Blog Series

Reconsidering the Razor

December 22nd, 2015     by Annabelle Vine     Comments

Illustration by Annabelle Vine

My personal journey with body hair begins with the understanding that I’ve historically had difficulties developing habits consciously. I’ve learned that for any positive life change to be successful, it has to be free and loose, because any strict planning falls apart. When I was younger, the habits were more likely to be creative endeavours. I was going to be the ten-year-old whiz kid who wrote a novel, and I was going to write everyday until that happened. I probably wrote for a few days, but none of these forays lasted more than a week.

Then puberty hit, and all of a sudden I felt immense pressure to keep up with my appearance and the habits changed accordingly. Creative endeavours morphed into ways to lose weight and look pretty. Not that that was all I was thinking about; I was getting a little more radical and anti-authoritative in other parts of my life. But when it came to my appearance, I was in a socialized wormhole I couldn’t see out of. My mind was a jumble of guilt and shame for not being a creature of habit, or doing what I saw as “grooming oneself properly.”

But this article is not about all aspects of one’s appearance. We’re talking body hair. I’m naturally dark haired, but I also happen to have been diagnosed at 14 with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). Although eating an organic, high protein, no sugar diet has improved my health greatly and may make the symptoms recede in future, that lifestyle is still relatively new for me and the effects of PCOS still affect my life.

The symptoms challenge the concept of what it means to be female. Ovarian cysts are part of the name, but more importantly for me, it causes an endocrine imbalance. I have higher levels of “male” hormones, called androgens – and in particular, testosterone – than I should. I don’t get my period (a condition known as amenhorrea) and haven’t had it naturally for several years. Although I’m lucky enough not to have cysts, I do have some of the other tells, including hirsutism, the condition of having abnormal hair growth. Because men can be bear-like and considered natural and women are supposedly sleek hairless beings, the “abnormal hair growth” we’re talking about mostly applies to women. For me, this manifests itself in some low-key hobbit feet, darker than usual knuckle hair and some facial hair. Body hair was another area in my life where I felt constant upkeep was necessary.

One day when I was 15, in a warm, foggy, post-shower stupor, I wondered what I would do if I was stranded on a desert island without depilation supplies. If people asked me what I would bring, would I really waste a precious choice on a razor? Clutching my towel around me I realized that even if I had a razor, it wouldn’t be sustainable. Surely it would be dull after a week. I had never let the hair on my face or legs or pits grow out, so in my head I pictured a raucous scene of a she-bear dancing around on the beach to her favourite record, reading her favourite books, but with no access to razors! I laughed it off, knowing that my whole 15 years I had lived within a half a mile of a pharmacy and I would never be without a store nearby to buy my razors.

Fast forward to two years after college. My boyfriend and I moved from our conservative, mostly, Catholic hometowns to a very liberal, female-friendly, area. I worked with sixth graders, and after a few years, I started to notice something that, being almost the youngest in my family, had passed me by. In the beginning of sixth grade, most of the girls had hair on their legs. But by June, multiple years in a row, almost none of the girls had hair anymore. Although they were doing exactly what I did, shaving their legs, it made me sad to see that change in them. I saw the beginnings of social shame and bodily control.

That realization spurred some introspection, and it began to make me sad when I felt I needed to shave. It suddenly seemed ludicrous that I felt comfortable going out in public in the summer only if I took a razor to my skin. I decided to swear off shaving my legs and my armpits. I would let them grow out and another piece of my personal feminism would take its place in the pantheon of my life choices. I’m lucky to live in such an area where this personal statement wouldn’t be a dangerous one, but I was still unsure of how it would unfold.

When the hair started growing, I expected to be embarrassed by the armpit hair that and the leg hair would be fine. I found the opposite to be true. I love my armpit hair. It’s long and soft and I think it feels nice. My leg hair, on the other hand, was spotty and wiry and dark and I just hated it! But I kept it for a while. If I really believed that women’s body hair was natural and good, I should keep it, but my insides would writhe every time I looked down. I was struggling. Were the proverbial “they” correct that the reason women get rid of their body hair really is because it is innately disgusting? It went against everything I stood for.

When I think about it, I know the ick factor surrounding women and their body hair is absolutely manufactured. Female body hair always existed, so when did the attitude switcheroo occur? When did it become unnatural, and to some, unclean? I was sitting on a couch at a family party, reclining with my elbow up. My boyfriend’s five-year-old niece was sitting next to me and told me to put my arm down after looking at my armpit for a few too many seconds. The doubts came racing back. Was I just doing it to be political? She’s five; maybe her disgust came from a natural place, that women having armpit hair is icky and I’m fooling myself. But no, five is old enough, and that’s how early socialization and body control can start. She won’t develop armpit hair for years, but she already knows society’s grooming expectations.

In the few years since I mostly swore off the razor, I’ve gotten a little kinder to the hair on my legs, mostly due to forgetting to buy razors (told you, I’m not a creature of “practical” habits). I’ve grown out my hair a few times since my initial experiment. My leg hair and I are on okay terms now. The writhing feeling is gone but I still prefer my legs to be smooth. I still choose to get rid of my facial hair and am not sure if that will ever change. My hair journey has been part of a larger journey of self-acceptance for me, and I sometimes think that not liking my leg hair is just another excuse I was taught to make me dislike myself, created by a patriarchal need to create vulnerability to wield control. I struggle with that thought.

Each time my hand reaches for that razor, I wonder if I’m doing myself a personal disservice by depilation. Is shaving my legs and facial hair just a distraction from why I’m uncomfortable with my hairiness, or maybe why I’m uncomfortable with myself? I try to remember that I’m still on the journey to self-acceptance and my progress does not need to be instantaneous. Maybe one day the comfort I feel with my armpit hair will translate to my legs, and eventually to my face, but until then, I’ll keep critically engaging with my razor and try to let the worries go.

Get our alternative beauty issue on stands January 2016.

Tags: annabelle vine, body hair, body politics, shameless

« We Can’t Afford to Be Sick: Chronic Illness and Poverty

The “Spring” of Women’s Movements in Brazil »