s my turn to strike a pose, the pleasant weather prompts Miss Willems to suggest I bring a pair of shorts to sport a summer look. My first pose: a simple yet elegant contrapposto, which I hold for about ten minutes while my classmates quietly draw. As their calm concentration comforts me, I grow more relaxed in my role and try out more poses. This instantly proves to be a big mistake because my antics break the spell in the room. As their model, I refrain from joining in the chit-chat, and instead entertain them with more challenging poses. First the Surfer and the Egyptian, and then I nail a casual meet-on-the-street high-five. With all eyes fixed on me, I soon become the topic of conversation. In middle of a quick three-minute Copenhagen Mermaid, my growing confidence is abruptly shaken when I hear whispering. It’s Sophie, whose parents own a bougie restaurant in town. She hisses to her friend Kathy, loud enough for others to hear. “He has hair growing from his ass!” I put my hand to my back to check. All the posing has untucked my shirt from my shorts to reveal the thin hairs growing on my lower back. I’d been insecure about my stomach and chest hair for some years, but it isn’t until this particular incident, aged 17, that I become aware of other people’s disapproval of the apparently unusual behaviour of my body hair.
Some years later, a gang of art students and myself fall under the spell of a lesbian writer. She’s a role model in the community who likes our company. If you’re lucky, she might talk to you and surprise you by remembering your name. She knows Chloë Sevigny, and has Raf Simons’ personal email address. After some hip event on a semi-sunny day in the city, my adolescent posse and I need a drink and tag along with the writer and her fashionable friends. We settle on a number of terrace tables and, after a couple of rounds of drinks, the mood becomes loud and boisterous.
“Check that out!” the writer suddenly screams, directing all our attention to a man enjoying a drink with a friend. “I’m so happy I don’t have to have sex with men,” she exclaims, now more quietly. It’s only then I see what she’s talking about. Leaning forward to say something to his table companion, the man affords us a peak down the back of his trousers, which sprouts a lush bush of hair. Her obvious disgust quickly spreads among the group, and soon everyone is making hurling gestures. Even some of the usually hair-fetishizing queens switch sides, just for the occasion. All I can think is: ‘That man is me!’
From that day on, I become even more aware of hiding my own back bush from my easily swayed crew, and for a very long time I tuck in my undershirts like a nun tucks in a sick orphan.
A friend once admits to me that I’m known as ‘the guy with all the hair’. True, the thick and plentiful hair on my head spreads across my facial features as soon as my lazy shaving habit allows for a wild stubble. Invisible to others, my rug, when left untended, continues from my head down my neck and into my shirt. There it spreads out in oddly shaped patches across both shoulders in an uncontrolled yet symmetrical fashion. Most of the time, the short sleeves of a T-shirt manage to conceal the longer black hairs. Softer blond hairs have covered my arms for as long as I can remember. Draped across my lower forearms, individual hairs entwine in an almost calligraphic pattern that makes them seem darker. My spine is hairless but the flanks of my back are not. They’re overgrown with weirdly uneven hair, with more on the left than on the right. Before freely spreading out across my buttocks and legs, a wild shrub of growth embraces my lower back.
I’ve considered a number of ways to remove the hairs or halt the growth, but I’m either reluctant or just lazy. Frequent shaving would eventually make it look even more bizarre. And let’s face it: reaching all the way down there with a pair of clippers is pretty hard. I find it all very unattractive, but not everyone does. Although I don’t want to bother him with it, my boyfriend loves to help out, taking pleasure in shaving it into all kinds of patterns and formations. Lately he’s been begging me to grow sideburns. Although I know I could easily grow a pair of wild ones, I steadfastly refuse.
On our way to France, my boyfriend and I are picking up a friend from the railway station in Luxembourg. It’s early in the morning and the sun is already scorching. In the few minutes we have until our travel companion arrives, I check out the scene. Early summer mornings are alive with the bustle of people coming and going, yet our holiday mood doesn’t seem to be shared by anyone else at the station. Most of them seem dressed up and on their way to work.
Then, from afar, I see him emerge. A handsome dark-skinned figure on a bicycle speeding towards me. As he gets closer I see that he’s wearing nothing but a pair of flimsy shorts, a loose-fitting undershirt and some chunky sneakers. Clearly thriving on his momentum, he shoots past me and zooms down the main street from the station into the city. Even though this mountain biker is travelling at great speed, his appearance gives me plenty of time to register that he’s covered with hair. His skimpy gear reveals dense thickets of long black hair generously covering his shoulders, upper arms and flanks. The sun makes him glisten like a sweaty clubber.
Confronted with complexes concerning my own fur, I feel a mixture of admiration and jealousy creeping up on me. I envy this free spirit whose abundance of hair makes him look so secure, so badass and so sexy. The way the hairy bicyclist enters and exits my vision that morning gives me encouragement, and his image stays with me for the rest of the journey.
Alas, upon arrival at our destination, a week of sporty activities announces itself. Tennis this time. After each match, the sweaty bare-chested players cool off with a hose. Everyone under it, those hosing and being hosed, is a sight to see, like a Larry Clark spectacle under an open fire hydrant. I’m back in gym class once again. I button up in the hot sun of the Bourgogne and hide behind my magazines.