Blog Series

The Hair and Now

January 1st, 2016     by Isobel Van Hagen     Comments

Photography by Zoe Buckberry

I am not here to say that shaving is wrong. I am also not here to say that not shaving has led me to a glorious revolution in which I have been freed from the patriarchy. I am here to say, in the fight against the objectification and scrutiny of women’s bodies, an important step is to end the belief that female body hair is unclean.

I was pretty conventionally good-looking when I was in high school: short, slim and sexualized. I eventually moved from suburban New York to a university in Canada where the workload and climate ensured I had much less time to think about my hair, weight and daily outfit-planning. I gradually felt proud as I consciously tried to become indifferent to my physical appearance. Yet, it became clear my “new,” “feminist” ideas about my body were, in fact, nothing new at all. Countless feminists throughout history and around the world had pretty much already thought of everything I could.

At first, I felt defeated. Writing my own thoughts on the subject would be repetitive and incomplete. But then again, no matter how much literature I read or how many documentaries I watch on our society’s wholly distorted perception of beauty, my 14-year-old sister still feels compelled to wear concealer and liquid eyeliner, I still see ads where thin women appear as objects and people still roll their eyes when I tell them I don’t shave under my arms. So, I’m going to keep writing.

In March of 2015, my boyfriend at the time had just left from visiting me at school. I wasn’t going to see him again until the summer, so I decided to stop shaving until then. It saved a considerable amount of time in the shower. A month later, I looked in the mirror at my armpits and liked the way they looked. At the time, the decision to stop shaving did not feel transformative, as it was mostly out of laziness. It only became transformative because it was such a big deal to everyone else. Because I was now considered so rebellious, it gave me reason to contemplate why it was beautiful to have shaved, red, prickly armpits instead of natural hair.

One of my friends once described an Instagram picture of a girl showing off her unshaved armpits as “so disgusting.” I secretly cringed and hid under my long-sleeved shirt. When I told my boyfriend I decided to stop shaving he said, “ I mean, that’s pretty gross, but I guess I’ll get used to it.” When I’m with people to whom I haven’t given my spiel about my newfound attitude towards armpits, I feel ever so slight pangs of dread when I have to lift my arms. I feel that I somehow need to justify my choice to not shave because I’m worried I will be perceived as gross. It is particularly difficult to oppose the armpit norm because our culture views the removal of female body hair as equivalent to “good grooming.” This is the first time that I have consciously felt a societal pressure to regulate my body in a certain way. Why should I feel any anxiety when I want to hold the overhead rail on the subway?

E! recently published a piece on Girls actress Jemima Kirk’s latest red carpet appearance. It explains that she followed in Miley Cyrus’s footsteps as she showed off her underarm hair: “Our immediate reaction was still the same: cringe!” They note that her outfit “seemed like a sophisticated choice…until that unfortunate armpit pic surfaced.” Mirror, the online branch of U.K. newspaper the Daily Mirror observed in 2008, “The usually immaculate Beyoncé…[has] veritable bush sprouting from her left armpit.” Although these examples are hardly in the realm of hard news or academia, they are still good illustrations of the many molders of public perception – everyone has time to glance at the tabloids on line at the supermarket. But notice, when a man has visible armpit hair, he is rarely declared “cringe-worthy,” and generally no articles are written about how embarrassing it must be for him.

Hairlessness is part of the construction of the appropriately “feminine” woman. It is likely that body hair creates a distinct line between femininity and masculinity, as it’s a visible trait. Merran Toerien clarifies, in a paper titled “Gender and Body Hair, Constructing the Feminine Woman,” that “body hair may be understood both as a signal of (sexual) maturity, and as a symbol of masculine strength, the requirement for women to remove their hair may thus reflect the socio-cultural equation of femininity with a child-like status, passivity and a dependence on men.” I have no intention of accusing women who remove their body hair as having an innate reliance on men. Rather, it is likely that the male-female binary is where a woman’s desire to be hairless comes from. While the “armpit hair is grimy” misconception is perhaps superficially the result of shaving, there is in fact a subconscious, patriarchal reason behind it.

I take responsibility for this problem. Until very recently, I would have shamed any woman with armpit hair as being forgetful, or gross, or trying too hard to be punk, or lazy or plain dirty. Toerien illuminates this problem by explaining that, although it is “often trivialized…the hairlessness norm powerfully endorses the assumption that a woman’s body is unacceptable if unaltered.”

You know, I was told this is the oh-so-radical 21st century, but people are still shocked to see a “pretty girl who is so hairy.” You don’t have to stop shaving, but who cares if someone else wants to?

Tags: body hair, body politics, isobel van hagen, shameless

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