Feminism Friday: Hair

Facebook ad for Veet Hair Removal. “The view we signed up for”? Seriously?!

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.

photo-3_250x336A 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?)

15 thoughts on “Feminism Friday: Hair

  1. I’m starting a band just so we can call our first album Trailing Pant Beard.

    Also: you are wonderful and this post is all kinds of ace.

  2. I don’t shave. Haven’t for years. I was nervous to begin with (just why?) and now, if I feel anything, it’s slightly stubborn. It’s my body. It’s supposed to have hair, and I’m happy for it to be there.

    Good post.

    1. Yes, was going to mention how I still feel self-conscious raising my hand in public, but I’d waffled on long enough. It’s so odd and so annoying. Thank you!

  3. I shave when I feel like it, and I don’t when I don’t. But it’s taken a while to get to that point. I can remember being teased for having hair on my knees sticking through my tights in the first year of senior school, so that’s when I started shaving them. If I’m going to do it, it has to be a wet shave though, cos otherwise I’m just stubbly and a bit “why did I bother?”

    I just want my daughter to be able to choose without societal pressure, she won’t get any at home for certain.

  4. I find it interesting that hubby would like to have a smooth, hair-free body, but is too embarrassed to shave or wax in case people think he’s gay. So it’s not just women who suffer from society’s effed up conventions about hair!

      1. OMG it would be an absolute national disaster if anyone thought he was gay! I mean, can you imagine? It would be all anyone would talk about for weeks and it would be soooo embarrassing and awkward and… and…. Yeah, you got me. I have no idea why it would be such a big deal. Except that it would be like admitting that he had a feminine side, which, y’know, is BAD apparently 😉

  5. I could go on and on about how wonderful you are to do this post. I shave but only when I need or want too. I do like the feel of my legs straight after and it’s nice for me but I’m not overly bothered if someone else doesn’t.

    I am very obsessed with my eyebrows though. I once saw a photo of myself aged 14 and then I worked out myself how to pluck them and now I do it ALL THE TIME. I get so worried about how heavy they look but I had to teach myself. I wish I’d been taught at least. Painful mistakes!

    I get really annoyed too when, if I haven’t shaved my legs for a day in the summer, and then I notice they are stubbly. Then I can’t see anything else. I wish I could not worry but I’ve even gone to the lengths of tweezing my legs if I’m away without my razor.

    You’re a brave bold soul and more power to you. I’ll still shave because I do like how it looks but I know I’m not offended when sometimes doesn’t.


    1. Thanks, Laura. I’m obsessed with my eyebrows too, but mainly because I barely have any – they’re blonde and pitiful and if I don’t draw them on I look like I haven’t got a proper face.

      But I’m obsessed with tweezing random hairs – and don’t get me started on the top lip whisker that keeps coming back in the same place – once I know that’s popping out again, I can’t think of anything else. (I once interrupted a friend in a meeting to say “Ohmygodcanyougetthishairoutofmyface?!” after I’d spent about half an hour fiddling with it. She went “Ooh!” and yanked it right out.)

  6. If it helps at all, underarm and hair leg growth slows down as you age. . . and mine is now also fair and fine, barely discernible – it was quite dark when I was younger. However, hair does sprout in other places and I can’t abide it! (Yep, you know it, chin, top lip. . . . I hate to be sans tweezers. Except for eyebrows. If they are not satisfactory, tough.) Notwithstanding all that, a few weeks ago I decided my legs were in need of a jolly good shave (they really weren’t) but instead of lathering up, I thought I’d be clever and give myself a dry shave. (What?!!) NEVER do that. Ever. I’ve never been in so much pain for so long. . . oh, the burn! . . . and wouldn’t you just think that at my age I’d know better? My ex-MIL never shaved her legs and her dark leg hairs were always visible ‘neath her (‘nude’) tights. She didn’t care a fig. We met in the 1960s – she was really ahead of her time. . .

    1. Gah! I’ve done the dry shave in the past – agony! Hope it’s better now.

      The deputy head at my secondary school was the same with the nude tights and the leg hair. I remember us all being horrified and I actually used it in Della Says: OMG! I feel bad now.

  7. p.s. I love that Susie Day is starting a band – but I think that the BAND’s name should be Trailing Pant Beard. Great post, sorry, I forgot to say so before! xx

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