There are a number of things that male Korean celebrities and idols have in common. The chiselled jawline, the perfect nose bridge, seemingly poreless, porcelain skin, and disarming boyishness. To complete the package, they also tend to be devoid of facial hair, save for perfectly shaped eyebrows.

It’s not enough that these examples of contemporary male beauty possess the visual exuberance of a 21-year-old in his physical prime, they also have underarms so smooth and clear that they can be likened to vanilla ice cream. I mean, one can’t help but notice this when male members of K-pop groups opt to wear sleeveless outfits during their energetic dance performances.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m affected by these rather impossible standards—not only are those underarms hairless, they also look unbelievably smooth—I am however a fan of keeping things clean and groomed. And having hairless underarms does have its benefits. For one, it reduces the chance for the accumulation of bacteria. Hairy pits give bacteria something more to cling on to and thrive in, and subsequently cause that after-workout funk, or that end-of-day earthiness simply by living in a humid climate.

Hair has a tendency to retain moisture, which means hairy pits also often translate to visible wet underarm patches. And while sweating is normal and healthy, having perspiration seep through clothing isn’t exactly a good look. Depending on whether you’re for deodorants and antiperspirants (typically aluminium-based to temporarily block sweat pores) or their more natural alternatives, a hairless underarm also provides a smoother canvas that increases their efficiency.

I’ll have to confess that I am mildly obsessed with hair removal. After all, I have tried pretty much every at-home solution. Like most guys, I started out with the standard shaving routine. It’s fast and idiot-proof; I typically had zero issue or experienced any nick from using a Gillette razor. But the downside to shaving is the potential for ingrown hair. The constant scraping action of shaving can also lead to minor cuts to the skin and exacerbate hyperpigmentation, making skin appear darker—definitely not K-pop-star-approved.

Forget about hair-removing creams. My experience with them has never been positive. They either didn’t work as advertised or weren’t as effective as the razor. Then, there was the one time I decided to try out an at-home waxing kit in preparation for a marathon run. In the interest of reducing abrasion to the skin during the long-distance run (it happens around the underarm area too, especially after a bumpy shave), I laid out the components in the kit and read the instructions carefully before proceeding. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t begin the experiment with a DIY-Boyzilian (the male variant of a Brazilian that involves removing hair from the front and back of the pubic region), because not only did I suffer from post-marathon abrasion, some skin was ripped off in the process.

“There’s almost ZERO downtime with waxing. I can (and I do) use my lunchtime on a work day to go to a waxing salon near the office, spend about an hour for a BOYZILIAN and underarm hair removal, and then head back to my desk without anyone knowing I just had my FOLLICLES STRIPPED OFF of me.”

As effective as self-waxing strips are, the quality of the pre-attached wax is nowhere near what professional salons use. And they’re messy and hard to manoeuvre on yourself—the strips need to be at the absolutely perfect angle to work. The risk of getting it wrong—clearly, in my case—is pretty high.

Professional waxing is probably the best temporary hair removal technique out there. There’s still some degree of pain involved unfortunately, but results typically last for a couple of weeks. After repeated visits, regrowth is generally slower and you may only need to go just once a month.

There’s almost zero downtime with waxing. I can (and I do) use my lunchtime on a work day to head to a waxing salon near the office, spend about an hour for a Boyzilian and underarm hair removal, and then head back to my desk without anyone knowing I just had follicles stripped off of me. All one has to avoid for the next couple of hours are exercising and showering with hot water, or anything else that could irritate the open pores of a waxed area.

While the usual waxing salon I frequent isn’t too shabby with its private rooms and sterile environment, a visit to STRIP’s Ion Orchard outlet proved to be a luxurious experience. There’s nothing clinical about its deep coloured walls and interior furnishings as well as the plush bed in the middle that all together resembles more of a private boudoir than a salon.

Homegrown brand STRIP has been at it for 21 years now and has expanded to eight other cities in the region. As part of its 21st-anniversary celebrations, a special STRIP Birthday Wax had been formulated especially for Boyzilian procedures. And like its name suggests, the wax smells like how a vanilla birthday cake would, which in hindsight, is perhaps not the kind of visuals one would want while getting hair removed from sensitive areas. But it smelt delicious and one can hardly complain to that.

“Do you see more guys getting waxed nowadays,” I asked my Waxpert (STRIP’s term for its wax specialists), ignoring my cardinal rule of never making conversation with the person you’re exposing your groin and crack to at the salon, all in the interest of journalism.

“Yes, of course!” she answered without skipping a beat, before asking me to take a deep breath and proceeding to yank a strip off. Surprisingly, the pain was minimal.

The pain element is inevitable—you’re essentially removing hair follicles right at the root. But experienced and well-trained specialists make quick work of it, which helps in reducing the pain whether it’s underarm hair removal or the more sensitive Boyzilian. Anything around the scrotum though, is bound to be the most painful owed to the fact that the skin is thin in that area. You might jerk from the swift motion or even yelp, but they’re all most definitely normal reactions that you don’t have to be embarrassed about. These wax specialists have probably seen it all.

You might be wondering at this point, why bother going through the pain? Especially when intense pulsed light (IPL) treatment is a pain-free option and lasts far longer. With IPL treatment, however, multiple sessions are required with results typically more visible after at least four sessions. Conversely, waxing is immediate, especially if you’re pressed for time and are not willing to wait for four months for smooth, hairless skin.

At the end of the day, it boils down to one’s personal choice, and I don’t just mean waxing versus IPL treatments.

Hair removal isn’t a necessity; it’s a preference. Having hairy pits doesn’t equate to being hyper-masculine nor does the lack of it means one is any less. For me, it’s not even about adhering to a new standard of male beauty; it’s about feeling more hygienic and knowing that I’m not the cause of a lone hair sticking on the rim of a urinal. Having said that, for the love of mankind, at least trim those bushes, bro.

Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?

At 11 years old, I started noticing greys in my hair. I was naturally surprised but not really bothered—just a few strands at the back of my head that my mother vigilantly plucked out whenever they presented themselves. But then they started to appear more frequently. And barely a year later, the greys were sprouting all over the lower half of my head.

You can imagine how, as a pre-teen, having such a visible hair “issue” wasn’t the best thing for one’s self-esteem. It came at a point when I became obsessed about having my hair held down by copious amounts of hair gel—having greys meant that my school-going hairstyle wasn’t as slick as I’d like because grey hairs have a more wiry texture.

Plucking the greys proved to be increasingly painful and time-consuming. It may have been borderline therapeutic initially, but that quickly wore off as the number of greys grew exponentially. I settled on covering them using boxed hair dyes—a triweekly routine that I’ve grown accustomed to.

That’s the thing about hair: it’s such a major part of one’s sense of self. Anything that disrupts it from being what we perceive as the norm tends to be cause for personal concern.

Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend?

“My hair has always been a part of my personality. When I was in my rebellious phase, I wore it really long. Then when I became interested in fashion, I changed course with more trendy haircuts. Any way you dress it, hair has always been my thing,” Bobby Tonelli tells me. The Singapore-based seasoned actor and host looks every bit the same youthful individual as when he first moved here in 2007. I tell him this. Tonelli thanks me and proffers, “When your hair is thicker, you tend to look fresher or younger. When it is thinner, people tend to relate that to looking older, you know what I mean? It’s a psychological thing."

One would think Tonelli is nowhere near the age when hair issues manifest, at least not in today’s society where people seem to be ageing more slowly than generations past. The reality—according to a study by University of Miami Miller School of Medicine published in 2020—is that men suffer a 50 per cent risk in developing hair loss once they hit the age of 50. A separate 2000 community study of male androgenetic alopecia (the most common form of hair loss) done in Singapore found that hair loss could start as early as in the 20s for men.

Tonelli’s experience seems to confirm the findings. It was in his 20s, while working as a model, that he started to notice some form of hair thinning. “I kind of noticed it. But when people doing my hair on shoots start pointing it out, I thought, ‘Oh ok. Maybe this is a bigger deal than I thought’,” he recalls.

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Now at age 47, Tonelli is opening up about undergoing a hair transplant to fix lost hair around his crown and hairline. It’s been slightly over six months from the day he had the hair transplant and if I weren’t privy to it, it would never have crossed my mind that he had gone through an eight-hour procedure to harvest and transplant about 2,400 hair grafts from the back of his head. “I’m a mature male; I’m never going to get back that young hairline from when I was 20,” Tonelli acknowledges. “You want to create something natural and proportional. It’s been filled in a little bit to where I notice it, but not necessarily obvious to the average person.”

Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?

Graphic designer Juwaidi Jumanto, 31, would use his photoshop skills to correct a receding hairline in his photos. He too tells me that it started getting noticeable in his 20s. He would dabble with hair root makeup, anti-hairfall medication, and expensive hair treatments—“but once you stop going for them, the issues recur”—before finally investing in a hair transplant last year. “It was a personal goal. I wanted to get a hair transplant before I turned 30,” Jumanto shares. He underwent the procedure in May 2022 and says that he’s fully recovered with the transplanted areas already blending in with the rest of his scalp.

Jumanto cheekily attributes his receding hairline to his father who experienced the same issue. Pre-hair transplant, he shares that most people wouldn’t have noticed his receding hairline. “It’s more about how you feel about yourself. There were days when I’d wake up and the idea of my hair thinning away would affect my self-esteem. I did this for me,” he expresses.

Both Jumanto and Tonelli are part of a growing number of men opting for hair transplants. It’s a growing trend that has over three billion views on TikTok alone. Search for “#hairtransplant” on the social media platform and you’ll find numerous clips of hair transplant journeys—a majority of which shared by men. The clips are typically intimate and personal, bringing followers and casual viewers along the process from initial consultations to surgery day to recovery.

At the time of writing, John Hui—@thejohnagenda on TikTok—is into his 13th week of recovery since getting a hair transplant. He’s been detailing his journey weekly, capturing the realities of the recovery process. It’s a long one and visible results take a considerable amount of time, but in between, it’s often a rollercoaster wave of ups and downs. For example, Hui saw promising growth and he was elated with the shape of his hairline in week two, before things took a nosedive on week three with the development of scalp acne and a general sense of discomfort around the donor areas.

I am not my hair

“Hair is closely connected to self-confidence. The first impression that you give when people look at you, comes from the face and hair. Before I had my hair transplant, I would always subconsciously wonder if the people around me were thinking negatively about my hair,” Jumanto says. Tonelli elaborates that hair symbolises who a man is—their personality. “If you have a very nice, sharp crew cut, it’s like you’re clean and healthy,” he opines.

That’s not to say that having a lack of hair is, by default, a negative.

Hollywood celebrities embracing a relatively bare head are aplenty. Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Laurence Fishburne and Bruce Willis are but a small number of A-list names who have transitioned from a full head of hair in their youth to almost none at all. I dare you to say that The Rock projects anything but a manly disposition.

For 33-year-old Joshua Simon, hair was getting in the way of living his best life. The Singaporean Radio DJ took the plunge to shave his entire head in 2019 and has kept it as such ever since. “I was in Bali and I had a villa with a pool, but I found myself not going into it because I was like, ‘If I get into the pool, my hair is going to get wet. And then I would have to dry my hair, and style it, and then it’ll take me so much time before I get to go out...’” Simon details.

He got into the pool eventually and emerged with an epiphany: “I knew that I wanted to look the way that I feel on the inside. And how I felt on the inside was free.” Simon broke away from the tyranny of hairstyling he has remained free to this day.

Prior to shaving off his hair, Simon was no stranger to experimenting with his mane—rebonding, colouring, faux-hawking and even leaving it in its natural curly state. But due to that constant experimentation, he found himself losing “chunks of hair” around the age of 19. “My mom suffers from some form of alopecia and so does my dad,” shares Simon. “It’s the scariest thing when you’re in your teens and your hair is falling out.” Thankfully, it happened right before enlistment into the army for National Service. Simon took the opportunity to shave his head and let his scalp heal.

I am not your expectations

Hair issues are by no means unique to men. Women suffer from them too. While femininity is traditionally tied to having long, flowing hair, it’s the fullness that men are often judged by. It’s become a longstanding slapstick trope: a male character getting his toupee snagged off or blown away by a strong gust of wind, only to reveal a bald patch. Heck, we even ridicule Donald Trump for his combover.

The idea of hair being such an integral part of a man’s identity perhaps has little to do with being masculine—it has more to do with ageing and the denial of it. Society has conditioned us to desire looking younger than our age; to protect any semblance of youthfulness that has yet to be tainted by time.

Greying hair is undoubtedly a natural course of ageing. But prematurely greying while being in the throes of puberty? Not so much. The same goes for balding, thinning and receding hairlines. They are all inevitable effects of ageing across the gender spectrum. Sometimes though, for unclear reasons, it is possible to experience them when we’re not “at that age” and, understandably, not prepared to embrace them.

Having gone through a hair loss scare and embracing a buzz cut, Simon tells me that he has less of a fear of eventually losing hair as he ages. He still maintains his use of Propecia—a prescription-only medication for treating hair loss—to help keep what he already has. “I’m also mindful about not feeling shackled to it,” he says. “I don’t have the fullest scalp but even to have a semblance of this shape at my age, I’m grateful. If it continues to recede down the line, I’m super chill with it as well.”

Would he undergo a hair transplant like Jumanto and Tonelli? “I have thought about it. It’s also crazy expensive,” he counters. And it’s true. The latter’s procedure was an almost SGD10,000 investment. But Simon is not ruling it out.

At the end of the day, all three men agree that if their hair eventually succumbed to the test of time, there are no qualms about accepting the fact. But till that day comes, the proverbial crowning glory is getting the care and worship that it deserves, to better reflect the man that they each feel inside.

I am the soul that lives within