feminism · fitness

Let’s talk about body hair and feminism

Image description: Intuition razor with green handle, white trim, four blades, surrounded by a white moisturizing "solid" to provide shaving lubrication.
Image description: Intuition razor with green handle, white trim, four blades, surrounded by a white moisturizing “solid” to provide shaving lubrication.

Body hair, like make-up, is one of those issues where feminists often feel conflicted (based on my conversations with friends and my own experience as a feminist). On the one hand, we see the pressure for women to have smooth bodies as a dimension of normative femininity that makes us spend time on “the beauty project” instead of (arguably) more important things.

On the other hand, many of us (a) like smooth skin and/or (b) feel self-conscious when we’re not smooth even though we don’t really care and if we knew no one else did we wouldn’t bother and/or (c) consider shaving or other hair removal rituals as just part of our everyday habits of self-care or perhaps even pampering.

It’s a fraught feminist issue because when a woman appears with underarm hair or leg hair, it’s a radical move that can even have professional implications. As Britni Dela Craz writes in Elle, about how much time she spent before an important professional moment considering the extent to which different clothing choices would show her thick black leg  hair (she is a freelancer who usually works from home and doesn’t worry about it so much):

As I crowdsourced ideas and solutions and posted photos of myself in various professional outfits on Facebook, I wondered how many men had lost hours of prep time for their job worrying about their body hair. I wondered how many men had to balance their desire to look professional with the autonomy to allow their body to do what it naturally does — grow hair. I was enraged that, hours before a career-defining interview, I was worried about leg hair.

Lest you think this is a completely Western fixation, the website Feminism in India has also published about the severe pressure on women to rid themselves of body hair or be shamed for it. Maryam Monsoor writes:

Societal beauty standards are brutal. Perpetuated and reinforced through the media, they are almost always harmful for women. The stigma around body hair is one such beauty standard that has been extremely disadvantageous for women, who are expected to be hairless all the time.

This expectation leads to shaming and policing of women with body hair so much so that people are disgusted at the sight of hair on a woman’s body. It also results in women feeling uncomfortable wearing shorter sleeves if they have hair on their arms or underarms. Women end up shaming themselves for having body hair – going through the full body wax and other painful measures to free themselves of their hair. When it comes to facial hair, it has to go off! From the upper lip, to the eyebrows, to sideburns to the chin to the nose to the forehead.

She points out that men are free to have both facial and body hair. That’s true, although there is a growing trend among men also to shave or wax themselves smooth. There is more pressure on women. Men can definitely get away with having more body hair than women, and facial hair on men is completely acceptable whereas there is enormous stigma against facial hair on women.

The body hair issue extends to pubic hair, which goes in and out of fashion. I remember when we first started going to nude beaches I was kind of shocked at how many women and men were completely waxed or shaven down there. My preference has always been to have at least some pubic hair — I’m not a pre-adolescent after all. That said, sometimes for travel purposes I find it easier to get it all waxed off than to try hitting just the “right” amount. And for some reason, grey pubic hair had more of an impact on me than grey head hair. Normative femininity and its prizing of youth? Yes, that plays into it. Young. But not too young.

When all the talk of swimsuits and body comfort came up last week, and then carried into this week’s posts about different options and the way the swimsuit industry walks that line between body shaming and trying to design suits that we’ll actually wear, body hair came up for discussion among the blog’s author group.

Different ones of us had different issues. Without naming who’s who (because I didn’t get everyone’s permission), opinion ranged from someone not liking her own leg hair despite it going against her sensibilities (I’m right there with her), to someone not being able to shave because it irritates her skin, to someone being less hairy as she ages and hardly having to shave, to someone hating shaving so much she had her pits lasered and is now annoyed that it’s growing back.

For my part, I have less leg hair than I used to but I still shave it. I have an Intuition razor with the built in shaving lube thing that I use for regular touch ups in the summer. In the winter I am less inclined to give my legs regular attention. I have a different razor (with shaving gel) that I use for my arm pits, where the hair seems to grow faster and I hate even the slightest stubble.  And I only deal with pubic hair when I’m expecting to see some action or spending a lot of time on the boat or at the beach wearing swim suits or skinny dipping.

What’s interesting to me is that though we are all feminists, no one took a strong stand against participating in this particular beauty practice. Sam condemned it, saying it feels required, not fun and occasional like make-up (though even make-up feels required for many). But as required, the social and even professional consequences of not conforming can be serious. And that’s precisely what makes it a feminist issue. And yet we acquiesce.  Of course we are picking different battles in a world where we can’t pick all of them.

A friend reported that one summer she had had it. “I’m going to stop shaving my legs,” she said. “It’s nothing but a pain in the butt,” she said. A few weeks later I asked her to report back. The result: “I couldn’t handle standing in the ATM line-up, conscious of everyone staring at my hairy legs.” She went back to shaving.

Do you have a considered position on your body hair that you’d like to tell us about?

6 thoughts on “Let’s talk about body hair and feminism

  1. I’ve thought a lot about this. I wear makeup most days, sometimes when I’m not even leaving the house, because I enjoy experimenting with bright colors and I like how I look with it. There’s an element of creativity and expression, as well as skill in application. So while makeup does feel “required” for someone in my age and position, I opt into it in part because I enjoy it. (I grant that if I lived in a world in which men wore makeup and most women didn’t, or in which makeup was used only for costumes or special occasions, I probably wouldn’t feel the same way.)

    But shaving, or other forms of hair removal? No creativity, expression, or skill there. Only annoyance, irritation, time, and money. As I’ve gotten older (and I’m only in my early 30s), I shave less, and more frequently do things like go to an exercise class with stubbly pits or somewhat hairy legs. (My leg hair is naturally pale, which makes it easier to avoid judgement.) The first time I went to a Zumba class with hairy armpits it was an accident; I forgot I hadn’t shaved. Subsequent times were a tiny act of resistance: deliberately and happily taking up space in an exercise class in public in a large, not yet very fit, somewhat hairy body.

    Politically speaking, I want to opt out and stop shaving entirely- but I’m worried about the professional consequences. I live in a warm climate and like wearing dresses, and I honestly, I think my student evals would be worse if I stopped shaving, especially in courses where I teach about feminism. Students react to many things in their evals, including the instructor’s perceived gender presentation and attractiveness. I keep telling myself that once I get tenure and my evals matter less for promotion purposes, I’m going to stop shaving my legs…we’ll see if I can muster the resolve!

  2. Sporty women – what about athletic function? I am swimmer and while not fussy about hair removal (I too have pale body hair and less of it as I age) but I do remove, on a somewhat regular basis, the hair on my lower legs and armpits because the feel of the water is better. And swimmers need to feel the water. The body suits (or jammers for men) do reduce the need to shave for racing among the elite), but swimmers still shave to heighten the sensation of the water on whatever skin is exposed. And cyclists shave their legs in part to make any road rash for falls a little easier to manage.

    I will say that in the summer I pay more attention to underarm hair because I pretty much only wear sleeveless dresses. Men don’t wear sleeveless to work (unless they work outside) – if they did I think there would be a similar standard – we can have a debate about this being irrational and simply a question of aesthetics, but I guess that’s one battle I am not going to fight myself. For men, they are expected to keep facial hair tidy (though that has relaxed somewhat I will admit). But the legs, – meh! – sometimes they are more tidy than other days, I will admit. I rarely prevent myself from going out in a dress for that. In the winter I am even more relaxed about it – who cares what is under my tights?

    Where I do see a real issue if the idea that facial hair anywhere on the body should be removed – arms, face, upper legs? why? Humans have hair on their bodies and it is work to continually remove it.

    As for pubic hair, only when the bikini is really cut low. Pubic hair serves a purpose and frankly I notice when it is removed and cut short and don’t like it that much.

  3. Interesting thoughts here! I hate most of the expected “girly” stuff (I don’t wear makeup or heels except for very special occasions) but body hair is one thing I can’t quite let go. I definitely care less as I get older but if I’m going to be exposed in public I will make sure my underarms and legs have been shaved recently. If I’m doing something like going for a run in shorts, I care a lot less.

  4. I decided a few years ago that I absolutely was not going to bother anymore – I had never been bothered about having body hair and realised I was only doing it for dating – and if I didn’t care, why would I want to be with someone who did care so much? My husband is not bothered and never has been, and it has only been the pressure of societal norms that have felt the pressure to shave since – a girls holiday, my wedding day, when I was a bridesmaid. As I have gotten more used to it I am less bothered to remove hair for these sorts of events – I certainly wouldn’t shave for a girls holiday again, or for the purpose of being a wedding guest.

  5. I stopped shaving my legs a few years ago, and found that no one really cared at all. I’m not a very hairy person so it’s not super noticeable (I super admire women who have a lot of hair and just say fuck it). I just figured it was such a big waste of time, money and energy. But I still shave my armpits because armpits are gross and stinky and it only takes 10 seconds. Lol. I wrote this post when I first quit shaving. http://tryniakaufman.com/2015/09/15/what-to-expect-when-you-quit-shaving/

  6. I like to (mostly) not shave, but occasionally social pressures will get to me and I’ll halfheartedly remove some body hair – I’ll feel weird about having unshaved armpits at work or a fancy social function, or I’ll notice that I’m the only woman on the frisbee team with hairy legs and underarms and wonder if other people are noticing and judging me. (To be clear, if people are judging me, they’re keeping it to themselves.) While my body hair isn’t especially thin or light, I do recognize that it could be darker and coarser than it is and that I’m probably afforded some relative privilege in this area as a white woman.

    One thing I will say is that my body’s natural, hairy state has become more normal to me since I stopped regularly shaving. When I do remove armpit hair, now, my underarms feel weirdly naked (and usually irritated – my skin is not happy about being scraped at with an unexpected razor!).

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