First off, a small disclaimer, in case you weren’t already aware: Feminists are not just the stereotypes of the angry, non-leg shaving lesbians that society expects us to be. Some of us are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there is a lot of diversity in the feminist community, and we all share different views and lifestyles. One thing we do have in common is that we’re all fabulous, powerful individuals, with or without our leg hair.
Up until a few days ago, I had gone a decent number of weeks without shaving my legs or bikini line. I just didn’t have any reason to. It’s downright freezing where I am, so I’m not wearing any clothes where people can see my legs. I also haven’t been in a bathing suit in a while and I’m not sexually active. Shaving, or any type of hair removal, is a huge hassle, and after 6+ years of shaving I’m still pretty terrible at it. So because none of the factors that usually cause me to shave existed, I didn’t. Since no one was being forced to stare at my hair or touch it, I guess I expected more people to be accepting of that particular choice that I was making about my body. Instead, I received numerous comments from friends who had seen my pants ride up on my hair-covered ankles. After saying that I would need to shave my bikini line before going swimming, one friend expressed shock that I wasn’t following through with my personal “upkeep.” Excuse me, what?
For women, shaving our body hair is largely viewed as a Western concept that began in the early 20th century in response to rising hemlines and more revealing bathing suits. American women were pulled into the idea of a hairless body by Gillette with an underarm campaign that began in 1915 in a magazine called Harper’s Bazaar. The ad featured a woman in a slip-like toga outfit with her arms above her head and perfectly clear armpits. It read “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.”
As fashion began to favor these sleeveless and sheerer dresses, the shaving campaign of advertisers began to sway women toward getting rid of body hair that was now visible. This concept wasn’t entirely new, nor was it an entirely Western. Removal of female body hair has been considered good hygiene in many Middle Eastern societies for centuries and there is evidence of pubic hair removal in ancient Indian, Egyptian and Greek civilizations. In fact, there’s reasonable evidence that pubic hair removal was a common practice among many cultures until the 16th century, after which it went a bit more underground until it’s recent resurgence.
Both men and women contribute to an increasing trend in body hair removal. Yet while studies (of people in Australia and the US) reported a positive correlation between negative attitudes towards women with body hair and disgust in both men and women, women of the same background report no preference for little to no body hair on men. And although there are many people who quote cleanliness as a rationale for shaving pubic hair, removal of that hair is actually not healthier because it increases the risk of both internal and external infections. It’s a social expectation that women will shave their legs, underarms and pubic areas, as well as pluck or wax their eyebrows and lip areas. This creates an ironic paradox of what is attractive: Body hair is actually a natural biological indicator for sexual maturity, yet there is an almost overwhelming preference for women with smooth, hairless, young-looking bodies. The feminine ideal is not one that involves body hair, even though we all have it. Hair removal becomes this structural method of creating and reflecting conceptions about masculinity and femininity as well as strength and power. People have often had their heads shaved, or all body hair removed, as methods of humiliation or punishment — particularly noted in the Holocaust for concentration camp prisoners and after for women who collaborated with Nazis, also during European witch hunts.
These conceptions have become so established that it is difficult to accept those who don’t fall into the proper categories. This causes enough problems for those who identify with the gender ascribed to them at birth, but when someone identifies differently and as a result has an excess or lack of body hair that is perceived acceptable for their gender, it can increase the isolation they feel from their self-identified gender. Having body hair doesn’t make you any more of a man than having removed your body hair makes you a woman.
For me, at the core of how this issue relates to femininity was a quote from an article in the journal Sex Roles:
“As such, women’s depilatory practices…reinforce the view that underpins all the body-changing procedures, from make-up application to cosmetic surgery: that a woman’s body is unacceptable if left unaltered.”
While there are reports of men shaving their own body hair, there is less societal pressure for them to do so in order to fit a construct of masculinity, or even supposed “cleanliness.” If a man wants to have a beard, he’s more or less free to make those decisions without comments of it being unclean or gross to have hair all over his face. Even in regards to pubic hair, there is less judgment on men who are sexually active yet do not shave their genitals. We also have strange concepts of what body hair is necessary to move and what is deemed acceptable. Why is arm hair, which is just as exposed as leg hair, okay to leave on your body? Or chest hair, if you’re a man, but not pubic hair?
I’m not trying to make the point that there should be a mad rush to grow out our body hair and dance in the streets. I enjoy the feeling of cleanly shaved legs, but I also don’t see the point in doing it when I don’t want to, or when no one is going to be seeing me. That’s my choice — there are many who choose not to shave and are fearless about showing it to the world, and those who choose to keep a close shave at all times. Should any of us be judged for our choices?
Why should reactions toward the decisions I make about my body, ones don’t affect anyone else, be full of disgust? Why does body hair fundamentally incite such responses of disgust, especially when it appears on women?
If shaving your legs, underarms, bikini area, or even your pubic areas is something that makes you feel good about yourself, then by all means, shave away. No one should be shamed for making choices about their bodies, whether you subscribe to the societal norm or not. But those of us who choose not to modify our body hair should be able to enjoy ourselves au naturel. It’s our bodies, after all — shouldn’t we have that right?
Written by Ariela Schnyer