Not long ago, a friend of mine threw a party to celebrate her birthday. The living room dance floor was already buzzing when I got there. Hips were shaken, heads wiggled, arms enthusiastically thrown up in the air to the tunes of a more or less decent pop repertoire. It was there that my eyes caught something in passing. Something dark, something fuzzy, something in the armpit of a woman that made my brain send me the information: you’re seeing something unfamiliar, look again! And so I did. The woman had grown out her armpit hair, and that was all really.
Decades of tendentious media representation have taught us that hair on women’s bodies is something undesirable and, if ever talked about, a problem that needs taking care of. Needless to say, the beauty industry is doing its best in earning the largest share in combating this ‘problem.’ Therefore, hairy women bodies are a rare and hence unfamiliar sight for our perceived reality. Up until now, adverts for depilatory products have showed us smooth legs being unnecessarily stripped off invisible hair. But a recent ad of an American brand has been praised for making room for women that actually have body hair before they shave it and for presenting body hair removal as a free choice. So are times finally changing?
The commercial’s suggestion that it’s a personal and free decision for women to shave or not to shave their body hair, is in reality not an easy choice to make. I don’t remember being told or encouraged by anyone to shave my legs or my armpits, it just happened and seemed the natural thing to do. A system of social reward and punishment makes body hair removal a naturalised practice and compulsory for women in order to confirm cultural norms and beauty standards. Deviating from it can influence your career and private life and makes you a target for bullying and harassment by friends and strangers alike. Arvida Byström, who works as a model, received rape threats after posing with hairy legs in an Adidas campaign! Still, the majority including myself, construct their body hair removal as a personal and free choice. We have internalised the neoliberal idea of body hair removal as an option of positive self-modification rather than it being a societal practice that regulates our bodies within a patriarchal system, measuring a woman’s worth ever so often in how much she is liked by men.
I remember drawing a test area on my leg with a sharpie pen that I didn’t shave in my last year of school because I wanted to see how my leg hair looks like. After a week or so, a party was coming up where I would potentially engage with boys in one way or another and the test phase came to a rapid end. I felt like smooth legs were a necessity for that occasion. Actually, I haven’t thought about this in ages. But I know that I have always convinced myself that I am only shaving because I personally like it better. Reflecting on this now, I can say with certainty that I was lying to myself and that I had never really thought about why I might prefer hairless women bodies. So seeing public debates, projects and art that is engaging with the constraints about women’s body hair feels important and liberating.
Januhairy is a campaign that encourages women to grow out their body hair during January to raise money for the charity Body Gossip, which promotes body positivity through art and education. Apart from the usual haters, the campaign receives a lot of positive feedback and together with pop stars like Miley Cyrus growing and dyeing her armpit hair pink is normalising the presence of hairy women. While this is a positive development, it is important to keep in mind that the experience of presenting hairy body parts is influenced by social categorisations such as race, class and gender.
Breanne Fahs from Arizona State University did a classroom exercise, asking students presenting as women to grow out their body hair and vice versa. Women of colour and women with low socio-economic backgrounds reported far more social penalties then white and upper-middle class women. One student who stopped the exercise reported how she had to face increased discrimination. ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’
Artworks picking up the intersecting social implications of what it can mean for different women to present themselves with body hair is contributing to widening the conversation. Ayqa Khan is a Pakistani American artist who depicts women of colour with body hair in her digital illustrations. ‘I think many people have a very similar story in regards to growing up with more body hair than their peers. Lots of teasing and ridicule lead to deep insecurities and identity complexes’ Khan explained The Creators Project. Positive representations of controversial and silenced topics help to normalise what seems unusual to us. Even though the public discussion about women’s body hair is growing and increasingly positive (fuck off Piers Morgan!), it stands out that the debates are usually talking about armpit and pubic hair, sometimes leg hair. Other spots where women, just like men are growing hair are still a taboo. Sally Hewett is an embroidery artist who depicts hairy nipples and butt cracks, hairy bellies and upper lips and much more in her artwork.
Sally Hewett asks: ‘Are some characteristics of bodies inherently beautiful, or ugly, or disgusting? Or because we see everything through the veil of culture, fashion and convention is it almost impossible for us to see bodies objectively?’
It made me feel quite uncomfortable when I realised two or three years ago that I had never seen my armpit or pubic hair grown out fully nor my adult leg hair. How could I make the choice to remove my body hair without ever really thinking about it? And I don’t necessarily mean the first time I decided to shave when I was a teenager and peer pressure was immense, but further down the line, when I had learned about patriarchy and the systemic suppression of women. Growing my armpit hair out was an experience full of impatience (wow it takes very long to grow out that little bit of hair), shame, silliness and empowerment. I remember the first time I embraced my new hairs by raising my arms while dancing at a club. I don’t think anyone saw it or cared about my little brown fluff but for me it was a moment of self-empowerment that made me feel strong, reminding me that I didn’t need to be smooth like a baby to maintain my womanhood. When I saw the woman at my friend’s party who had, as my cognitive filters kindly made me aware, something unusual about her, it made me feel connected with her right away. I felt allied against restrictive social norms and out-dated cultural practices against a patriarchal system that strives to control our bodies.
To be fair, it’s quite hard to unlearn internalised cultural norms and beauty standards and there is not one right way to think and feel about our body hairs. So, to shave, or not to shave is not really the question. It’s the time for everyone to accept the diversity of women and the ways they like to present their bodies. Long story short, when it comes to women’s body hair, celebrate – not discipline!