Body Depilation in Males:
A New Body Image Concern?
MICHAEL BOROUGHS and J. KEVIN THOMPSON
University of South Florida
Twenty individual structured interviews were undertaken to
investigate several facets of a relatively new phenomenon: the
removal of body hair by men. In addition to the interviews,
participants were asked to highlight a body figure drawing to
illustrate the areas of their bodies where hair was either removed
or reduced. It was found that males were removing or reducing
body hair in areas commonly covered up as well as parts of the
body that are usually seen in public, such as the forearms. In
addition to items related to the practice of hair removal, other
questions targeted affective aspects of hair removal. Many
participants reported that it was of high importance to remove hair
prior to a social exchange. Findings are considered in light of
increasing interest in men’s body image and the possibility of a
novel body image issue for men: body depilation.
Key Words: body hair removal, body image, body depilation
Removing body hair is not new in western cultures. However, historically this
behavior has been culturally sanctioned primarily for females (Tiggemann &
Kenyon, 1998). Men, conversely, have not been noted as hair removers, perhaps
because the presence of body hair has been indelibly associated with masculinity
(Basow, 1991; Basow & Braman, 1998; Lewis, 1987; Tiggemann & Kenyon, 1998).
In one of the few studies to explore attitudes about body hair, Lewis (1987) found
that the presence or absence of body hair generally does not affect men’s masculine
identity. In a more recent study, Basow and Braman (1998) examined attitudes of
both male and female college students to identify the cultural reactions to women
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to J. Kevin Thompson, Department of
Psychology, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620-8200. Email: email@example.com.
International Journal of Men’s Health, Vol. 1, No. 3, September 2002, pp. 247-257.
© 2002 by the Men’s Studies Press. LLC. All rights reserved.
who did not remove their body hair. Both males and females made negative
attributions toward females who did not remove hair; unfortunately, male hair
removal was not evaluated in this study. Naturally, society is central in determining
“culturally appropriate” behaviors such as the acceptability of body hair removal or
reduction for one or both sexes. Therefore, while body hair removal might be simply
the acceptance of socialized norms for females, it is a rejection of those norms for
males. An evaluation of the factors underlying male body hair removal might
contribute uniquely to an understanding of male appearance concerns and body
Body image research has traditionally focused on the concerns of females
(Thompson, 1990). However, in recent years, it has become apparent that men also
have issues with appearance. Research indicates that men’s body image concerns
may center around different aspects of appearance than women’s, with a focus on
muscularity rather than thinness (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn,
1999). For instance, Thompson and Tantleff (1992) found that men desired a larger
and more muscular chest size than they currently possessed. Pope, Gruber, Choi,
Olivardia, and Phillips (1997) suggested that men’s obsession with muscularity
might approximate pathological levels. These researchers found that some
bodybuilders met criteria for a body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). BDD is a
somatoform disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) with the essential feature being
an excessive preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in appearance, which
causes significant distress or impairment in functioning. Common complaints
include localization on the body such as a wrinkle on the face or the shape and/or
size of the nose; however, the criteria also allow for a simultaneous focus on several
body parts. Therefore, the possibility of “hair growth” considered to be excessive at
various body sites is not beyond this diagnosis. Phillips and Diaz (1997) suggested
that cultural norms and values might influence the content of BDD symptoms such
as the particular site or aspect of body concern.
The recent surge in interest in men’s body image was the basis for the current
investigation. Anecdotal reports from various sources had suggested the presence of
a potentially new form of body image concern that might warrant investigation:
men’s removal of body hair from atypical body sites. Popular press accounts have
superceded empirical examinations of this phenomenon (Gomes, 2001; Smith, 2000;
Stuever, 2000). Such accounts and anecdotal cases suggest that body depilation may
occur not only in athletes, predominantly bodybuilders and swimmers, but also in a
broad cross-section of men in society. An initial exploratory investigation was
undertaken to examine some qualitative and quantitative facets of this relatively new
body image phenomenon. Specifically, the goals of this initial study included
seeking information from participants on (1) their frequency of depilation, (2)
reasons behind their engaging in this behavior, (3) the methods used to reduce and
remove hair, and (4) social and affective correlates of depilation to determine
whether there might be conceptual similarities to body image disturbance.
BOROUGHS and THOMPSON
The authors conducted 20 structured interviews with males to investigate several
facets of a relatively new phenomenon: the removal and reduction of body hair by
men. Seventeen of the 20 participants were Caucasian, two were Hispanic, and one
was African American. All participants reported using both cardiovascular and
resistance training strategies, and all that were asked to participate in this pilot study
did affirm they engaged in the hair removal behaviors and agreed to participate.
Participants were recruited at a local gym via purposive sampling. To be
included in the study, potential participants were asked if they engaged in any body
hair removal below the neck, and if so, whether they were willing to participate in an
interview. Some snowball sampling was also used where participants helped in the
recruitment of others that engaged in the hair removing behaviors. All those that
were initially contacted agreed to participate. The fact that all participants were
involved in some type of formal exercise was a result of the sampling method;
all individuals were contacted at gyms or from referrals by other gym members.
Body Depilation Structured Interview (BoDeSI). Qualitative structured interviews
were conducted to explore the locus of depilation, removal strategies, and associated
emotional and behavioral components (i.e., anxiety, avoidance). No extant
questionnaire existed for guiding interviews; therefore the authors developed one:
the Body Depilation Structured Interview (BoDeSI) to obtain descriptive information
about men who remove or reduce body hair. The questions were specific and
assumed participants engaged in some reduction or removal of body hair below the
neck since this population was targeted for recruitment into the study. Interview
items are contained in Appendix A.
In creating the BoDeSI, a literature review was undertaken, as well as a review
of the diagnostic criteria for BDD in the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association,
1994). Informal observations of men in gyms and local health clubs, along with
conversations with individuals who appeared to have removed body hair (i.e.,
especially noticeable were men with an absence of leg hair) also provided
information for the development of BoDeSI. The resulting questionnaire had open-
ended questions that yielded qualitative information, along with a few items that
were rated on a scale by participants, providing some quantitative information.
Hair Removal Shading Figure. A drawing of a male figure was created to allow
participants to shade, with a highlighter, areas of the body where they either reduced
or removed body hair. Several male figure drawings were reviewed from the body
image literature. A figure from Thompson and Gray’s Contour Drawing Rating
Scale (1995), was modified to be larger and less detailed, showing both front and
back of the body to allow for proper measurement of actual hair removal and
reduction behaviors. This modified figure was a useful adjunct to the BoDeSI,
BODY DEPILATION IN MALES
Schematic figure used for location of depilation
Please shade the body figure to identify the areas where you remove or reduce your body hair.
especially because some participants found it easier to shade in body sites on the
figure rather than discuss verbally their removal practices.
The participants were interviewed to examine the parameters and dynamics of body
depilation, guided by the BoDeSI, and they also completed (i.e., shaded) the Hair
Removal Shading Figure. All participants gave informed consent and were told they
could end their participation at any time or refuse to answer any questions they were
uncomfortable with. The study was confidential. No names or other identifying
information were collected. Most interviews were carried out in a local health club
with the consent of the management. Participants were interviewed in a private room
with a table and two chairs. The only exception to this was two participants who
were interviewed in a private room of a community recreation center, which was a
locale more convenient for those participants.
While the semi-structured interview did contain some items that were more
quantitative in nature (yielding scaled responses), the interviewer asked all questions
and recorded, in writing, all responses made by the participants. Tape recordings of
the interviews were not done. Other than responding to the questions, the only other
task asked of participants was to shade a drawing with a highlighter to indicate
areas of their body where shaving or trimming took place.
A mixture of ethnography, systematic content analysis, direct quotations, and
descriptive statistics were used to report the following results. The findings indicated
that males are removing or reducing body hair in areas commonly covered up and on
parts of the body that are usually seen in public, such as the forearms. Table 1
contains the data regarding body site removal, indicating that the primary sites for
depilation are the torso/abdomen (90%), chest (85%), and groin (85%). Upper back
(20%) and back of neck (10%) hair removal occurred at a relatively low frequency.
Analysis of the interviews suggested that body image issues were key factors for
body hair reduction and removal. Eighteen of the 20 participants gave statements
such as the following for depilation: “looks better,” “makes muscles look larger,”
“looks younger,” and “feels cleaner.” Many participants alluded to some anxiety if
they were faced with an upcoming social situation where they would not be able to
shave in advance. All participants reported receiving some positive feedback from
others regarding their depilation, while a small minority reported some negative
feedback (i.e., “why would a man do that?”).
Table 2 contains the methods participants used to remove or reduce their body
hair. Of interest is that 100 percent of participants reported using a regular razor, and
a significant number reported using shaving cream and/or electric clippers. Less than
five participants used other removal methods such as scissors, electric razor, or laser
BODY DEPILATION IN MALES
Summary of Body Sites Where Depilation Occurs in Males (N = 20)
Body Site N (%)
Abdomen 18 (90)
Chest 17 (85)
Groin 17 (85)
Upper legs 14 (70)
Lower legs 13 (65)
Lower arms 13 (65)
Hands 11 (55)
Shoulders 7 (35)
Upper arms 6 (30)
Arm pits 6 (30)
Feet 6 (30)
Lower back 5 (25)
Buttocks 5 (25)
Clavicle 5 (25)
Upper back 4 (20)
Back of neck 2 (10)
Distribution of Methods Used in Body Hair Removal and Reduction (N = 20)
Hair Removal Method N (%)
Regular razor 20 (100)
Shaving cream 17 (85)
Electrical clippers 13 (65)
Depilatories 4 (20)
Electric razor 3 (15)
Scissors 3 (15)
Waxing in salon 3 (15)
Waxing at home 2 (10)
Soap 1 (5)
Tweezers 1 (5)
Electrolysis 0 (0)
Laser hair removal 0 (0)
The mean length of time participants had been removing body hair was 5.97
years, with a median of 3.5 years, SD = 5.93 years with a range of three months to
20 years. Nine participants noted that the onset of removing hair began after they
saw others engage in the practice; nine said they began the behavior on their own
accord, and two specifically mentioned participation in a triathlon as
prompting their removal rituals.
Participants were also asked if their shaving/trimming behaviors were curtailed
during the off-season of their sport or if climatic differences (i.e., colder weather)
curtailed the hair removal. Twelve of 20 participants said shaving/trimming did not
become less important in the off-season. Three said the off-season for sports made
the behavior less important, while four said the climatic season had an effect. One
individual noted that he wears more clothes during the colder weather season;
therefore, shaving became less important.
Participants were asked, “How important is it to shave or clip body hair prior to
social contact?” This question was included to specifically address body image
concerns related to social interactions. Mean ratings, using a 1-5 scale (i.e., 1 = not
important, 5 = very important), were similar for all three reference-groups
(significant others: 3.2; friends: 3.1; general public: 3.1). Of the 20 participants that
were interviewed, only three reported that shaving or clipping body hair was “not
important” prior to social contact with others. By contrast, 25% reported body hair
removal or reduction with the highest rating of “very important” prior to social
contact, while approximately 40% indicated that it was “important.”
The following injuries had occurred, according to participants, as a result of
shaving or trimming: a) nicks to the skin, b) in-grown hairs, and c) cuts to the skin.
Half of those interviewed denied any injuries at all. For the purpose of establishing a
working nomenclature for this behavior, participants were asked what word they
used if they were to tell someone else they were planning to depilate. Seventeen of
the 20 said they would use the word “shave or shaving;” six used the word “trim or
trimming,” two used the word “clipping,” and one said he would say he was going to
Participants’ responses to the question on frequency of body hair removal and
re-growth yielded a range of responses. One participant claimed to shave his arms
every two days. Ten individuals said they shave weekly, four said bi-weekly, and
two said every three weeks. Three said they shaved once a month. Related to the
depilation frequency was the estimated re-growth rate. Two participants said they
did not allow any visible re-growth, while the remaining individuals allowed stubble
before resuming depilation.
We asked participants to describe how they felt just after shaving or trimming
their body hair, and we also wanted them to compare that feeling with how they felt
when the hair had grown back and the need to shave arose. The responses were
highest in the categories of “clean/cleaner” (N = 14) and “good/better” (N = 9).
Other descriptors included “better-looking” (N = 4), more “athletic or muscular” (N
= 3), better “self-esteem or self-confidence” (N = 3), “healthier” (N = 2), “thinner or
weighs less” (N = 2), and “sexual” (N = 2). For the comparison of how they would
feel just before depilation, participants said: they felt “dirty” (N = 5) or “self-
conscious” (N = 2). Other unique comments were, for example, “feeling bristly,”
“less presentable,” “less muscular,” “shameful,” “shaggy,” or “feel like I can’t
control it [i.e., the growth of the hair].”
Participants were asked to describe their level of anxiety if they could not shave
BODY DEPILATION IN MALES
for a few days after some point when the need arose. Eleven participants described
either moderate anxiety or situational anxiety. Three participants said they would
experience great anxiety, while six participants said they would not be anxious.
None of the participants reported pulling body hair, which might have offered
the potential differential diagnosis of trichotillomania. All of the participants in the
current study removed hair below the neck, whereas trichotillomanic hair removal
frequently involves removal of head hair.
These findings suggest that depilation may be a male grooming behavior that
constitutes a new and potentially important investigative avenue for body image
researchers. Clearly our findings do not indicate that these individuals suffer from
body dysmorphic disorder (no formal BDD evaluation was conducted). However,
the fact that 65% of participants alluded to the presence of anxiety if hair removal
was prevented indicates the importance of further evaluating the clinical relevance of
depilation and the possible presence of “follicular dysmorphia.” In addition, given
the occurrence of depilation in bodybuilders, it would be important in future studies
to evaluate the co-morbidity of muscle dysmorphia and follicular dysmorphia.
Future directions include the creation of a research questionnaire to further
investigate the prevalence of these behaviors in diverse populations.
Clearly some limitations of this study include the low number of participants
and the targeted sampling, as opposed to random sampling technique, which reduces
external validity. For example, in this sample of 20 males, none reported using laser
hair removal as a method of removing body hair. Yet, advertisements for this
procedure increasingly target men, and some reports suggest that 30% of laser hair
removal customers are men seeking to have hair on their backs removed (Smith,
2000; Stuever, 2000).
While the argument could be made that athletes are depilating for performance
purposes and therefore are not potentially at-risk for BDD, this small investigation
found that athletes continued the depilation behavior even when they were not
involved with their sport. In fact, it is entirely possible that participation in various
athletic activities and communities precipitated the initial engagement in body
We believe, therefore, that a subset of men who engage in depilation behaviors
may indeed suffer from BDD. However, the criteria for BDD are quite rigorous,
requiring a preoccupation with the perceived defect for at least one hour per day and
the association of significant distress with this preoccupation (American Psychiatric
Association, 1994). Clearly, a more extensive examination of the clinical aspects of
hair depilation is needed before accurate estimates of the percentage with BDD can
A review of the BDD literature reveals an extensive focus on head hair, when
hair concern is indexed (Hollander & Aronowitz; 1999; Rosen, 1996). For example,
thinning hair and muscularity concerns are often the preoccupations males report
(Hollander & Aronowitz, 1999; Phillips, 1998; Phillips & Diaz, 1997). Most often
when hair is discussed with relation to males and BDD, the hair being referenced is
head hair, and the central issue around the hair is its loss or alopecia. For example,
Phillips, McElroy, Keck, Pope, and Hudson (1993) found that 19 of 30 BDD cases
had hair related dysmorphia issues. Of the 19 cases, 15 had concerns with head hair,
two had concerns with beards, and three with “other body hair.” This study had both
male and female participants, though the sex of the three cases with “other body
hair” dysmorphia was not disclosed.
Only Perugi and colleagues confirmed high preoccupation with excessive body
hair by men in their study of 34 male outpatients diagnosed with BDD (Perugi,
Akiskal, Giannotti, Frare, DiVaio, & Cassano, 1997). Their report distinguishes
body hair dysmorphia from issues surrounding head hair. In this study two males had
a preoccupation with alopecia, while six reported preoccupation with excessive body
hair (Perugi et al., 1997). A strategy deployed by both males and females with BDD
is repeated cosmetic surgeries to correct perceived defects (Hollander & Aronowitz,
1999; Phillips & Diaz, 1997). One strategy not yet examined with relation to the
findings of Perugi et al. (1997) is the self removal or reduction of body hair below
the neck by males. These behaviors would be consistent with the obsessive nature
of BDD and yet not necessarily require medical or surgical intervention.
The current study serves as the foundation for a more extensive examination of
body depilation, which is currently underway. The results from the structured
interviews from this study provide the basis for an extension of the BoDeSI, which
can then be used to survey a larger, random sample of individuals. Such a study will
provide normative data on prevalence of body hair removal practices and associated
features. Essential to this evaluation will be the inclusion of a formal examination of
body dysmorphic symptoms, with a standardized instrument such as Rosen’s Body
Dysmorphic Disorder Examination (Rosen, 1996), along with other variables that
might relate to levels of depilation, such as drive for muscularity, social acceptance,
body shame, and self-esteem (Gilbert & Thompson, 2002; McCreary & Sasse,
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of
mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Basow, S.A. (1991). The hairless ideal: Women and their body hair. Psychology of
Women Quarterly, 15, 83-96.
Basow, S.A., & Braman, A.C. (1998). Women and body hair: Social perceptions
and attitudes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22, 637-645.
Gilbert, S., & Thompson, J.K. (2002). Body shame in childhood and adolescence:
Relations to general psychological functioning and eating disorders. In P.
Gilbert & J. Miles (Eds.), Body shame: Conceptualisation, research, and
treatment (pp. 55-74). New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Gomes, L. (2001, September, 5). That thicket of hair just spoils the view of all those
muscles: Many young men are taking it off to look like guys in the pages of
Men’s Health. The Wall Street Journal, p. A1.
Hollander, E., & Aronowitz, B.R. (1999) Comorbid social anxiety and body
dysmorphic disorder: Managing the complicated patient. Journal of Clinical
BODY DEPILATION IN MALES
Psychiatry, 60, 27-31.
Lewis, J.M. (1987). Caucasian body hair management: A key to gender and species
identification in U.S. culture? Journal of American Culture, 10, 7-14.
McCreary, D.R., & Sasse, D.K. (2000). An exploration of the drive for muscularity
in adolescent boys and girls. Journal of American College Health, 48, 297-304.
Perugi, G., Akiskal, H.S., Giannotti, D., Frare, F., DiVaio, S., & Cassano, G.B.
(1997). Gender related differences in body dysmorphic disorder
(Dysmorphophobia). Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 185, 578-582.
Phillips, K.A. (1998). Body dysmorphic disorder: Clinical aspects and treatment
strategies. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 62(4), A33-A48.
Phillips, K.A., & Diaz, S.F. (1997). Gender differences in body dismorphic disorder.
Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 185, 570-577.
Phillips, K.A., McElroy, S.L., Keck, P.E., Pope, H.G., & Hudson, J.I. (1993). Body
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Psychiatry, 150, 302-308.
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dysmorphia: An underrecognized form of body dysmorphic disorder.
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Thompson (Ed.), Body image, eating disorders and obesity: An integrative
guide to assessment and treatment (pp. 149-170). Washington, DC: American
Smith, H. (2000, July 10). Why Zorba can’t keep his hair on. New Statesman, 129,
Stuever, H. (2000, August 3). Mr. rug; for men, a hairy back is a closely held secret.
The Washington Post, p. C1.
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Body Depilation Structured Interview
1) Do you go to a gym or have a regular exercise routine?
2) How long have you been removing your body hair?
3) How did you begin? On your own? Did you see others? What prompted it?
4) Does removing your body hair become less important in the off-season? (Either
climatic season or sports season).
5) Have any injuries occurred as a result of removing your body hair?
6) Why do you remove your body hair? You may have different reasons for
different areas of the body. Please note some specific reasons.
7) Describe the word you use to express the process of removing your body hair.
For example, “I have to _________ (shave) later.”
8) How do you remove your body hair? Do you use any of the following: shaving
cream, regular razor, electric razor, electric clippers, depilatories, electrolysis,
laser hair removal, waxing in a salon, waxing at home, other?
9) How frequently do you remove your body hair? Estimate the re-growth rate. Do
you allow any visible re-growth before you begin the removal process?
10) How important is it for you to shave before being seen by significant others,
friends or out in public? (Rate on a scale of 1-5 [5 = very important, 1 = not
11) What do you believe are the perceptions of others related to you removing your
a) Have others mentioned to you that they notice that you have removed body
12) How do you feel about yourself just after body hair removal? Do you feel
different about yourself or your body after your remove the hair rather than when
it has grown back?
13) Can you describe how you feel if you’ve gone a few days without removing your
(body) hair? How anxious would you be if you couldn’t shave for a few days?
BODY DEPILATION IN MALES