Like all men with a thick blanket of torso fur, I wasn’t born this way. It wasn’t until college that the first sprigs began to sprout along my sternum and encircle the nipples. I’d been a few years out of school by the time I had what I considered “total coverage.” Somehow, though, I’m getting hairier still. So much so that if I live to be 80, I’ll be indistinguishable from a small sasquatch.
I didn’t accept this state of affairs right away. Having grown up in the 1990s, I only knew a cinematic standard of male beauty defined by smooth, hairless abs and pecs (think Brad Pitt in Fight Club). The curly layer of shag I sported felt like a gross aberration in contrast, like part of an unsightly body made to be hidden. I was surprised when romantic partners liked it — or I was until I saw Burt Reynolds’ iconic 1972 centerfold for Cosmopolitan, which is being reshared following the actor’s passing at the age of 82.
The legendary photo spread, which spawned no less than Playgirl magazine and a national conversation about male-fronted porn, was published the same year that Reynolds made his star turn in Deliverance, where his chest hair also featured prominently, glistening in the gap of an unzipped wetsuit vest. While I understood, intuitively, that I was seeing another era’s cultural vision of masculinity in these artifacts, it was also clear that Reynolds’ raw sex appeal was timeless. That he capped his casual, dudely grace with a strong mustache and goofy come-hither grin was all the evidence I needed that Hollywood’s later shift to waxed action heroes wasn’t the last word on what a man’s man looks like. None of those actors were pin-ups. Burt was.
Truth be told, I never went that deep on Reynolds’ filmography. As much as any other white hipster bro, I loved him in Boogie Nights (a movie he hilariously detested even after it scored him an Oscar nomination), and I was always down to catch part of Cannonball Run on TV (though I’m still not totally clear on what it’s about). His guest episode of Archer is outstanding, if you haven’t seen it. But knowing he had cemented his status as a heartthrob by letting his chest curls and cowlicks hang out — not to mention an attainable, non-shredded, “regular guy” bod — gave me confidence. Nowadays I wear tank tops to show off my rib rug, which is also a source of joy for my partner, who strokes it and calls it “murr,” a purring portmanteau of “man” and “fur.”
So while Reynolds’ nude shoot was a game-changer for straight women and gay men who had never had their sexual desires so openly acknowledged, decades later, this hetero dude gained something, too. In self-conscious youth, I always assumed that women would never be genuinely attracted to me — that they’d have to be willing to overlook my appearance in order to engage in a physical relationship, maybe out of pity. Reynolds showed me that women could absolutely want what I had underneath my shirt, especially if I bared it with a smile and never took myself too seriously. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
RIP to a wonderful entertainer and an ideal model of body positivity.