When I decided to grow out my body hair, I found few role models.
Google led me to a handful of celebrity rebels who had at one time or another eschewed the razor and flaunted small tufts of light-colored armpit hair. (Here’s looking at you, Jemima Kirke and Miley Cyrus.) But there were so few of these examples that I kept coming across the same picture of Julia Roberts on red carpet with armpit hair in 1999. As academic Breanne Fahs observed in 2011, “the removal of [female] body hair is sufficiently pervasive that it retains its invisibility.” (See article)
In my nearly 27 years on earth, in fact, I can remember less than a handful of instances in which I have seen body hair on another woman. Once on a family trip when I was around 12 years old, my aunt Pam told my cousin Clara and me to avoid shaving our leg hair for “as long as possible;” showing us her own sparse, grown-out leg hair. A few years ago in Chicago, I saw a young woman with bleached armpit hair on the Halsted bus. Around the same time, I met a few adult women with leg and armpit hair at Jerusalem Farm, the Catholic Worker-esque Christian hippie community my then-boyfriend, now-husband Thom was part of in Kansas City, Missouri. But these instances are memorable because of their rarity.
Every other woman I’ve observed in these decades — young, middle-aged, or elderly — has displayed nothing but perfectly smooth, hairless calves, thighs, bikini lines, and armpits. Teachers, check-out ladies, professors, moms, older sisters, actresses… everyone. Even the grandmother figures in my life — people for whom a fall would be a medical emergency — are somehow still bending over to shave their legs in the shower.
Weirdly, many of the articles I came across when I decided to grow out my body hair made it sound like I would be in good company. They told me the revolution was already well underway. In the Guardian in 2019, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow wrote, “Among both celebrities and the masses, female body hair is sprouting all over.” She cited a handful of celebrities who have publicly displayed body hair at least once and an Instagram awareness campaign titled “#januhairy.”
But if this were true, if body hair were indeed “sprouting all over,” I would have at least one friend growing their body hair out, right? I would have seen leg or armpit hair on a woman at the grocery store or out walking her dog? Certainly women’s magazines wouldn’t have to pull out a 1999 photo of Julia Roberts every time they needed empirical evidence of female body hair?
* * *
The more I look for body hair trail blazers, the more I realize how rare it is. Even feminists shave. Most feminists shave.
In a recent episode of the podcast Hysteria titled “Beauty In The After Times,” the host panel discussed their stay-at-home personal grooming routines during COVID-19. Recurring guest Michaela Watkins said, “There’s some hair on the legs… [but] you gotta shave the pits, that’s not up for negotiation. Erin Ryan responded, “I always find it admirable when women don’t. Because it’s like, I wish that I was that type of woman and I’m just not that type of woman.”
Thus the female shaving norm is not even under investigation by mainstream feminists, at least not here. Not shaving is for a certain “type of woman.”
This phrasing reminds me of the ideology of the relatively new women’s subscription razor service, Billie.
Billie occupies a contradictory space. The brand claims to be taking revolutionary action by depicting “real” women in their ad campaigns – i.e. women with grown-out body hair. But the fact remains that Billie is a subscription razor service. All of that hair they photograph is about to be mown-down by their high-tech, female-form-specific razors. Billie notes that women shave ten times more surface area of their bodies than men do. Rather than ask why, they made a razor sturdy enough to get the job done.
Their website claims a feminist mission: “We noticed that women were overpaying for razors and shamed for having body hair. Kind of a double whammy, when you think about it. So, we did away with the Pink Tax and put body hair on the big screen.” They also attempt to account for the contradiction: “Why, yes we do [sell razors] . . because women who like shaving ha[ve] been overpaying for razors for far too long.”
But notice the wording: women who like shaving.
Perhaps Billie occupies a necessary middle distance. It’s possible that after seeing Billie’s hair-embracing ads for the last two years, I became subconsciously more accepting of my own body hair. Billie points out that until their ad campaign, women’s razor advertisements had universally shown women shaving already-hairless legs. Though that’s sort of hilarious, it is also what most of us do, is it not? Shave off nearly-invisible stubble? First of all, that makes a razor last longer. But second, and more importantly, the appearance of hairlessness is the primary goal. Though they may exist, I do not know women who oscillate between fully grown-out and clean-shaven pits and legs – as a man might with his facial hair (e.g. my husband).
This framing of the shaving issue — that some women “like” to shave while others do not; that some women are the “type” to grow their body hair while others are not, is dishonest. Even cowardly.
This free choice framing of the shaving question is everywhere. In an article titled “Why I Can Shave My Body Hair And Still Be A Feminist,” for Cub Magazine in 2019, Melissa Tran wrote:
“For me, shaving my legs, my armpits, or wherever I choose, is important for me to feel good about myself. . . Feminism is entirely about equality so that we can all make our own choices. If you want to be hairless from top to toe, do it! If you want to grow your body hair all over, do it! It’s none of my business what you choose to do, its your choice, and as long as it’s for yourself, that’s all that really matters.”
But it’s simply not true that shaving is a simple matter of choice. Shaving is the majority position. Speaking to Marie Claire Magazine in 2018, Fahs (of the 2011 study) said that 93-99% of women regularly remove their body hair. Another statistic I’ve seen from 2016 (from Mintel, a UK market research company) said that 77% of women remove their underarm hair and 85% shave their legs. As Rosy Tahan wrote in The Gazelle in 2016, “Choosing to shave is not nearly as difficult as choosing not to, and as women we need to make it easier — and normal — for other women to make the latter choice.”
In my experience of the last six months, I am the only woman in any space with visible body hair – whether at a backyard barbeque with friends, out on a walk, at the pool in my apartment complex, at the grocery store, or a family gathering. And I don’t like it. I’m not a natural rebel. I would much rather have things in common with people, especially with other women.
I sometimes look to Instagram for the small community of hairy women (#leghairdontcare), just to assure myself that I’m not crazy for doing this. Because in my physical, day-to-day life, I am very much alone.
Moreover, as a cisgender, heterosexual, thin, white woman, eschewing hair removal is an elective breaking of rank. I am used to fitting in, even good at it. As my husband Thom says, the system was working for me. I am uncomfortable feeling physically different from my peers because I’m unpracticed.
So why do it?
Three summers ago, I grew out my leg and armpit hair for the first time ever. At 23, I had no idea what my armpit or leg hair even looked like. I’d been shaving off millimeters of stubble for a decade by then. I started in 7th grade, when my armpit hair was just barely beginning to sprout and my leg hair was just beginning to thicken and darken.
As might seem natural, the return of hair in places on my body I’d spent 10 years keeping hairless created all kinds of emotions: disgust, shame, self-consciousness, and body dysmorphia.
That first time I grew my hair out, I went through many episodes of crying about feeling ugly to Thom. Eventually, I shaved my leg and armpit hair again. I couldn’t deal. “Go off duty,” Thom said. But surprisingly, shaving again did not really make me feel better. The seal had been broken. I was now aware of how much work it took to adhere to the hairlessness norm. I knew of a non-prickly existence. I thought my legs looked weird bare, too. Any illusion that all had been fine; that I had been loving and accepting my body the way it was had been shattered. I couldn’t win either way.
I let my hair grow out again the next winter but shaved it again the following summer. Then, this summer of 2020, with COVID-19 keeping me mostly within the walls of my apartment, I decided I wanted to really stick it out and make peace with my naturally-occurring body hair. And I’ve realized a few things in the process.
First of all, the number one critic of my body hair is me. Almost no one has commented on it, with the exception of my best friend from childhood. I, on the other hand, have been hyperaware of its presence, particularly in social situations. In summer clothing, my leg hair is visible every time I wear shorts, a dress, or shorts; my armpit hair is visible every time I wear a tank top or something with tiny little sleeves. And because cropped pants are very “in” right now (cropped joggers, 7/8 leggings, cropped jeans, cropped everything) the hairiest part of my leg (my lower calf and ankle) shows even when I wear pants!
And yet, I have also made wonderful discoveries along the way. Leg hair feels so cool in the wind. I never knew! When I run outside, I can actually feel the air moving over my legs. My legs don’t get itchy anymore, not even in tight pants like leggings or skinny jeans. I can take a shower in 10 minutes. My armpits don’t bleed or sting when I sit out in the humid, midwestern summer air.
Thom has fielded an endless barrage of self-doubt from me, but he never stoops to my level. “What if I had armpit hair when we met?” I asked, “would you still have been attracted to me?” “I probably would have been more attracted to you,” he said.
One of Professor Rebecca M. Herzig’s most compelling observations in Plucked: A History of Hair Removal is as follows:
“Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing finding in the social-scientific literature on body hair is that while U.S. women readily recognize the normative pressures on them to remove their hair, and report those pressures as determining the behavior of other women, most do not accept adherence to social norms as determinative of their own practices. . . Put simply, Americans tend to describe other people as dupes of social pressure, while narrating their (our) own actions as self-directed and free.”
Social pressure is not a good reason to do anything, and yet I realized that it was the only reason I had been shaving. The reason I used to “like” to shave was because it made me feel confident. Why? Because hairlessness is the default norm for attractiveness. And as a woman, I had internalized the message that attractiveness equals access to power, which equals safety and happiness. So sure. I “liked” shaving in the same way that I like having friends, opportunities, and being accepted. In not shaving, I’m protesting the idea that I needed to be artificially hairless to have access to these things in the first place.