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800 Words

The Closest Shave

April 10, 2005|Dan Neil

I can't say i was dissatisfied with my razor, exactly. I've been using a Gillette Mach 3 for several years, a lightweight, three-bladed implement against which my beard--patchy, blond and irresolute--didn't stand a chance.

But then I left it in a hotel and, looking for a replacement, discovered the Gillette M3Power, the new battery-powered, vibratory flagship of King Gillette's fleet. The M3Power is the new "It" razor. Styled a little like a cross-trainer shoe, with day-glo green, high-traction rubber ridges on its silvery barrel, the $12 M3Power features a tiny electric motor in the handle that, according to the packaging, sends out "micro-pulses" that make the beard stand up so that you can shave closer and more thoroughly with one "power stroke."

I was skeptical. This language--lauding the mysterious, curative effects of electricity with the power to make whiskers erect--put me in mind of 19th century medical devices like galvanic trusses that promised instant "invigoration." But I needed a razor and, frankly, men are powerless in the face of needless technology.

Once in front of the mirror, with a Santa's beard of shaving cream on my face, I switched on the M3Power, which began to buzz in a way both familiar and disconcerting, like something you might pull from the night table. Then, shaving satori! The M3Power purred softly against my cheek like an affectionate cat. It traced the contours of my face with a sweet, gliding, electrified caress that banished not just the hair but all memory of hair.

Two minutes later, my face was smoother than a salamander. It was like shaving down to my soul.

There is cause for celebration and alarm here. The good news is that the $2 billion razor wars between Gillette and Schick have spawned a generation of hair-hating super shavers, the thermonuclear armaments of the face race. Last year Schick introduced the world's first four-bladed model, the Quattro, a broad-headed device that feels like shaving with a very sharp car bumper. It seems as if shaving has reached a Fukuyama-esque, end-of-history moment.

Even so, it's a little discouraging to realize that some of our best technical minds are being employed in grooming research when America is being edged out of oh, say, the aerospace and semiconductor industries. Is the five o'clock shadow a national security issue?

Meanwhile, the great unspoken truth behind the razor wars is this: These larger, broader razors--with their chromium multiplicity of blades, lubricating strips and micro-vibrating handles--are over-engineered for the human face. They are, in fact, bound for more southerly ports of call.

For proof, look no farther than the Gillette man himself, standing towel-swaddled in front of the mirror in an ecstasy of grooming, stroking the bluest chin this side of Rodin. He is completely hairless south of his Adam's apple. His chest is as smooth and polished as marble, and were his towel to slip, I'm sure the same would prove true of his butt.

It would be hard to pinpoint the moment when America became phobic about male body hair. It would almost certainly be after 1972. One of the most shocking things in the recent documentary "Inside Deep Throat" is just how hairy Harry Reams is. One reliable index of male body hair's outre status is the Hasselhoff quotient. During the decade-long run of "Baywatch" in the 1990s, Hasselhoff's salt-and-pepper thatch of chest hair receded to a small, vestigial goatee between his pecs.

"Seinfeld" did a number on chest hair; "Sex and the City" waxed back hair; and in the past two years, the "Queer Eye" Fab Five gave us the term "man-scaping"--though, ironically, gay culture is one of the few environments where burly, furry men are seen as erotic. The current vogue in adult entertainment is for the male performers to be as denuded of hair as the women.

While all this might seem odd, it's not particularly new. Removing body hair has been a common sexual vanity for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, the honored beards of Plato and Aristotle were supplanted in Athenian fashion by the clean-shaven chin of Alexander the Great. Alexander, the world's first openly gay conqueror, shaved obsessively, and it seems unlikely that the practice stopped at the neckline.

Of course, women have never stopped suffering medieval processes of tweezing, singeing, waxing and chemical depilation. I remember being shocked when I read Aristophanes' antiwar play "Lysistrada"; as part of the Greek women's connubial boycott, they refuse to pluck their "triangles." How very Euclidean of them.

Last week, Gillette launched a women's version of the M3Power, a razor called the Venus Vibrance. Make of that what you will.

Considering the terrain these new razors can cope with, my face doesn't present much of a challenge. I spent a week shaving with the Gillette M3Power, which means I used it three times. I must say it shaved me within an inch of my life. And in some places, even closer.

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