It was 1915 when Gillette first introduced a razor for women- but it wasn’t even close to the first time that women were encouraged to remove body hair. Centuries before, the Egyptians and the ladies of the Roman Empire were using all manner of methods and concoctions to rid themselves of body hair. Later on, the French, too, became known for a hair-free look. The Tudors of England took it to new extremes with hairline plucking to enhance the brow. Traditionally, it seems to have been the province of the wealthy and was often regarded as a sign of being high-class.
Nowadays, women in our culture regularly shave, wax, electronically zap or otherwise dispose of more body hair than you could shake a stick at and it’s a contentious issue on the feminist agenda. To remove or not to remove? In theory, I think either option is fine. I won’t lie though- I have found the sight of female body hair a bit confronting at times and I am hard-pressed to explain exactly why, but I think the society I was raised in and still live in is a big part of it. Porn culture dictates women should be mostly, if not completely, hairless from the neck down. Models and celebrities are rarely shown with body hair and when they are it’s controversial.
Actor Julia Roberts was photographed on the red carpet revealing unshaven underarms at the premiere of Notting Hill in 1999 and even as recently as this year it has been mocked in the media (yes, 15 years later they are still banging on about it), along with more recent instances of well known people committing the apparently excruciating social faux pas of not removing the hair under their arms. It’s a topic I’ve thought about for a while. I’ve shaved or waxed for years, since I was about 12 or 13. It seemed like a rite of passage; once I was old enough to shave I was at the next level of approaching adulthood. As a young teen, that is how I thought of it because, like many of my peers, I was absolutely desperate to grow up. At that age, it didn’t occur to me to question it.
I threw the topic out there on my facebook page- what do we think of female body hair? Most of those who responded were mostly fans of hair removal, a couple were not. Most cited personal preference but I can’t help wonder if the preference is not just a sign of social conditioning- after all- if you’ve been shaving or whatever from the minute you’ve “needed” to without trying not doing that- how do we know what we prefer? The pressure to be hair-free is not just an internalised one; it’s more than an expectation that we place on ourselves. A few friends mentioned instances of peer group pressure or shaming as teens.
“I started shaving my legs because of some comments made by someone in first year high school. But because my skin is very dry and very sensitive, I found pretty quickly that trying to keep up with it just left my legs a rashy mess (and moisturiser, more often than not, led to acne in addition to the rash. It looked awesome). On the one hand, peer pressure told me to do it. On the other hand, if I did, the result wasn’t pretty. It was pretty soul destroying as a teen. “
A male friend said he preferred as little body hair as possible on a woman and one of the reasons was that he sees such hairlessness as more womanly. I was struck by the irony there- pubic hair is essentially a sign of womanhood-yet keeping said hair where it is not seen as ‘womanly’. Body odour was also mentioned a few times, which I found interesting as men tend to be more prone to body odour because they have higher testosterone, which causes them to sweat more. Sweat itself doesn’t smell- the smell comes from the bacteria that thrive on sweat, ergo the more sweat, the more bacteria and therefore, the more odour. Yet I don’t know anyone who insists their male partner remove their underarm hair. I think body odour generally comes down to keeping clean. There really doesn’t seem to be any evidence that removing hair is more hygienic- yet that is a reason for hair removal I have heard on many occasions. I was somewhat inspired by a blog called The Hairy Legs Club– a body-positive collection of stories and photos celebrating the female limbs in all their natural glory. One picture stands out in my mind- a pair of legs liberally sprinkled with glittery sparkles. I spent a bit of time reading through the positive comments and looking at the pictures before I decided to try it. How else will I know what my preference actually is? I’m not really sure how it has happened, but as women, we are a pretty squeamish bunch about so many aspects of our own bodies. From uproar over tampon ads to women being shamed for breastfeeding to shaming others over fuzzy armpits, it’s a world gone mad. I even remember myself getting ready to see a boyfriend or go on a date and frantically shaving legs that had already seen the razor the day before because “What if he touches my leg and… feels stubble?!” These are our bodies. All shapes, all sizes. Doing what they do. You can shave, wax or pluck but you’re not fooling anyone, you know? We all grow hair. So why should it make any difference if you don’t remove it?
I’ve been a razor-free zone for a couple of months now. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it yet. I’m not a particularly hirsute person and no one, with the exception of my husband, has noticed. On reflection, that could also be because it’s winter. Either way, I’m going to keep trying it out a bit longer before I decide which way I’ll go. My friend Amy told me a little about the process she went through when she stopped removing hair. She recalls being stared at in public and experiencing negativity around her decision, but continued with it, realising on a conscious level that she had only ever shaved because she was expected to- not from any desire to do so herself.
“By coming to accept my body hair as just a normal part of me, the rest of my body has followed suit. I don’t see imperfections, things I’d like to change, or have any negative emotions when I look at my body now. It just exists as it is, and I find myself celebrating its uniqueness and triumphs”
Her point of view really appeals to me. Is it so wrong to refuse to conform to the expectations of a patriarchal society when it comes to my underarms? Does it matter that some people won’t like how my legs look? Why should the porn industry or current trends dictate what level of grooming takes place in my knickers? Isn’t it more important to accept my body and be comfortable with it?
Also linking with One Mother Hen for Open Slather