The Conundrum of Body Hair

1933 ad for underarm-specific razor with curves, which I can’t believe isn’t a thing now.

 

It’s skirt season again (my favorite), which means the body-hair feminist conundrum is cropping up again. I shave year-round, and at this point I don’t particularly examine the “why” behind it anymore. But it’s a loaded topic, and for good reason: The traditional feminist arguments in favor of performing beauty work fall flat when applied to depilation. It has little to do with fantasy, play, or self-expression; it’s expensive, occasionally painful, a time-suck, and just sort of a pain in the ass (actually, it’s a pain somewhere else). Sally successfully argues for the role of confidence in deciding to depilate—certainly that’s why I do it, more on that below—but in reading comments it struck me how loaded the whole body hair thing really is. And in some ways the answer is obvious, but I still have to ask: Why?

People have been manipulating their body hair for centuries; an excavation of a Sumerian tomb dating from 3500 BC contained tweezers, and there’s evidence of techniques like sugaring (still used today) and quicklime depilation going back just as far. But pit shaving as we know it came about after a Harper’s Bazaar ad campaign in 1915 started up with ye olde pit shame. The idea was, of course, to sell depilation products, but it was also a way of managing the fact that women were now showing more skin than they ever had. If pits were now shown, pits must now be problematized, and if pit-showing meant that women were beginning to think that maybe they didn’t need to be managed in every facet of their life, well, we’d better come up with a way to make sure they had to manage them pits, eh? (We see something similar now with Dove’s “Your Armpits Are Naaaasty, Girl” ads for their armpit-beautifying deodorant.) Leg shaving followed, after an uncertain era of fluctuating hemlines, and as for pubic hair—well, that’s another post altogether.

So I get that body hair policing is a way of adding onto the list of mandated beauty work, and I get that there are certain connotations of youth—dangerous youth, prepubescent youth—that make depilation particularly troublesome from a feminist perspective. But when you think about it, isn’t the whole thing…weird? I mean, most adults are attracted to other adults, not to children; hair growth should be all rights be a symbol of mature adult womanhood. Body hair should be a sign of sex, or at least sexual readiness, the same way evolutionary psychologists want to trot out our cultural fascination with breasts as being about our animal instincts.

Yet unlike breasts and hips and plumped-out lips and breath voices, body hair remains verboten for women because it breaks the ultimate taboo: gender. In my conversations with various women about what beauty work they conceal from partners, by far the number-one item done behind closed doors only is depilation. We’ll let partners see us in goofy face masks, but to let them see us plucking a stray hair—especially if that hair is in a place other than the legs or pits, like, say, the chest or toes—seems a step too far. It’s like admitting that sometimes hair grows on our toes is just a step too masculine, a threat to the status quo, even if that status quo is within a relationship of equals. Body hair contains a threat, and in fact maybe it’s a combination of its embedded masculinity and its embedded female maturity that makes it such. Body hair is thriving proof that gender isn’t entirely binary (testosterone prompts its growth), and it’s also proof that women’s sexual characteristics aren’t limited to just the curves that make such nice statues.

All this is nice rhetoric, but where does that leave us? Well, in going to the post that prompted this one: It leaves us ambivalent. Like Sally, I feel much better when I’m depilated according to my own standards (which, in my case, are legs, pits, and a very literal bikini line, as in everything that would show in a bikini), but I also see, as Sally puts it, the “baggage and hypocrisy” that surrounds it. And I hear the argument about how nothing will change about beauty standards unless we actively challenge them…and then I think about picking my battles, and how this isn’t a battle I’m willing to spend energy on. In fact, it’s a battle that has actually wound up giving me energy once I’ve withdrawn: When I was struggling with a particularly bad bout of depression, I realized that part of feeling so gross on a day-to-day level was that I hated feeling stubble on my legs from not shaving daily. I could either spend even more energy than I already do trying to deconstruct the relationship between stubble and “gross,” or I could just fucking shave my legs and spend my energy—energy I would not have were I to stay in a depressive mode—thinking about the larger picture. Shaving my legs didn’t cure my depression. But it was one of many small things I did to take care of myself, and the more I take care of myself in the small ways, the better I’m able to take care of myself in the big ways, and the better I’m able to care for those around me and give my best self to the world.

There’s also an argument about feminism and body hair that gets lost. It’s actually a non-argument, and it’s this: I’ve never personally known a feminist who has refused to shave her legs or pits because of her politics. I’ve known plenty of women who don’t do it because they don’t like the act of it, or they have sensitive skin, and I suppose the refusal to participate for those reasons is to some degree political. Point is: There are probably plenty of hairy-legged feminists out there, but in my entire 35 years as a feminist (okay, okay, 34, there was that one year in junior high where I really wanted to fit in), I’ve never met one. (That is, I’ve never known that I’ve known one. And while I could count Rebekah’s Body Hair Laissez-Faire month, I get off on a technicality because it was just a month. It’s not even really a technicality because the point was to examine these issues, not reject them wholesale, so, hey!)

So while body hair has political implications, I suspect that the caricature of the “hairy-legged feminist” is actually more responsible for the intense feelings surrounding body hair than the actual politics of the stuff. (Look at the intense discussion on the three posts Sally has done on the topic for proof of how provocative the topic can be.) I think conversations about body hair are absolutely worth having (in addition to Rebekah’s series and Sally’s work, I also recently enjoyed this piece on how skipping the pit-shaving actually wasn’t an identity act for Kate Conway). I just want to make sure we’re not being “bra-burned” into imbuing it with an importance it might not need to have—and I want to make just as sure that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s some sort of post-Beauty Myth “but it’s for me!” act. Yes, it’s for me; my boyfriend couldn’t care less. But I know full well that I wouldn’t have dreamed this up—this irritating, time-consuming, and occasionally bloody act—on my own.