The beard that everyone has been going on about relentlessly over the past few months, Jeremy Paxman’s, has finally been shaved off. Good for him anyway for kicking over the traces and overcoming what he called the BBC’s pogonophobia (yes, fear of beards) when he decided to forego shaving and let his whiskers grow last summer.
I have to say though – I slightly prefer the familiar clean-shaven look, but it seems I’m a bit unusual; a Northumbria University study suggests that most women like at least a bit of stubble on their man’s chops. Me, I like hair on other parts of a man’s body, but I’m surprised to learn that again I’m in the minority.
But actually I think I’m right to stick with my preference…I first came across the importance of chest hair when working as a keeper looking after woolly monkeys at a primate sanctuary in the distant past. The adult male woollies had strong muscular little bodies covered in plush grey fur but their chests sported long thick hair and these guys spent a fair amount of their time doing impressive push-ups on the beams in their enclosures rubbing the said hairy chests on the wood and imparting their masculine monkey scent everywhere.
No, I don’t think human males should be looking or even behaving like monkeys but I do like a bit of hair on a man’s chest and the reason could be related to what the monkeys were up to.
My contention is that what’s important about hairiness is that it helps to increase the scent of a man – curly pubic hair promotes the growth of bacteria responsible for manly fragrance, and this is very important to women – much more so than a woman’s smell is to men who are more focussed on the visible attributes of a potential mate. A hairy chest can smell very sexy (I’m talking of course about clean smell) and has the additional benefit of snuggliness.
And why is a man’s smell such a big deal? It turns out that we can sniff out some aspects of a person’s personality and dominant men tend to have a more attractive smell. Perhaps most importantly though, smell tells us subconsciously about whether or not someone is compatible with us.
Several studies have shown that people prefer the smell of those of the opposite sex that differ from themselves in the genotype of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), the most variable region of the human genome. The products of genes of the MHC are involved in immune system functioning and it’s thought that a preference for the smell of those with a different MHC could mean that we avoid inbreeding and that our kids have a better immune system. The upshot of this then is that whether we find someone’s smell attractive depends on our respective genotypes, so everyone can potentially smell good to somebody.
And sniffing out the right mate is really important: There’s evidence that a woman with an MHC similar partner is less likely to get pregnant and more likely suffer miscarriage. Not only that but she tends to be less sexually interested in her mate and more likely to have an affair. Relationship counsellors report that couples who say they dislike their partners’ smell are usually impossible to reconcile.
Yet another study demonstrates that a good smell is crucial for a woman’s experience of ‘deep’ orgasm, the type of orgasms that allegedly helps the sperm on their journey to the egg, thus making pregnancy more likely.
So I think you can see now that if you’re a woman checking out potential boyfriend material you really need to know what the man smells like. Given that hairiness helps broadcast his particular aroma it seems somewhat surprising that a recent study by Pavol Prokop of Trnava University in Slovakia and his colleagues shows that most women prefer smoothies. The team got samples of women to look at pictures of men’s torsos first with their chest rugs intact, and then the same bodies stripped of any trace of hair. Most women found the latter photos more appealing, but I find this surprising – take a look at the sample pictures in the paper which show an example of before and after shaving. In the ‘after’ picture the poor guy looks like a boy. Or a plucked chicken. At least you know men with hairy chests are human grown-ups.
Obviously I’m well aware that plenty of men are naturally naked in the chest area, but of course there are other hairy body-bits that can do the job of imparting man-scent as long as the said men can resist attacking them with a razor.
It’s been suggested that the preference for the shaved look may have evolved as a way of avoiding parasites. The Prokop study tested exactly this idea but found no support for it given that women sampled from an area with a relatively low parasite risk (Slovakia) preferred bare chests just as much as those in a higher risk area (Turkey).
My guess is that the current preference for hairless man-bods and the simultaneous penchant in men for getting their chests, not to mention back, sack and crack, waxed is not adaptive, biologically evolved behaviour but comes down to some culturally constructed weirdness that can be blamed on the Chippendales and their modern equivalents. Or maybe it’s all to do with online porn, since everything else seems to get attributed to that. Anyway, hopefully it will go away soon. And then we can get back to enjoying a hint of hirsute peaking out above an open-necked shirt. But keep it subtle guys please – no blatant displays and definitely no medallions.