Every boomer whom Mister Boomer knows remembers watching Tarzan movies. It was commonplace for movies of the 1930s and ’40s to appear on TV, so we saw Tarzan’s 12-movie repertoire many times. The Tarzan character was a lot of things, including a symbol of ideal male pulchritude, but one thing the Ape Man was not was hairy. Other than the hair on his head, Tarzan’s body was as smooth as a baby’s bottom.
Weismuller was an Olympic swimmer who won a total of five gold medals in the 1922, ’24 and ’28 Olympic Games. As an athlete, it would not have been unusual for him to shave his body for his sport. Since the movies always tried to include him swimming at some point — through crocodile-infested water, for example — it may be that he just kept his hairless condition as his base athletic look rather than it being a studio request.
Men in the movies of the 1930s, ’40s and even the ’50s generally weren’t filmed with their shirts off. When they were, for beach scenes like Burt Lancaster’s in From Here to Eternity (1953), chest hair was not a prominent focus in the scene. In the case of Lancaster, he may have had a few hairs showing while frolicking in the surf with Deborah Kerr, but in the black & white film it’s hardly visible.
Hollywood has always served up their version of the ideal male from the times of Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. through today. As such, movies are a good place to see a generation’s vision of beauty — or in the case of men, virility and manliness.
In the 1950s Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were considered manly men. They were teamed up in the movie, Trapeze (1956) as circus performers. They both sported modest chest hair peeking out from scoopneck trapeze-artist wear on bodies that were, at the time, considered in tip-top shape.
By 1960 we witness a shirtless Kirk Douglas, another male sex symbol of the era, as the title character in Spartacus — clean shaven from top to bottom. By 1968, however, Burt Lancaster appeared in The Swimmer sporting full chest, arm and leg hair. So one may ask what happened between the 1950s and late ’60s?
Mister Boomer posits that there was a sea change in the culture’s depiction of maleness. The beach movies of the 1950s showed young men with modest amounts of body hair, but surely attitudes about male beauty were changing. Music, like movies, echoed this change. Singers like Tom Jones, with his open-shirt persona, flaunted his carpet of chest hair like it was a personal invitation. Women often responded by tossing room keys or panties to any stage on which he performed.
There is probably no better barometer of these changing attitudes than James Bond movies. The Bond franchise has spanned four decades so far, and we have seen the main protagonist — James Bond — transform from the full-body werewolf that was Sean Connery to the hairless and ripped model portrayed by Daniel Craig today.
In the Sean Connery Bond movies, however, his chest and body hair was more than an acceptance of a natural state. Rather, it became part of the picture of what the manliest man in the world looked like. Connery’s Bond, a hairy Tarzan if ever there was one, was never the least bit self-conscious about his appearance or body image. Indeed, the women in these films literally threw themselves at him with swooning abandon.
Whether the hippie and “back to nature” movements of the mid-to-late sixties influenced this change or not, it continued into the 1970s. Longer hairstyles, facial hair and copious amounts of body hair became the standard. The pinnacle of this representation may very well have been the nude pictorial published by Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972. Burt Reynolds, whose wise-cracking movie characters were very much in line with James Bond’s coolness, was photographed au naturel in all his chest and body hair splendor. It seems hard to believe now that the man feminists chose to be the first object of their centerfold desire was Burt Reynolds, but there you have it. The feminist mantra of the time was that if men could ogle women in the pages of Playboy, they could do the same. Ultimately this led to Playgirl magazine commencing publication in 1973. Mister Boomer surmises that this magazine would also clearly portray the chest hair timeline, but will leave that historical research to other interested parties.
Today’s male movie stars, as in years gone by, are perfectly sculpted specimens of this generation’s ideal. That ideal has dictated that a manly man will pay strict attention to his torso to the point that the phrase, “manscape” has been coined to define body hair removal.
Like male chest hair, the nether regions of women have experienced a similar path to bare skin since the 1960s, but there are societal inklings — as well as explicit filming in TV and movies — that more natural depictions are becoming readily accepted. Will this in turn usher in a new era of male chest hair as a renewed symbol of virility? For most of us aging male boomers, those are questions best left for younger generations as nose and ear hair are far more worrisome.
Where did you stand on male chest hair in your heyday, boomers? Was it the epitome of manliness or an ick factor that soured the deal?