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Body Hair 

My body has not always felt as if it was my own. For most of my life, it has felt as if it belonged, at least partly, to men.

One year during high school, the boys in my class made fun of the hair on my arms. I already felt nervous and ugly around boys. Forgetting to shave my legs, not bothering to shave above my knees, and having hair on my arms and on my stomach (where most of the other girls seemed not to), induced a sense of guilt. I felt as if it was my responsibility to make myself physically attractive to heterosexual and bisexual men, according to the Western beauty standards that had been drilled into me for as long as I could remember. I felt as if my body hair was my fault – that I wasn’t ‘feminine’ enough to please men and it was my duty to fix that. I needed to fit into the arguably prepubescent image of ‘acceptable femininity’ (1) that has been fed to men through the media since 1930s advertising campaigns for flapper dresses and other more ‘revealing’ styles began to show female models sans underarm and leg hair. (2)

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As Aisha Mirza (3) points out, according to Western customs, women’s body hair has come to be seen as ‘a weed that is pulled from [our] bodies systematically and without question… policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame’. In Mirza’s research she found that women of colour and working-class women were monitored more harshly by their families with regards to their body hair, and that the ‘social penalties’ they faced as a result of growing out their hair were greatly magnified in comparison to those faced by ‘white or middle/upper class women’. ‘Women of colour often expressed that body hair exacerbated their “differentness” from white or middle/upper-class women’. This sense of ‘difference’ was heightened further if they were also queer as well as being women of colour and/or working-class – non-heterosexual women ‘are often encouraged to pass as heterosexual to escape workplace discrimination, violence, and negative judgments’ (4). The failure to remove body hair, for a woman, is read by many as a presentation of queerness in terms of sexual orientation, according to Western stereotypes regarding the performance of gender by hetero and homosexual women. 

I am a white, cis-gendered, middle-class woman. Therefore, my personal experiences with body hair cannot encompass the multitude of experiences had by people whose identities are different from mine. I consulted a couple of friends, both of whom are non-binary people of colour.

One of the friends I spoke to identifies as a FAAB and a non-binary person who ‘used to feel that body hair was an important way to present more “androgynously”’ – and therefore, they grew out their body hair at one point. This garnered predominantly ‘negative’ reactions. They started shaving about a year ago for a number of reasons, one of which was to appear ‘“professional”’ as a doctor in the eyes of the general public. They noted that ‘professional’ is generally equated with ‘the norm’, and that while they feel that it is important to challenge social norms, ‘it was more important to me to let patients feel comfortable with me’. ‘I believe that by improving the health of marginalised people, I’m contributing positive changes in the world as a form of my own activism. Also, there are various other ways I can support activism. I feel that even my existence as a non-binary queer person in medical school could challenge certain cultural norms’. With regards to feminist theory’s advocacy for choice, they added, ‘It might sound paradoxical but I chose on my own will to accept societal pressures, to protect myself, to lessen my anxiety. I’m not perpetuating these pressures, I’m simply individually accepting [them] into my life’.

When I told my mum about my decision to stop shaving, she was mainly concerned because I already struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem, and she felt that failing to adhere to this seemingly trivial yet powerful social norm would make it even harder for me to gain confidence. She has also told me in the past that shaving is seen as part of ‘making an effort’ with my appearance. This seems to be linked to the idea of women’s body hair as ‘dirty’, and of its removal as a cleaning ritual. Foucault (as referenced by Mirza) posits that female shaving has ‘come… to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations – or racial ones’.

For women of colour, Mirza adds, the idea of dirtiness can extend to the darkness of one’s skin. Pakistani activist Sabah Choudrey is a transgender male who recounts his earlier experiences as a ‘hairy brown girl’ (5) living in the U.K. For Choudrey, the Western beauty standards and ‘male gaze’ were especially harsh – the demand seemed to be to ‘return to a pre-pubescent female body, and lighten your skin while you’re at it’. Choudrey’s relationship with his body hair once he realised his identity as a transgender male did not miraculously become an easier one. Rather, now, Choudrey had to deal with Western society’s ‘demonis[ation]’ (6) of ‘hairy brown men’ – specifically, of Muslim men. In a similar vein, the other friend I consulted mentioned that because East Asian men tend to have less body hair than white men, East Asian men are considered to be ‘less masculine’. This prejudice would be intensified even further for East Asian transgender men.

This friend also spoke about transgender women being policed for or for not shaving. Outside of feminist circles, they explained, transgender women sometimes choose to shave in order to ‘pass’ more effectively and thereby to avoid violence as well as to be read as feminine. Whereas within feminist circles, a woman’s decision to not shave is sometimes praised.

However, this is not the case in wider society. One of my co-workers exclaimed, “You’re so hairy, why don’t you shave?” and when I gave an abridged version of an explanation, she dismissed this with, “Oh well, maybe some men are into that,” which not only denied the possibility of me being anything other than heterosexual, but also put the locus of social power back into men’s hands. Why should men’s desires take precedence over my own? I’ve also been asked, “But what if a future sexual partner would prefer you to shave?” This suggests that the feelings of a potential partner about my body would be more important than my own feelings. Such a sentiment aligns with Western ways of teaching women to always put others before themselves, and to be gentle and accommodating. As Fahs observes, ‘women do gender… and… body work’ partly to ‘manage the anxieties and expectations of others’. (7)

I’ve been warned that one day I might have the kind of job that will require me to shave in order to appear ‘professional’, and to make others feel ‘comfortable’. I just wonder why infantilising women and reinforcing patriarchal beauty standards are a part of  ‘professionalism’? My choices about my own body and my own self-presentation are private, personal choices. (That said, maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe one day I will have to sacrifice this part of my autonomy in order to make a living).

After all those years of feeling like I wasn’t attractive enough, struggling to fit into the normative category of a woman, I am taking control of my own appearance. Even when I did shave my legs and armpits, and used hair removal cream on my stomach, I wasn’t removing enough hair, and I wasn’t smooth enough to satisfy a man. Cultivating such a feeling is a system of control that keeps cosmetic industries, in tandem with advertising agencies, working away at women’s self-esteem. I don’t buy into it – literally and figuratively.

Rhianna Lennox

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  1. Toerien, Merran, Sue Wilkinson, and Precilla Y.L. Choi. “Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity.” Sex Roles 52, 5/6 (2005): 399.

  2. Fahs, Breanne. “Dreaded ‘Otherness’: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” Gender & Society 25, 4 (2011): 453.

  3. Mirza, Aisha. “Women of Colour and Body Hair.” Young, Colored & Angry. Accessed February 10, 2016. http://www.youngcoloredandangry.com/womenofcolourbodyhair/

  4. Fahs, Breanne. “Dreaded ‘Otherness’: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” 452.

  5. Choudrey, Sabah. “I Was A Hairy Brown Girl; There Was Nothing Wrong With Me Then and There Is Nothing Wrong With Me Now.” xojane. Accessed February 12, 2016. http://www.xojane.com/issues/i-was-a-hairy-brown-girlthere-was-nothing-wrong-with-me-then-and-there-is-nothing-wrong-with-me-now

  6. Choudrey, Sabah. “I Am A Hairy Brown Man; Do You See A Terrorist When You Look At Me?” xojane. Accessed February 12, 2016. http://www.xojane.com/healthy/i-am-a-hairy-brown-man-do-you-see-a-terrorist-when-you-look-at-me

  7. Fahs, Breanne. “Dreaded ‘Otherness’: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions.” 452.

 

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1 Comment

  1. sam dollimore says

    I totally get where you’re coming from with making a conscious decision to not shave. I’d like to think that maybe one day, far into the future, our media and pop culture might be diverse enough to make it so that not shaving doesn’t have to be a political or gender/sexual-identifying decision (actually who am I kidding, I don’t believe that’s ever going to happen – but it’s a nice dream). As it is, at this point that’s what it’s seen as, regardless of the actual reasons behind it. Personally, I quite like body hair, and I hate what shaving does to my skin, and stubble is just about the worst thing ever, except for maybe ingrown hairs. I’ve spent quite a few years of my post-pubescent life not shaving. I love the look and feel of armpit hair, on myself and others, and it gives me a nice little buzz whenever I meet a woman with body hair. These days I mostly shave my legs and leave my furry little armpit friends alone, but every now and then I have a shittier-than-normal day when I “cave and shave”, just so I can feel like I’m slightly less disgusting to the general public. Sometimes I shave because I’m going out with my male partner and his friends and I wonder if he might secretly feel ashamed of having a wife with unconventional amounts of body hair. Sometimes I shave because I know he’s unavoidably influenced by the same convention of beauty I was, and he finds shaven women more attractive than unshaven ones. Sometimes I shave because I don’t want to have to deal with one more dude noticing my armpit hair and asking me what I think about the state of feminism today, and because I’m honestly not sure what I’d say if he did.
    Here’s the thing that bums me out the most: I do see change in the wind, but along with it I smell bullshit. Recently I’ve seen a number of celebrity pics with armpit hair (Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Madonna for e.g.), plus the occasional article entitled “armpit hair is the latest trend for women!” or similar. What a load of crap. The only woman who can flash her armpit hair and get the thumbs up from the critical masses is a super-hot, thin, and otherwise flawless one. Like, that’s nice for them, that they made a celebrity statement using their celebrity platform and everything, but how about going to the red carpet without makeup, dieting, or plastic surgery? Dieting yourself to screen-standard thinness and plucking every single other bit of body hair (except for your head and eyes onto which you add extra), and generally piling on as many “hot” techniques as possible in order to be able to proudly display your armpit hair as if to say “See? Still hot, even with armpit hair!”… well it’s not doing it for me. I read this CNN article that used the phrase “free to be hairy”; that’s utter bollocks. We’re no less free to be hairy than we ever have been, because we’re still not free to look how we actually look and not feel ashamed of it.

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