This article first appeared in Attitude issue 280, March 2017.
As a boy, Matt Lister was much more hirsute than any of his friends. Although there were some advantages, he hated the wild growth on his back. But after some hairty moments trying to get ride of it, the Attitude columnist and champion canoeist learnt to love it…
I always knew I was gay. It was impossible to hide while I was growing up. Between the ages of two and three I used to love dressing up in my sister’s bridesmaid dress. I went to see Spice World with my older sister and her friends, dressed as the sassiest six-year-old Posh Spice around, and I even pierced my ears with a gross old needle, forcing some of my mum’s chandelier earrings through. I blamed the bleeding on “falling over and catching them both on the wardrobe door”. Really?
But the biggest sign, of course, was realising I was only attracted to men. There was wrestler John Cena, Tom Selleck, in Friends. NFL player and White Chicks actor Terry Crews (he’s the new Old Spice man in the adverts), Jason from 5ive, Will Smith as the Fresh Prince, and Kevin James in King of Queens. Not all of them were particularly hairy, but it was the hairy ones who fascinated me the most.
I was about 10 when I started sprouting pubic hair and it confused me at first. I think I knew then that it meant I was growing up, but I couldn’t quite grasp the idea that I was going to become a man at such an early age. I do remember being very proud of the fact that I’d achieved something that none of my friends the same age could do.
It wasn’t long before I was sprouting hair here, there and everywhere. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was shaving my moustache, and had chest hairs popping up. I never had that moment where my dad taught me how to shave, but I’d watched him do it so many times that I managed to pick it up quickly — even if I nearly lost a lip a few times.
Naturally, it followed that I had quite hairy legs for a teenager — hair that rapidly even crawled down over my feet. I didn’t think much of it until one of my friends at school noticed. Then came the “hobbit” comments. I was so embarrassed (even though I found hairy feet hot on other guys) that I started shaving there too.
By the age of 15 I was fully equipped with a cracking chin strap, which came in handy for getting past bouncers on nights out with my sister or some of my older friends. Then, around the time of my 16th birthday, I noticed that I was starting to grow back hair. I was mortified.
Why was I so proud of being able to grow body hair everywhere except my back? I couldn’t put a finger on it then but I knew I hated it. Looking back, I guess you rarely saw guys on TV or in magazines who had obviously hairy backs. I was fine with my excess hair making me look older than my friends at school, and among my British canoeing teammates, but I wished my hairy back would go away. In fact, I even asked for laser hair-removal for my birthday. A present I never got, thank goodness.
But still determined to do something about it, I became obsessed with manscaping. I’d spend hours clipping away at my chest, shoulders and back. Then came a (really dim) light bulb moment; why not have my boyfriend tweeze my entire back, hair by hair?
We got in one evening and I made him pluck out every one. When I looked at the bedsheets it was as if dozens of cats had moulted their winter coats. It hurt like hell, but afterwards I felt like my back looked how it was meant to — for about a week when, back in training and sweating, I broke out in a serious case of b-acne.
One major downfall of being a hairy guy and an athlete, who’s dressed from head to toe in spray-on Lycra and tight latex (not as sexy as it sounds), is the chafing and catching as you pull layers of sweaty neoprene on and off. Mix that with clammy, dirty kit and you’re riddled with ingrown hairs. At least it was an incentive to keep my kit clean, although while on a training camp in the Pyrenees one year I had to miss a day because of ingrown hair on my bum. I couldn’t sit in the boat because of the pain and I had to get the physio to help me lance it!
But given all that, I still think the main factor that made me hate having a hairy back came from within the gay community itself. One guy in particular was exceedingly vicious on Grindr. We’d arranged to meet up for a coffee, after chatting for a couple of days, but while on my way to meet him I started getting a string of toxic messages out of the blue, about it being disgusting that I was so hairy. He said the only chance of us meeting up was if I went for a full body wax and shaved off my beard.
Pressure, not just from random guys on Grindr, but also from friends commenting on my back caused me to cave again before my first ever gay holiday, to Mykonos. I got my razor out and hacked away for a good hour, bending and twisting to get as much of it off myself, then my teammate finished off the little diamond I couldn’t reach between my shoulder blades without me dislocating both shoulders and snapping a rib.
Having missed my flight, I booked a later one and arrived on the island 12 hours after my boyfriend. And when I revealed my squeaky clean back in all its polished glory, I was met with… disappointment.
“I love your hairy back because we can spoon either way round at night and it feels the same,” he said. “Now, give it one day and one side is going to feel like a cheese grater.”
Sure enough, before long you could have written A Tale of Two Cities in braille across my entire back thanks to the acne. That was the last time I ever bothered taming my back hair. I decided that the hassle of the upkeep and the consequences that follow just aren’t for me. I would much rather celebrate my difference than try to fit into a box that isn’t made for me.
These days, things have come full circle and I’ve fully embraced that happy, hairy kid I used to be. I use my Instagram as a platform to just be myself, and a great big portion of that, much to my mother’s dismay, is of me half naked, jumping and parading around on a beach somewhere around the world, my back hair out to the world like a peacock’s plumage! I love my hairy back so much now, I get protective over how far down my neck I let my barber shave.
I guess some of the emotions about being so hairy related to coming out as gay. Now that I’ve come out as hairy, I can see how when I accepted myself for who and how I am, others seemed to follow suit.
If I had just worked through accepting myself in the first place and not caved into pressure I would have avoided a lot of pain, both physical and emotional. It’s been a long journey for me to learn to love my fuzz, but I have finally let myself be happy in my own skin — and in my fur.
I hope I can inspire others to just “let it grow” as I did. It’s way more fun.