A Hairy Situation: Body Hair and Gender Construction

Dyamond with a Y
Dyamond with a Y

By Rosanna Brunwin, Intern 2015

“Hey, just so you know, your armpits are hairy.”

I was working my shift behind a local bar when a customer, who had been sitting by the bar for a fair while already, “helpfully” pointed out my underarms.

“I know,” I said. “I like them like that.”

He was incredulous that I had purposefully allowed the hair under my arms to grow without getting rid of it. He is not the first to have this reaction, nor will he be the last. Whenever I meet with my friends, they all want to see my hairy legs and armpits, as if they are some kind of spectacle.

Despite the fact that each and every one of us, regardless of our sex, grows hair all over our bodies, women are deemed masculine and unfeminine if they do not pluck, wax, shave, and epilate their body to within an inch of itself.

The female body has long been a public site of politics and policing. Women are expected to look a certain way, wear the right clothes, act in a “feminine” way, do “womanly” things, and essentially fit into the mould that the patriarchy dictates. We are pulled every which way to conform to unnatural standards of beauty — and hair removal is one of those standards.

unnamed-1-197x300However, hair removal has not been the norm for all that long. Christine Hope’s 1982 article “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture” in the Journal of American Culture informs us that U.S. women’s obsession with the removal of body hair came about as the result of a marketing campaign at the beginning of the 20th century. In May 1915, Harper’s Bazaar featured an advert that showed a young female model in a sleeveless dress with her arms above her head revealing hairless armpits and a caption that read “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable body hair.”

Objectionable body hair? Well, if Harper’s Bazaar said so.

And thus a whole new world of female beauty standards emerged, ready for marketers and advertisers to exploit. And they did: Women’s razors and depilatories were offered for sale in the Sears Roebuck catalogue in 1922.

220px-Betty_Grable_20th_Century_FoxLeg shaving, on the other hand, took a bit longer to catch on. But when the iconic pin-up picture of Betty Grable emerged during World War II, she became part of popular culture almost overnight. It seemed that women wanted nothing more than to emulate the sheer-stockinged legs Betty displayed in her short skirt. For this, women had to shave their legs — because nothing is less sexy than leg hair poking through your silky stockings, is it?

Our obsession with body hair removal is simply the product of clever marketing and a pressure to fit in, and that has stuck. Recently, Wilkinson Sword (a well-known British shaving product brand) published an advertisement for a new razor suggesting that women must be hair-free in order to be “spontaneous” or “judgment-free.” It features a woman sitting down in the garden for a quiet cup of tea — apparently something she can only do once her bikini line is under control. I was not aware of this relationship between my agency and validity as a woman and the visibility of my natural hair. I must admit, I’m extremely grateful to this advert for pointing out that it’s actually my body hair that has the most control over whether I choose to have a cup of tea in the morning or not.

Many women today insist that shaving is just personal preference. It is a choice that they have made, and if we’re lobbying for women’s rights, isn’t having a choice what it’s all about? Of course, they’re not wrong. However, no choice is made completely objectively. We are all socialized beings. And so any choice we make, be it shaving or anything else, is influenced by numerous other factors. It is hardly a fair choice when society overwhelmingly approves of one option while those who decide not to remove their body hair are subject to stupid jokes, insults, and even harassment.

These “choices” happen because we grow up in a toxic culture that tells us being beautiful involves changing our body’s natural state. These choices aren’t limited to hair removal. Every day we make choices relating to our appearance: what make-up we want to apply, which clothes to put on, how we style our hair. None of these choices mean that we are bad people. What it does mean, though, is that sometimes the choices we make reinforce the status quo and further alienate and stigmatize those whose appearance varies from the strict norms that society dictates.

That doesn’t mean we all need to burn our razors and cease all depilation. But we need to question why many of us think we should be hairless. And maybe the best way to question it is to give up the razors and the wax for a while and see how it feels to be totally au naturel. 

Recently, a girl’s choice to do just that went viral. Yasmin Gasimova, a 19-year-old university student, wrote an article for the Liverpool Tab (a UK-based student newspaper) expressing her opinion on not shaving from her own personal experience. Suddenly it was all over various news sites, with headlines such as “Hairy Student Has No Trouble Attracting Men” and “Being Hairy Isn’t Scary.” And with these articles came a tirade of comments suggesting her choice was disgusting and wrong.

This is absurd. Being hairless is a socially constructed beauty norm. It is in no way, shape, or form an inherent thing that “the lady folk” automatically do. There is nothing instinctively “womanly” about shaving, nor is body hair something that only men are allowed to have.

You can choose to shave. But you can also choose not to shave. And that is OK. We are all autonomous individuals, despite Wilkinson Sword suggesting otherwise, and we need to realize that not wanting to do something is a perfectly valid reason for not doing it.

At some point in the future I may decide to remove some of the hair on my body, but for now I will continue to parade my hairy legs and armpits with pride. It doesn’t make me any more or any less of a woman for not shaving. It just demonstrates my desire to exercise my choice. But if I do make the choice to shave, then I will do so knowing that this choice was heavily informed by the misogynistic culture we live in. For now, at least, I feel empowered in my choice not to shave because it feels like I am doing some of the necessary and important work of challenging arbitrarily gendered social norms.

And maybe one day I won’t have men pointing out my hair growth under my arms, and I will be able to enjoy a spontaneous cup of tea in peace without first attending to my bikini line.

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