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That’ll Put Hair on Your Chest: The Evolution of Athletes’ Body Hair

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Lately I’ve been putting my houseplants in vintage tin cans, so I’ve spent a bit of time looking at tin can listings on eBay, which is fun because I really enjoy seeing the old can designs — even the ones I’m not interested in purchasing. One listing I recently came across was for the can shown above. Obviously, it’s a fun package design. But as I examined the details, what really struck me about it is that the titular spokescharacter, Mr. Muscle, is depicted with hairy legs and, especially, a hairy chest:

We’ve sometimes talked about athletes’ hair, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about body hair. It strikes me as an unusual but very legitimate corner of athletics aesthetics — one that has shifted over the years. At one time, chest hair like Mr. Muscle’s was essentially visual shorthand for a certain kind of he-man, macho-style masculinity. Nowadays, though, that’s no longer the case. Or to put it another way, if you were creating a muscleman spokescharacter for a package design today, there’s no way you’d give him a hairy chest like Mr. Muscle’s.

It’s interesting to see how this has shifted in the sports world. The most obvious place to look is boxing, since the athletes don’t wear shirts. Back in the 1950s, for example, Rocky Marciano — still the only heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated — had a hairy chest:

Ditto for Jake “Raging Bull” LaMotta (also, note that LaMotta and opponent Laurent Dauthuille were both wearing light trunks in this bout — highly unusual):

That hairy-chested look was common in those days. By contrast, today’s boxers almost always have clean, hairless torsos. Off the top of my head, I can think of only three high-level boxers from the modern era who had significant body hair. The first is heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, whose last bout was in 1990:

The second is heavyweight Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, who had a bunch of high-profile fights in the 1990s:

And the third is the Russian giant Nikolai Valuev, who twice held the WBA heavyweight title between 2005 and 2009:

Update: Reader/commenter Ian M. points out that I neglected to include current heavyweight champ Tyson Fury, who is plenty hairy:

I’m sure there are other examples, but I think most people would agree that boxers these days tend not to be hairy. Of course, that’s not because human beings are no longer hairy — it’s almost certainly because boxers now shave and/or wax their torsos. Take Tommy Morrison, for example: Early in his career he had some chest hair, but he soon did away with that:

How did that happen? Newsday boxing columnist Wallace Matthews wrote in 1993 that it was because Morrison liked to “shave every hair off his body.” I’m sure he wasn’t the only one.

Matthews meant that comment as a dig against Morrison, but I wouldn’t criticize anyone for their grooming habits. It’s just fashion — at one point, hairy masculinity was in, and now people prefer a clean, gleaming look.

Why is that? A few factors come to mind:

  • Modern training and nutrition methods (and, let’s face it, steroids) have led to a lot more muscle definition, and people like showing off those big pecs and six-packs. Think about it: Bodybuilders have always preferred to show off their sculpted physiques by going hairless. Even back in the Marciano/LaMotta days, when chest hair was still equated with machismo, celebrity musclemen like Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne nonetheless went hairless. But bodybuilders were pretty much the only ones who were seriously jacked up in those days — the common wisdom at the time was that athletes shouldn’t be too heavily muscled because they’d become “muscle-bound.” Modern flexibility training eventually changed all that — nowadays, any athlete can look like a bodybuilder. And they don’t want any hair blocking the view of how ripped they are.
  • Upper-body tattoos are much more common nowadays, and people don’t want hair obscuring the ink.
  • Maybe it’s just part of a broader cultural trend. If you watch pornography, you know that body hair is practically extinct.

I’m sure we could go a lot farther down this rabbit hole. I don’t follow the MMA/UFC scene, for example — are those fighters also hairless? Similarly, I don’t follow pro wrestling — has boxing’s transition from hairy to denuded chests been mirrored in the wrestling ranks?

All that because of a cartoon character on an old tin can. I realize this is a different kind of Uni Watch topic, but it’s still athletics aesthetics! Thanks for hearing me out, and let’s try to keep the comments from getting too silly. Thanks!

Comments (42)

    I respect people’s personal grooming choices, but as a hirsute challenged male, I’m a bit offended when I see men shaving their chests/legs/etc. I can’t even grow a proper beard, and they’re getting rid of it all. It’s all so very unfair.

    Not necessarily sports related, but when Henry Cavill got the role of Superman, he was asked to shave his chest for the scenes where he would be shirtless. He refused, siting comic books showing Superman with chest hair.

    Maybe Valuev thought about shaving for a second… And then realized he would have A LOT of hair to remove! Haha!

    Of course, cyclists have been shaving their legs for decades. They want people to think it’s for aerodynamics and they say it’s for safety if they crash, but many suspect it’s so they can show off their calves.

    One reason Cyclists shave their legs is road rash. If you’re riding a multi-day road race, or just want to ride every day, and you fall and get abrasions, a hard scab can make this difficult. Most road rash should heal within 2 weeks with good care of your wounds by keeping them clean and moist. Moist is key. You don’t want hair around the wound.

    Most serious cyclists are familiar with the Rules of Cycling


    Rule 33 is relevant here

    // Shave your guns.Legs are to be carefully shaved at all times. If, for some reason, your legs are to be left hairy, make sure you can dish out plenty of hurt to shaved riders, or be considered a hippie douche on your way to a Critical Mass. Whether you use a straight razor or a Bowie knife, use Baxter to keep them smooth.

    The Rules used to be tongue in cheek (other than rule 5) and at some point some cyclists started taking them seriously. Long story short, now everyone in cycling (and triathlon) thinks you have to shave your legs.

    I’m a cyclist who doesn’t shave, but a buddy who does says the main reason for him is so that after a ride, a quick squirt from a water bottle will rinse of all the grime when it doesn’t have the hair to get caught up in.

    Fellow cyclist who doesn’t shave—I always say that unless some pro team wants go hire a 37 year old who rides 3-4 days a week then there’s no way I’m spending the time to shave my legs.

    I’m a recovering hammerhead who never shaved. Mostly because I’m too lazy, but also because I’m so hairy there isn’t an obvious place to stop. At least the Rule against facial hair seems to have softened in recent years.

    In pro wrestling, practically everyone shaves their chest and armpits as a courtesy. The few that don’t usually wear singlet-type outfits that cover the majority of it up except for a little sticking out the top.

    The boxers in the 1990s were just reflecting the general public. The 90s were around the time when men just started to transition to no body hair. By the 2000s it was way more common.

    I wonder if a component of shaving body hair might have been to reduce friction? The hair would cause a certain amount of friction causing the glove to “stick” longer and transferring more force. I have to believe boxers would look for any edge possible.

    I have thought a cool project would be to document what NBA players still go with the hairy armpits. Most don’t, and it’s almost striking at this point when they do. Definitely a cultural shift.

    It seems like the bodybuilder aesthetic crossed over to the rest of society after many years. I also blame Mattel’s Ken (Barbie’s sidekick) for generations of girls growing up with the hairless male torso as an ideal of beauty.

    “I also blame Mattel’s Ken (Barbie’s sidekick) for generations of girls growing up with the hairless male torso as an ideal of beauty.”


    I remember “Image is Everything” Andre Agassi saying he took clippers to his legs. He would have it set so it left a little hair. Kind of like shearing a sheep. Also, I remember a great scene in “Malcolm in the Middle” where Brian Cranston was being shaved with clippers by his wife.

    While watching an MLB game year, my girlfriend noted a pitcher who was not wearing an undershirt and whose jersey had the top couple of buttons undone, showing off his ample chest fur. Her response? “Gross! He needs to cover that up!” It made me laugh.

    I think Tyson Fury, the current heavyweight champ, has a hairy chest while fighting, maybe not as prominent as some of the other examples.

    Wrestling fan here. Two examples of the body hair guys that were more of the exception from the past were George “The Animal” Steele and “Dirty” Dutch Mantell who were instantly recognizable for that.

    Love this topic. OK, maybe I don’t “love” it (that does seem strange), but it’s intriguing. Side note with too much info (probably): I naturally have very little under-arm hair. My oldest son, who is a workout guy, always digs at me because he inherited the same, and it’s not “manly”. He’s also mad that because of my genetics, he can’t grow a beard or ‘stache. I keep telling him that shaving every day sucks, so be happy you can skip days, and nasty matted pit hair is gross. Neither are arguments I’m winning.

    Think about the sport of swimming – Mark Spitz from the ’70s was very hairy. Today’s swimmers like Michael Phelps are hairless or shaved. Like cyclists most swimmers today shave their body hair.

    Maybe it was difrerent at some other point in his career, but Spitz is mostly hairless here :

    Yes and no. Spitz shaved his body but had a mustache. He also didn’t wear a swim cap or shave his head.

    OK, so while looking around trying to find out how long male swimmers have been going hairless (thanks Uni Watch!), I stumbled across this…


    Doesn’t seem like it caught on, heck not even sure it’s real. All the articles are from dubious sites at best, and all around the same date…

    Here’s one of those article : link

    Weird. What do you guys think?

    While body hair on athletes definitely has changed, I’ll throw out there that you also see a lot more athletes sporting beards than in years past, especially the MLB. (And don’t get me started on the default long haired, scraggly bearded NFL tight end prototype.) Just as body hair is now culturally out, beards are culturally in. Maybe the hair just migrated north?

    A buddy of mine is/was very hirsute. Wall to wall carpet, y’all.
    He got electrolysis on his back in order to box. He also chose Method Man’s Bring the Pain as his walk in music. Almost twenty years later, he has yet to walk into the ring.
    Great guy, though.

    Water Polo has a history of some teams going with hairy chests and mustaches. I want to say Hungary, Serbia, and Romania. It’s a real rough sport, and I believe they do this as intimidation.

    While hairy chests, arms and legs were common, I remember everyone commented on Neal Walk’s hairy back and shoulders back then, and not in a good way.

    All this talk of body hair, and especially that splash photo, reminds me of when Little Caesars updated their mascot.


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