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.