I’ve been promising (threatening?) to write this for so long that a couple of brilliant articles have actually pre-empted a lot of what I was going to say. So I’ll link to them first and then I’ll mostly just waffle on about my own personal experience and the things that made me realise how fucked up our ideas about female body hair are. ‘kay?
First up is Body Hair: You’re Doing it Wrong by Lindy West on Jezebel and then The Comment Section for Every Article Ever Written About Intimate Grooming by Nicole Cliffe on The Toast
I stopped shaving. A while ago. It was gradual and then sudden. Gradual in that I’d always been a very lazy shaver. I didn’t really shave much in the winter, my legs anyway. I’d shave my armpits when they got what I considered too hairy, but I was never bothered about stubble or more than stubble. And if I ran out of razors, they’d get hairier and hairier until I got round to buying (or affording – those things are expensive) new ones.
And then one day the kids wanted to go swimming and I said we couldn’t go because I hadn’t shaved and either I didn’t have any razors or I couldn’t be bothered. And then I thought about how David is covered in hair and he can go swimming without doing any preparation and I just thought, “Fuck it.” And I took my hairy legs and my trailing pant beard and my more than stubbly pits to the swimming pool and no one screamed in horror. I didn’t shrivel like a witch when the water hit me. The lifeguards didn’t rush over and say “For the love of god, woman, cover yourself up!” It was almost as if no one even noticed…
We’ve learned to be disgusted by hair on women. I know there will be people – male and female – reading this, who will be thinking “No, I didn’t learn it. I just don’t like the look of it.” But you learned that. You learned not to like the look of it. We weren’t born thinking that hair on men’s bodies is fine and on women’s it’s “disgusting.” Honestly, we weren’t. Harry and Joe aren’t horrified by my hairy pits, in fact they haven’t said anything about them at all. Because they’ve seen their dad’s and they’ve seen mine and as far as they’re aware, hairy armpits are just something adults have.
I remember when I first became aware that hair on women was not ok. At least I think it was the first time. It was watching Thirtysomething. Eliot and Nancy were in bed and starting to get amorous. He ran his hand down her leg and made some disparaging comment about how she hadn’t shaved. She was, I think, annoyed, but, in my memory, she was also slightly ashamed. (This may, of course, be the way I remember it, rather than how it actually played out. It’s a long time ago.)
I remember a family we met on holiday in Portugal when I was 15 or 16. Her bikini line was sticking out of her bikini bottoms. I don’t think I’d ever seen that before and I remember feeling embarrassed and also sniggery about it. I was embarrassed for her that she either didn’t know or didn’t care.
On another holiday a man we befriended (as a family, not just me) and who I had a massive crush on was having a holiday thing with a German woman. I was watching them on the beach one day and studying her in a bitter and envious way and when she lay down to sunbathe, she put her arms over her head and had hairy pits. I was scandalised. I thought it was disgusting – how could he possibly fancy her? But, weirdly, it also made me feel like she was probably good at sex… (I’ve just been reading a book about old Hollywood and they used to make all their actors – male and female – shave their body hair because they thought it was immoral. Isn’t it interesting that now it’s fine for men, but not for women?)
Last year, when I fell up the stairs on the way to a book signing and bashed my leg, I was self-conscious because I hadn’t shaved and various people kept looking at THE ENORMOUS LUMP sticking out of my shin. I got in a taxi to take me to the bookshop and when the driver looked at my leg I said something like “Sorry, I haven’t shaved.” He said, “Neither have I. If it’s ok for me, it’s ok for you, isn’t it?” And I felt like a total tit for having felt the need to apologise to a stranger about natural hair on my own body.
Recently, we were watching Nashville and there was a shot of Gunnar lying in bed, arms over his head, hairy pits ahoy. The next shot was of his sometime girlfriend Scarlett lying in bed, arms over her head, pits totally pristine. And I thought about how if her pits were hairy like his, people would think it was vile. And how fucked up that is.
A couple of weeks ago I saw this photo on the Vogue website (which I was on for the dinosaurs, obv.), it said “Day 10” and, in my internet-addled state, I thought it was a woman’s legs and she was recording hair growth and, I don’t know, people’s reactions to it. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s interesting, particularly in Vogue.” Then I clicked on it and turns out it’s Henry Holland. But my point is: if it had been a woman, people would’ve thought it was “brave” and they would have thought it was “disgusting.” Because it’s a man’s legs, it’s just a man’s legs. WTF is that about?
Now I’m not saying that “as a feminist” you shouldn’t shave/wax/pluck/whatever. If that’s what you want to do, go for it. But please don’t then judge me or any other woman for not doing it. Please don’t tell me or any other woman our body hair is disgusting and must be removed. Please don’t curl your lip if you notice hair curling out from under my arms.
Oh and I don’t think it has to be either/or. Last week I went to a funeral and I wore a dress so I shaved my legs and my armpits. I do think it looks nicer because society tells me it looks nicer and I’ve had 42 years of conditioning. Does that mean I’m not as good a feminist this week (shaved) as I was last week (unshaved)?
(Forgot, but meant to link to Armpits for August – a month long no-shave event for charity. Why not try hairiness out for a month and raise money and awareness of PCOS?)