16 July 2010

she's one hairy son of a bitch

One hotly debated topic among some of the feminists I hang around with is none other than the removal of body hair.  OK, so it's not really hotly debated, but the subject does come up and is of particular importance to women who have only just realized their feminism, lesbianism, queerness, etc.  As soon as we hit puberty and that peach fuzz starts to darken, we are expected to remove it.  I remember being in sixth grade, begging my mom to let me shave.  She said, "Maybe in the spring when you start wearing shorts again."  My thoughts were, "HELLO, I still have to wear shorts in gym class!!!"  And every other eleven year old girl in my gym class was, indeed, hairless.  So I stole one of my older sister's disposable razors and shaved my legs.  Problem solved.  Fast forward eight years: college sophomore, lazy bones, winter time.  For me, shaving always took a hiatus during the winter because my legs were covered, so who cares.  When this spring rolled around and I packed my tights up with my winter clothes, I did shave my legs and pits maybe three or four times.  But after what was probably about a year and a half of philosophical thought pertaining to body hair, I decided to stop shaving for good.

But enough of my personal journey towards hairy legs and on with the debate!  Sometime last year I came across some postings in a facebook group about the subject by a couple of radical friends of mine.  Their argument against hair removal was basically that women have been historically pressured to remove their hair by men, that it was another "trapping of femininity."  They claimed that any feminist worth her salt simply had to maintain her body hair as a political statement against patriarchy.  This has been a rather gross generalization and exaggeration of their posts (which were already a couple years old by the time I read them), but I've gotten the impression that quite a number of more radical feminists actually do hold this view.  Their arguments didn't sit well with me as I felt (and still feel) that feminism is supposed to be about women (and men) having the right to make their own choices regarding, well, everything--and without any societal or political pressures.  Isn't the expectation not to shave your legs just as bad as the expectation to do it?  I think yes.  Men and women should be able to remove or maintain their body hair without judgement or ridicule.

 A lot of people I know very much understand and embrace this, but in wider society having hair is considered a masculine trait and smooth skin considered feminine.  For a long time I was accepting of body hair on women only if they were masculine and wasn't comfortable with the idea of hairy legs and a dress.  I quickly recognized the core of the problem and soon began working towards increasing my comfort level.  These days I'm throwing on sleeveless tops and shorts or skirts without a second thought about hair showing, but I'm still only at a point of associating hair with casual femininity and am not sure how I would feel if faced with a formal occasion.  I'll get there, I'm sure.

Distracted by my own personal journey, it took me until yesterday to wonder how the feminine/masculine associations came to be in the first place.  So of course, I looked it up on wikipedia.  Apparently women didn't think twice about body hair until around 1915 when the rising popularity of sleeveless dresses inspired a targeted advertising assault on armpit hair, claiming it was "unsightly."  As hemlines remained longer until the 40s and 50s, women didn't bother with their leg hair.  The popularity of shorter hemlines and the sheer nylons (under which hair looked "dorky") that came with them seem to be the top causes for the persisting expectation that womens' legs remain smooth.

Another thing I'm starting to notice is that these "trappings of femininity" we so often blame on patriarchy are perpetuated much more strongly by women!  Womens' magazines that tell us to remove our body hair and wear makeup to please men are run by women!  I personally find makeup to be kind of gross and body hair to be kind of hot (and I like women), so ladies: quit bringing eachother down!  Body hair can be feminine and beautiful.  Let's just all be.


  1. Yeah, I like shaving and makeup, but I also like boys, so take my opinions with a grain of salt. ;)

  2. Great post Julia! Is it just me or am I referenced in the title? hehe One thing I would point out is that although "trappings of femininity" may often be perpetuated by women, this occurs largely because of internalized oppression, and capitalism. I think a lot of women react negatively when other women act out of their assigned gender box because it makes them question their own actions--it's as if they feel challenged or something. When a woman who has never come in contact with another woman's body hair sees me all done up in a sun dress and heels, arm pits and legs just teeming with that lusciously healthy hair, it's like this big deal because I am doing something that she feels like she isn't allowed to do. And she isn't; we ladies aren't "allowed" to be feminine and have body hair. Well fuck that.
    Also, I get a sense from some women I come across who have a reaction to it (that they would probably never voice) that basically amounts to "it's not fair that you don't 'have' to shave and I do". I think that one is about competition. It's like, if I have body hair, I need to be frumpy and cover it up and be ashamed of it, because if I dare to dress up and look sexy and rock that shit like an accessory or something, I am not playing by the established rules of the game of femininity. And if I have a good-looking boyfriend at the time, that tops it off as officially "not fair". It's weird. And it's like if I don't shave and still claim femininity, I am somehow cheapening the idea of womanhood by making it less feminine.
    I remember when I met a girl who didn't shave for the first time. It was at a house show, and she was talking to me about it and I was just totally blown away because it hadn't really occurred to me that I could actually not shave and still exist. I'm sure the concept of not shaving had occurred to me, but to have someone standing in front of me, totally hairy, totally unapologetic, and totally badass--that just changed the game. So I think that's another reason women weigh in on this debate with so much more passion oftentimes; because they are personally affected by this issue so much more than men are. I mean when it comes down to it, what do men really care? They may have an investment in women being feminine, but they probably don't really care as much on an individual level about women's body hair. Whereas when a lot of women think that I think they shouldn't shave, just because I don't shave, men are just kind of like "huh" or "gross" or "cool" or "what?".

    Anyways...end rant. Thanks for posting about this, your writing style is easy to read and you got dat flow. And congrats on your body hair! I'm glad you're doing what you want to do, whatever that may be :)

  3. slightly off topic, but have you ever noticed that dad has like NO hair on his legs? that was always something i wondered about. a straightish male friend of mine actually shaves his legs and armpits because it makes him feel more attractive and comfortable. i'm pretty sure he's the only guy i know (other than swimmers or cyclists) who does that.


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