Friday, June 29, 2012

A total and hairy non-issue

The whole point of me setting up this blog (okay, one of the many points, but that doesn't rant as smoothly) was to attempt to discuss some rather hard-hitting feminist issues from my perspective. So this post being about body hair really seems rather inane. But I admit to having a bit of a fondness for this topic and therefore will be discussing this rather fluffy issue, just for the hell of it. I promise to include a bit of "smash the system" just so you know I haven't been hacked.

This week, my attention was drawn back to the question of hairy scary women after reading this article. It seems young Irish PhD student Emer O'Toole has been causing quite the scandal in the UK media after ditching her razor in a frenzied fit of feminism and then proudly showing off her hairy pits on national television. I loved it! I didn't just love Emer's defiance and resolve, I loved the fact that people felt the need to take to social media and have a good old chin wag about the "issue" to the point of where Emer managed to get an 80% disapproval rating for her pits. Helpful comments on the original article included "YUK !!! If her 'pits look like that I'd hate to see her lady bits", and "Depends what you mean by acceptable. No time soon is it going to be accepted as being attractive. Since the dawn of time body hair on a woman is perceived as unattractive". Clearly Emer stirred up a bit of a hornets' nest here, but if you ask me, it's pretty damn sad that she was able to.

My own personal journey with depilating is probably similar to other women, particularly in western countries. I had grown up noticing my mother shave her legs, and seeing women with smooth legs on TV and all around me, and at what is probably a ridiculously young age (about 8) I deemed my own legs too hairy and shaved them for the first time. I cut them to bits with Dad's rusty old Gillette Blue 2, and didn't try that again for another year or so. I'd call my "need" to shave an "unconscious social intervention" as it was based on observation and "normalising messages" hitting me from a very young age. But what was a completely conscious one was when mum took me aside at about 11 or 12 and showed me how to shave my armpits. From that point onwards, I was paranoid of raising my arm if I hadn't shaved. It wasn't mum's fault as nearly every girl in my school seemed to be in the same boat, if not then, then over the coming years.

It was when I was about 16, coincidentally when I first declared myself a "feminist", changed my title to Ms. and swore against marriage that I also started questioning this ritual. My wonderful male friends were also mainly engaged in hair removal routines by then, but I noted that their routines only seemed to consist of the face, and even then they were free to experiment somewhat, with some growing what was affectionately termed "bum fluff" on occasion. Maybe there was more depilation that they weren't telling me about, but regardless, I doubted it was anything like the routine I was in (unless they were body builders or swimmers, perhaps). Anyway, I was still at high school then, so I didn't rock the boat too much on this issue, although at an open microphone session in year 12, I did do a talk on feminism where I instructed my fellow women to ditch their razors. But I digress.

Anyway at Uni, I started "rocking the boat" a bit more. School uniform was ditched for cheese cloth, protest tshirts, hemp and boots and the razor got ditched for long stretches of time (I think the longest was 2.5 years). See, I met a couple of inner north hippies and some rather hard core feminists and so it kind of helped break me free of the "need to be" set and move into the "choose to be". But then uni's a bit like that anyway I reckon, or at least, with the freedom and choice available to me in so many ways, I felt quite liberated and broke out of a number of moulds. I must say too, I have to wonder if I was more readily able to be liberated because I had a fair experience of being on the "outside" and discovered I actually quite liked it... Nowadays, I still take the same sort of attitude towards that old teen routine, and when I have felt a little "need to be", I have recognised it and made a decision from there. But still, despite my active questioning of social norms, despite my need to rebel and break out, and despite my stances on so many things there are still times when I have felt a pressure to conform to society's hair-free expectations mainly because the pressure of being judged in a certain way is just not worth it. And that brings me to the sort of crux of this fluffy blog.

I have bored other women stupid (and many men too) banging on about this issue, but the fact is that there is a social expectation on women to remove hair that is enforced from an incredibly early age, and therefore it is understood by women that their body hair is unattractive, is unhygienic and should not be there. There are some common things women have said back to me that I relay for the purpose of breaking it down:

1. "I do it for me" or "I feel better if I'm hair free" - Firstly, how can anyone be really doing it for themselves if, firstly, there is a social expectation it will be done that has enforced from the time that they were little, and secondly, there is a chance, like Emer and poor Julia Roberts in this infamous incident, that you will be judged harshly if you don't? More to the point, why is your own body hair something that you don't identify with and it makes you feel better if it is gone? Where did that come from? So naturally, women will feel better if they are hair-free because it means reaffirming femininity, not being judged harshly, and removing the bad.

2. "It's unhygienic" - I believe this idea also comes from the people responsible for the idea that vaginas are unclean. Utter rubbish. Provided you have a shower and are not allergic to soap, personal hygiene is relatively easy to maintain. We need to look at some gendered notions here because if body hair really is the germ-festering menace that it is thought to be, then why are these hygiene messages confined mainly to women and why aren't men also shaving every bit of themselves in the plight to avoid germ warfare? I argue that through continual negative social messages of women's bodies and women's bits, women have, on the whole, interpreted certain parts of themselves through this negativity and understanding any body hair as "unhygienic" is simply a manifestation of this.

3. "It looks unnatural" - As the first article I referred pointed out, this resonates true. Why? Because through years and years of enforcing the unnatural as natural, the perfectly natural is viewed as being unnatural. Yep, we are so constructed that we don't even know what we actually look like nowadays, and apart from a couple of blips in the 70s and 90s, this construction just seems to be getting more extreme. Brazilian waxing is now so normalised that we are seeing it in TV shows such as Game of Thrones (far, far too often, but that's another post...) despite the fact that it is completely historically inaccurate. Hell, if Game of Thrones was set in 1994, it still would have been historically inaccurate by about another 8 years (a bit of an edge-trim was fairly standard then). Yet unless you're over the age of 30, it seems that Brazilian waxing is understood now to be normal (never mind that it was normalised initially in porn), and anything else is not. It's more of a strange time to be in that ever before!

4. "It looks awful!" - Related to everything I have written above. But why does it? Is it because the hair itself growing along quite happily is particularly ugly, or is it because, say, your bathing costume is cut a certain way that follicles poke out the side spoiling the aesthetic? Or pulling on a pair of thick woollen tights would spoil the look of your "little black dress"? Etc etc. Question fashion, and what it requires of women instead.

I am not being prescriptive here, and unlike when I was 18 years old, I am not telling women to ditch their razors in an act of defiance against the patriarchy (although that would be fun, and rather cost-effective too!). To return to Emer O'Toole, the fact that her body hair can even be news, and what's more, be discussed for pages upon pages is rather lame and to me tells a story about how harshly women are judged on something perfectly natural. It also raises the question: how many other perfectly natural things linked with women are also so harshly judged? It is striking that some of Emer's harshest critics were other women, and so if there is anything here I do want to be prescriptive of it is this: regardless of your "choices" when it comes to depilation, don't contribute to the idea that another woman who chooses to defy the reinforced social norms on body hair is wrong, ugly or unhygienic. Celebrate that she too is making a choice and instead work towards a time when hair removal for women is an actual choice because the ridiculous negativity surrounding women's natural hair growth is gone.


  1. I agree with everything you've said here. It's so much less about the capacity to control hair, and so much more about the pressure that we place on ourselves and that others place on us. Actually... I'm not sure about 'others' placing it on me... I have to, sort of, give permission for them to do that... and that's your Four. If someone tries Four on with me about anything, I tend to say... I'm the boss of my body, if you don't like looking at it, bugger off. It's almost the only thing I feel belligerently about and loved reading your take on it.

    1. It SO didn't start this way (same story as yours, completely, ALL of us have the same story I bet). I suppose nowadays I am doing it for me. Nobody ever sees my legs or my underarms, I don't wear those kinds of clothes. Ever. And lawd knows I'm practically a nun (without the religion, cool clothes or all of those women around me). So, it's the feel of hairy legs against myself that I don't like. It's also (gawd this is embarrassing) a lazy old lady's exfoliation technique (ergh, true story, it sort of works). Underarms. Oh... there is a stinky aspect to that, but mostly it's about how it feels. I *think*... cos to be honest I don't really remember.

    2. Nah, definitely not unhygenic (surely this can only work for underarm and 'down there', as my grandmother used to call, well, down there. Legs, how could that be unhygenic... and I think there's a difference between having BO trapped there and having it be unhygenic... I do like managing that a bit, so I reckon I put that up on your FB page, but it's not how I feel about others, only about me. People's sweat only stinks if it's a day old or they are sick, really. I had to shave down there for my PhD, and it was yuk as anything. I don't get the appeal.

    3. Yeah, the normalised thing I don't even understand, but as I said, the look of it on my body is something nobody sees. I'm all about how it feels. If someone ever tried to tell me (oh this is 4 as well) that I had to shave/should shave, I'd be inclined to tell them to go shave themselves (except instead of 'shave' it would be f**k, but with a u and a c in there).

    Also... Game of Thrones inaccurate? Ha... yeah.

    Love this, mate, it's a gorgeous rant!!!! Thanks so much for writing it.

  2. Thanks so much for responding, Sandy! Appreciated

  3. I just wanted to say that I honestly haven't thought much about this over the last few years (except for the last few days thanks to you). Mum and I had a great convo about it on Sunday at our breakfast place, and she concluded that she shaves the bikini line because otherwise she's worried that it looks a bit intimate. That's an interesting aspect that I hadn't really considered (maybe especially from my 74 year old mother), I am more confused about it than I have ever been... which is, of course, exactly how great analysis should leave you. Thanks mate.

  4. Hello, found you via the Down Under Feminists Carnival. I agree with everything you've written here, and just wanted to add: if anyone has a problem with my body hair, it's their problem to deal with, not mine. For some reason people want to make their discomfort with my body my problem, but why should I accomodate their discomfort by changing myself? My hair doesn't hurt them, and I wouldn't cut off a toe or a breast or a nose, and my body hair is as much a part of my body as those! Also, if "everybody has this problem" when wearing a swimsuit, then perhaps it's the design of swimsuits that's at fault, not women's bodies.

    1. Thanks for writing JShoep, and brilliant to meet you. And agreed, 100%

      People rarely question what women's bodies are supposed to conform to, they just tend to question women's bodies. Not a very healthy place to be, I reckon

  5. I stopped shaving my armpits in 1981 when I went overseas and met European women who didn't shave. This was prior to me becoming anything more than an armchair feminist. At the time I was intrigued. I couldn't think of a good reason to shave and many reasons not to. So I stopped. When I came home my beloved Granny noticed my hairy pits and asked why I didn't shave them. When I explained she said, "But Darling ... it just isn't natural!" I think that says it all about the pervasiveness of the dictum that women must be hair free. I still don't shave.

  6. This is a good article, and makes me feel... I don't know - better about myself, in a way.

    My sister an most of my friends keep their pubes very tidy, very trim, tiny, weeny brazilian strips. I used to be green with envy - you see, whenever I would shave, use cream or wax, I would come up in itchy red spots there. I was told, "Oh, that's normal at first - keep at it, it'll go away in time." I did keep it up. I kept it up for 6 months with itchy privates that looked frankly disgusting, and too ugly to ever be seen in public (no swimming for me!) which rather defeated the object.
    Finally, I found out that some people's follicles grow inwards if the hairs are removed, and that they simply have to let the hair grow...

    Well, I felt mortified. Ugh! Disgusting! Hideous! Hair! I was so deflated, honestly.

    But as it's something I've been forced to accept, the way my body looks more natural... I actually kind of like it now :)
    When I see a brazilian on TV or whatever (especially in Game of Thrones - how do those medieval women keep it so trim? the mind boggles...), I think, "Why would you want to look like a little girl?" Well, a just-pubescent one, anyway.
    Because essentially, that's kind of what's happening. In a way, I see the pube issue - keeping them barely-there - related to the obsession with size zero - it's about keeping women young, keeping women virginal, like 14-15 year old girls, under-developed, almost hairless.
    Playing up to male fantasies, and male reproductive needs by simulating a partner who's never been with anyone else.
    It's an issue that's part of a larger problem, and I think Emer O'Toole's decision to stop shaving in such an obvious way is not only very courageous, but highlights a much deeper issue in society.

    Well, that's my opinion, anyway. Thanks again for a great post :)