Latest posts by Maureen Whitcomb (see all)
- The Lines of My Polyamory: Shifting Values and Boundaries - May 8, 2017
- Prison Abolition is the Feminist Issue We Need to Talk About - April 11, 2017
- Complicating Body Hair: Consent, Gender Violence and Feminism - March 10, 2017
I am thirteen years old and hiding in my grandmother’s bathroom with my cousin. With one of my grandfather’s bic razors in one hand and musky smelling shaving cream in the other, my cousin shaves my legs for me. We sneak out of the bathroom thinking we were so suave. I am officially a woman! My legs are silky smooth. My grandmother is furious. And so begins the long, expensive, and downright annoying journey of shaving my legs, underarms, and eventually my pubic hair. When I am fifteen, my grandmother buys me an electric “bikini razor”. She tells the woman at the checkout that it’s summertime so it’s time to start doing some maintenance “down there”. I am mortified. The precedent is set. I know that as a person who identifies as female, I am expected to shave my body hair. I hate it, but I shave for all of my adolescence and for most of my twenties. I eventually give up on my pubic hair because my partner doesn’t mind. I am so relieved, but realize that I only stop shaving because my partner has told me it’s okay. I didn’t stop shaving for me and for my own preferences about my body. Not until I get his encouragement do I finally stop shaving my underarms and eventually my legs. I finally feel free.
In a 2014 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, Breanne Fahs explored the differences between women’s imagined and lived experiences in regard to female body hair. Although it was a relatively small study, Fahs found that women tended to talk about body hair removal strictly as a choice without addressing the complexities of that choice. In the second part of her study, Fahs asked women to volunteer to give up shaving for ten weeks and to report back about their experiences. Whereas initially women in her study tended to feel casual about their choice in removing body hair, women who volunteered to not shave experienced homophobia and heterosexism, anger from family members and partners, and internalized feelings of being “disgusting” and “dirty”. So, while women in Fahs’ study constructed their body hair routines as rooted in choice and freedom, when presented with the opposing experience, their perspectives became complicated by internal and external factors.
My own personal perspective in regard to female body hair is rooted in preference and comfort. In no way is my choice to not shave a dig at women who do. However, I do think that we all should be questioning why. Why do we cringe when we see body hair on people we perceive as female? Why do we shave even though it’s an inconvenience, not to mention expensive and actually quite painful? Like other social and cultural norms that women are expected to follow and carry with them, I find the concept of consent muddied in regard to female body hair. Can we truly have a choice to shave our body hair when we are constantly inundated with images and messages about hairless female bodies and their desirability? How is this “choice” complicated by race and gender expression and identity?
In order to begin getting at some of these complicated questions, I started my interrogation of this issue by creating a poll regarding female body hair which I shared with my social media networks. I ended up with 84 respondents who answered questions about underarm hair, facial hair, leg hair, and pubic hair on individuals they perceive to be female. Although I received a lot of interesting information from this poll, the most intriguing finding was the internal conflict that the respondents demonstrated. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of feelings that they have about certain female body hair. A shockingly high number chose statements that were contradictory to each other across all types of female body hair. Many chose answers such as “I think it is ugly” or “I think she is lazy” and answers such as “I think it shows that she is confident” or “I think it is empowering”. In addition, some respondents wrote in the additional comments section of the poll that they hate shaving or that they shave knowing that the pressure is external and abstract. This illustrated how complex this issue is and the internal struggle that individuals face with their feelings and desires as they clash with cultural and societal norms and expectations.
Another main finding from my poll was some respondent’s tendency to believe that growing out female body hair – particularly underarm hair – is just a trend or a social or political statement. This is not surprising, given that some female celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Jemima Kirke have been proudly showing their growing underarm hair to the public. Although I do believe that showing female body hair in the media can validate the choices of women who want to grow out their body hair, I also believe that dismissing female body hair growth as “just a trend” is problematic. There are some individuals who cannot shave because of medical conditions. Other female-identified women may not shave because it is more comfortable or it is culturally or religiously acceptable or required to be unshaven. Minimizing female body hair growth as just a “trend” diminishes the courage that female-identified individuals embody when they step out into public and show their unshaven bodies to the world. The very presence of body hair on female-identified individuals challenges the gender binary. Ellen Kate writes that being hair free has become the signifier of cisgender heterosexuality for women in society. Therefore, the public existence of body hair on women, and particularly transwoman, can be dangerous. Blogger Tori writes on her site that, as a transwoman, being in public with her beard shadow and deep voice can be frightening. When we publically challenge other’s perception of gender we put ourselves at risk for gender-based violence. This is a reality we need to acknowledge and validate whenever there is a discussion of female body hair, trend or not.
We also cannot forget that experiences with female body hair differ by racial identity. Niloufar Haidari writes that as a woman of color, her hair removal has always been performed as a way to assimilate into white culture. In addition, she states that unlike white women who most often attribute the pressure to shave to men and patriarchal forces, her pressure to shave has almost exclusively derived from white women. Haidari writes, “The reality is that many WOC [women of color] have been called hairy their whole lives, and most often by white women.” In addition, it is important to remember that due to white supremacy and the legacy of racism and racially-motivated violence in the US, being a person of color while also transgressing gender norms puts people of color at an even higher risk for violence than white people.
The growing out of female body hair is not “just a trend” and I believe that framing it in such a way takes away from the experiences of female-identified people who risk bodily harm in order to live in the body that they want. It diminishes how complex the presence of female body hair is for women of color, transwomen, and gender non-conforming folks. That being said, the reasons for growing out female body hair are varied. Perhaps you are growing out your underarm hair because you think it’s trendy or you do want to make a statement. Do it up! But we cannot let that take away from the reality that transgressing gender norms – which includes what kind of body hair and where it is on certain bodies – can be dangerous.I believe that individuals should do what they want with their body hair. If removing hair is what makes you more comfortable then do it! If removing some hair and not others is what works for you, that’s great. However, I think that we should all be asking ourselves why and inquiring into the complexities of female body hair removal. Challenge it. And remember, female body hair does not dictate whether or not you are a feminist. Asking complicated questions about the world and challenging norms is what embodies feminism. Whether you do that with a full bush or neatly waxed underarms makes no difference.