By Anne Thériault from The Belle Jar, cross-posted with permission.
I posted this picture (by Natalya Lobanova) on my Facebook page yesterday and received a bunch of varying responses to it. Some people loved it. A bunch of people shared it. But some also found it insulting and judgmental, and took it as a criticism of women who shave their body hair. A few took exception to the word “mutilating,” which, though modified by “slightly,” they thought was going too far. As with anything that sparks a discussion, I was interested in how people were reacting and why. The truth is that I really liked this image, and was surprised that people took offence to it. I think that talking about the fucked up things we do in order to be beautiful is super important, even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable.
Full disclosure, you guys: I shave my legs. I also shave my underarms, my bikini line, and this weird trail of dark had that goes from my belly button all the way down to my pubic hair. I had my ears pierced when I was eight years old because I was dying to wear for-real earrings. I wear makeup pretty much whenever I leave the house. And you know what? I like doing all of these things, because they make me feel pretty and more comfortable in my skin. But I also acknowledge that I grew up in a culture that taught me from day one to associate all of these arbitrary little changes that I make to myself with the concept of prettiness.
I’ve heard a few people say that the point of feminism is choice, and that the whole idea is that women should be able to make choices about their lives. For the record, I totally agree with that sentiment. But I also think it’s important to talk about the fact that choices don’t happen in a vacuum, and also that some choices aren’t feminist. Shaving your legs, for example, is not a particularly feminist choice. And I’m not saying that you can’t shave your legs and still be a feminist, but I do think we need to talk about stuff like this without immediately jumping to, “well, feminism is about choice and I made my choice and that’s that.”
For one thing, I’m not sure that a lot of women do actually feel like they have a choice about removing body hair. I mean, yes, technically, they do get to choose what happens to their body, but it’s pretty hard to feel like you’re actually making a fair, unbiased “choice” when your options are a) removing your body hair and enjoying the approval of our society or b) not removing your body hair and being on the receiving end of stupid jokes, insults and even harassment because of this. It’s pretty hard to frame it as a “choice” when society overwhelmingly approves of one option and punishes the other. So let’s not pretend that we’re not playing with loaded dice here.
The truth is that I play into patriarchal beauty standards every day. I wear cute dresses and I smear goop on my face to highlight my “features” and make my skin tone look more “even.” I wear shoes with heels on them because they make me taller and make my legs look longer. I push thin metal rods through holes that have been punched in my earlobes because I think that decorating my ears looks good. I carefully remove any body hair that might be visible when I’m wearing a bra and panties. And all of that is fine and none of it makes me not a feminist, but also those are all objectively anti-feminist choices. Because those choices don’t happen in a vacuum. They don’t happen because I woke up one day and thought, “hmmm, I’d really like to take a razor and remove the hair from some of the most sensitive skin on my body and endure painful, itchy razor burn for the next few days because that sounds like fun.” They don’t happen because just happened to be experimenting with painting interesting colours on my lips and decided that red and pink were my favourites. They happen because I grew up in a toxic culture that taught me that in order to be beautiful I had to alter my body, and every time I play into those ideas of beauty, I am reinforcing and validating that toxic culture. Every time I wear a cute skirt and heels, I am making it harder for women who want to break out of this fucked up ideal we’re forced into. And as much as I don’t want to, I need to own that fact.
It is fucked up that women are expected to change their natural appearance in order to be considered beautiful, or even just acceptable. We have body hair – growing it is a thing that naturally happens during puberty. Literally everyone has it. So why is it considered to be disgusting? Why are mannequins in underwear or bathing suits just fine, but these American Apparel models are thought to be hilariously obscene?
Like, that is literally what I look like when I don’t shave. Possibly I am even hairier than that. This is what my body looks like. Why is that so gross to so many people?
We all make choices about our appearance, and none of those choices are going to make the feminist police come take our feminist cards away. But sometimes those choices reinforce the status quo and therefore contribute to the difficulty other women experience when their appearance varies from the strict norms that society dictates. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever wear dresses or makeup or jewellery, but rather that we need to talk about why we do these things. And we need to stop pretending that such-and-such is a feminist choice because feminism is about choice and if I’m a feminist then everything I do is automatically feminist. No. That’s not how it works.
Wear dresses if you want to. Wear cute shoes and earrings and bright red lipstick. Shave off every hair on your body if that’s what feels right. But please recognize that you don’t do any of those things because you just happen to like doing them. Please acknowledge that you made a choice that was heavily informed by the fucked up misogynistic culture we live in. Accept that sometimes your choices are anti-feminist, not because you’re a bad feminist but because that’s the world we live in right now. And once you’ve done all that, let’s try to figure out a way to change things so that girls no longer have to feel like their bodies aren’t good enough just the way they are.