On body hair, that trivial beast

Cross-posted at The Filing Cabinet.

Recently I’ve been reading about body hair, on one of my favourite corners of the lady-internet, Already Pretty.

I don’t shave at all most of the time. This habit formed sometime at university. During the second year of my arts degree at the University of Newcastle, despite my avowed feminism, I still felt compelled to shave. I saw body hair on women as ugly, and ugly was (is) a powerful thing.

Then I started spending a lot of time with another activist. Let’s call her J. J wasn’t so much an outspoken feminist like me, but she was an amazing part of Newcastle’s environment movement, and a bit of a hippie. J was hairy, and she was beautiful.

I spent a lot of time with J, working on things we both cared about. After a while, I just couldn’t see body hair as ugly anymore, when she was so lovely in every way. I stopped shaving, and found I rather liked my underarm hair, despite the fact that I am very hairy, and dark-haired.

I realised shaving and hair-removal had taken an enormous amount of time, and cost me a lot of money. More importantly, it had always been painful, itchy and uncomfortable.

I came to be glad I had stopped shaving.

Nonetheless, I still find my hairy body a challenge sometimes, in how I dress and in how others perceive me.

Body hair is intimately connected to other aspects of bodily presentation. It impacts what I wear, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. I love art, I have a sometimes grudging love for fashion and clothes, and aesthetics remain important to me, and to how I engage with the world. Different clothing styles play differently with body hair – and since I love to play with aesthetics, I notice. I find that while body hair ‘goes’ with some things I wear, it’s jarring against some of the more vintage styles I like, which are otherwise comfortable and suited to my body type. Body hair seems to clash with the more ‘classic’ dresses I might wear to formal  occasions, like a friend’s wedding or farewell.

Photo by Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka

These styles and occasions are socially constructed as much as as my body hair or lack thereof. A 50s style dress on a body that isn’t playing by the rules of the traditionally feminine can be seen as ironic, and sometimes I’m ok with that. At other times I wish my body wasn’t a small-scale visual, stylistic and representational battleground

To say my body’s appearance and indeed, my body, is socially constructed, isn’t a dismissal of the power of the constraints on women’s bodies I’m discussing. As Stephen White (1) puts it, what could be more powerful than social construction? We are all social animals.

My body hair can be an affront to others without me saying a word. Sometimes other women look at me with distaste in the gym. Woman on woman misogyny is very real when it comes to appearance.

At least two of my more serious partners, while not daring to tell me to shave (cue fear of my feminist outrage!) have used their ‘preference’ and social pressure to indicate disapproval. What to do, what to do? I try not to blame myself in these situations, for whatever choice I make (hypocrisy be damned if you want or need to remove hair – feminism teaches us our bodies are our own!). But for all options there are costs, however minor. As I said, it’s physically painful for me to shave, quite apart from how torn it makes me feel.

I think that even though it’s popular to believe we have agency on the body choices front, women’s bodies and body hair are powerfully socially disciplined and constrained. I do have agency when it comes to my body, clearly, as do you. Yet my preferences and those of others are shaped by beauty norms and the beauty industry, an industry that under capitalism needs to sell us stuff to make a profit. This is a powerful motivation to keep people unhappy with their bodies. So I have a constrained agency, and there are social costs for my ‘choices’ not to shave.

That my agency is constrained is the case for me even though my body is privileged in a lot of ways – white, buxom, medium weight, cisgendered. As a white woman, I can be seen as ugly or angry or making a statement if I don’t shave. If I were not white, I might be seen as representative of a ‘people’ who are ‘naturally’ ugly or dirty. For trans women, body hair might be seen as validation of the notion that they are not real woman. The threat of violence in this case is never far away.

One thing I think we can do as feminists, is take responsibility for not shaming other people for their choices about their bodies. This is especially important if we are in a position of looking like the ‘norm’ or are otherwise privileged. Those odd looks and judgements about my body hair are responses I could do without.

I have questions unanswered.

How are feelings about body hair influenced by different social scenes and identities?

What is it like for YOU being feminist and negotiating your body hair?

Hair, elsewhere: Hair/VeilAll locked up, Body hair revisited, There’s a DMZ in my knickers, Quick Question.

(1) White, Stephen K. “As the World Turns: Ontology and Politics in Judith Butler.” Polity 32, no. 2 (December 1, 1999): 155–177.

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Comments
14 Responses to “On body hair, that trivial beast”
  1. I am 40 years old. When I was in university I stopped shaving, and didn’t start up again until a few years later. I had stopped shaving because I had gone on 2 mission-type trips where there was barely any water for bathing, never mind shaving. I discovered that I really, really liked my body-hair. It feels incredible when you are walking down the street in shorts, with the wind blowing through your leg-hairs. I went back to shaving just because I felt like it. Now, the hair on my head is super-short (it used to be very long and wild), so shaving and epilating just seems to work better for this “look”.

  2. lilithrose76 says:

    I know those looks of horror well when you raise your arm in public. Now i shave when i want and don’t when i don’t want to, depending on how i feel, what i’m wearing and what the weathers like, it’s our choice. Talkin underarms and legs here, i would never shave my punani 🙂 but again all personal choice

  3. Jo says:

    This is a wonderful post, thanks for sharing! I personally gave very little thought to shaving until I was about 16, and even then only bothered shaving my legs for a few years. Now I just can’t be bothered. That said, I am blonde and therefore have leg-hair privilege.

    I do however shave my armpits, mostly because I sweat a lot and live in a hot country and bike around a lot. Hair just makes me even more stinky, and I prefer using natural deodourant which isn’t always as completely-eradicating-smell effective as commercial, chemical-laden stuff. That said I only bother shaving every week or five days or something, so it’s not like I freak out if I have armpit stubble. 🙂

  4. Chelsea says:

    My two kick-arse feminist older sisters didn’t shave their legs or armpits when they were younger which had quite an effect on me. Admittedly I may have teased them for this when I was growing up but like you said preferences are shaped by the beauty industry and beauty norms (and I was possibly a little immature). I eventually stopped shaving my legs when I was 17 which took me a while to get used to and I was paranoid everyone noticed. Nowadays I don’t give a shit however in the past year I have experimented with not shaving my armpits and the looks, oh the looks. Occasionally I cave in and shave but other times I relish having armpit hair. It’s a very complicated thing and I don’t believe women really have meaningful choices when it comes to what they do with their body hair.

  5. Hey Chelsea, Jo, Lilith and Perceptionoverjudgement, all so interesting! Glad to know there are others out there who have thought/ acted on this.
    Chelsea, your sisters sound awesome. Wish I had some of that action. On the choices thing – I guess it depends what you think of as meaningful. To me it was meaningful to realise I didn’t have to shave cos it hurts and takes up my time! Also, I think that it can be meaningful for others (in a small way) if members of our various communities don’t shave because it shows others what’s possible (as with J). On the other hand I agree that unless it’s really wide-spread and co-ordinated consumer boycotts, of shaving products for example, aren’t that meaningful.

  6. ollie says:

    I haven’t shaved anything for over two years. It took a while to get used to – I was self conscious in some spaces, whilst wearing certain garments – but now it feels so normal that I don’t even think about it. Nobody comments on it, and I like to catch people’s eyes after I see them staring at my legs – on the tube, for example – and give them a little smirk, like ‘yeah? and?’ Seriously, best thing I ever did 🙂

    • O my god, that article is hilarious. I love the last para:
      Remember that you are doing the necessary and important work of challenging stupid, arbitrary, gendered bullshit. And when you get to feminist heaven, Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir will be waiting with bubbly wine, a corn-fed organic roast chicken, Bikini Kill and the entire cast of Monty Python. Do you want to miss that party?

  7. Anon says:

    Hi Meg,
    Thankyou for this great post (and for your work on this great site!). I do shave my armpits, and sometimes my legs, mainly because I’m a wuss. I justify it, to myself, too, because I like to wear sleeveless shirts to work, and, as a young-ish woman in a field where most of the senior people are men, I try to look conservatively professional. (Ironically, of course, this means dressing more formally than some of those senior men…)

    But, I feel very guilty about it – fundamentally, I’m reinforcing misogynistic standards. I don’t intellectually agree with them, but I still feel the tug of that social/cultural aesthetic. So, when I see someone who doesn’t shave (or whatever), I’m silently cheering for the awesome feminists who I am too chicken to emulate.

    (Apologies for the long comment.)

    • Anon says:

      Thinking back, I realise that it sounds like I think any hair removal is bad or un-feminist. What I meant, but didn’t say clearly, is that it’s not really something I would freely choose – the reasons *I* do it don’t fit with my feminism.

    • Anon says:

      Thinking about it, I’ve realised that my comment probably sounds like I disapprove of hair removal. What I meant is just that it’s not something I feel I choose freely – and the reasons *I* do it are at odds with my feminism.

    • Love a long (thoughtful) comment! Thanks for your thoughts.
      This reflection on choice and ‘free choice’ is so interesting, because of course our environments affect/ shape/ produce us (depending what social theorist you’re into). We’re shaped by our economic environment too – working in certain fields because we have to work in certain (gendered) socially acceptable ways. There’s also the strategic factor though – you are strategically enabling your career and no doubt pushing boundaries where possible.

      I think queer people face this policing of appearance often, and it’s another spot for solidarity on the queer-feminist front – but I’m not sure what the practicalities are. Perhaps the de-stigmatising of femininity as more than it applies to simply cis women – so including feminine males, trans*women, and destigmatising emotionality etc. We’ll sort that out over lunch, I’m sure.

      Thanks again 🙂

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