When girls in western nations reach adolescence most of them learn that armpit hair, leg hair and crotch hair are unacceptable things to have when you are female. Yet in the years of puberty most of us grow that hair anyway. So what do we do? We get rid of it.
Truth be told, I was only vaguely aware of these “unspoken” rules when I started to grow hairs in “unacceptable” places. I was embarrassed with the way my body changed shape and tried to hide it by wearing large t-shirts, but I had no problems with my body-hair and was actually fascinated when it started to grow.
That was until my fourteenth year. As an annual ritual we spend several days with the class camping somewhere. It was incredibly hot and we all went to the pool. As usual I preferred a swimsuits and so the hair I had grown in my armpits, crotch and on my legs, was quite visible. Yet, it never even occurred to me to shave it until two boys, who saw me standing by the side of the pool, laughed at me and very loudly told me that I really ought to shave. The girls present giggled uncomfortably and no one tried to contradict their orders.
Not even me. I felt so bad and embarrassed. I felt like at that moment I deserved to be socially rejected by them all. They frequently did that anyway, but at that time I felt I deserved it. When I came home and talked to my mother about it, she got me an electric razor to make sure they wouldn’t be able to say something like that again. My appearance was frequently up for public scrutiny by the boys in my class, but this was one of the few times when which I wasn’t told that they had no business behaving like that.
So for years I shaved. I shaved so that people couldn’t see the “unacceptable” hairs. Until one guy suggested that he liked “his women” to be completely hairless and from that moment on I shaved it all off, even when there was no “risk” of people seeing my body hair. I also become more and more anxious about stubbles on my legs that no one could see, but that I could feel. I also switched razors to be able to make these areas even smoother. I thought ‘the smoother the better’.
So while I conformed to a social standard set for women to avoid ridicule and social rejection, I became actually more anxious about “doing it wrong”, as in still having “too much hair”. In August 2007, I became a member of a feminist forum. There the topic of body hair was frequently brought up and many feminists talked about not shaving some parts or not at all, and that they felt better about it. Still I could not bring myself to stop shaving at the time.
Almost a year later I first stopped shaving my legs. I went to the pool one day with a friend and I had very noticeable hairy legs. I was sure that someone would give me grief about it, but no one seem to notice or even care. I had mentally prepared myself for the confrontation and was actually disappointed it didn’t happen. However it made me feel more easy and nowadays I have no problems with people seeing my hairy legs. It is pretty obvious to me now that malestream media has a greater problem with women’s body hair then most individuals do. There are of course a few uptight assholes who think that women need to shave and that it is women’s duty to “look pretty”, but those jerks I can easily dismiss and on occasions I even laugh loudly when I hear such fossilized opinions expressed.
I am still not comfortable with my armpit hair and my crotch hair. It has been during the winter that I let my hair grow in those areas. I have no idea how people will respond and how much difficulty it will cost me not to care, but I am sure that I will get used to that too. I am less certain about my introduction week. I am heading back to college this year and the first year will kick off with a week-long introduction camp with lots of swimming and other water activities. I could be ostracized right then and there and be unable to form connections based on their instant and permanent rejection of me. I am not sure this will happen, but years of social conditioning have left me, perhaps justifiably, paranoid. I haven’t decided if I will risk it or not.
I have had people stonewalling on me or aggressively cutting me off as soon as they found out my political views. I have also been ridiculed and have had my words dismissed, not because of logic, but because of my directness and unpopular opinions and often irrefutable views. It makes it hard to form connections needed for projects sometimes.
So why do women shave and why is it expected of them? Is it expected or have marketing campaigns successfully managed to brainwash women in such a way that they believe it is unacceptable for them not to shave? I believed for years that I had to do it, whether I liked it or not. Even now I sometimes still feel uncertainty about my unshaven body. One thing is clear to me, however, and that is that I feel more secure about defying a beauty mandate than I have ever felt complying with it.
As I have said several times before, women grow up learning that western society considers their “sexual attractiveness” their most valuable asset. Women learn to feel good when people call them “attractive”, “pretty”, “thin”, “sexy”, “beautiful” and so on. I have felt the power of these “compliments” too. I felt releived and “successful” as a woman when someone said something about me being “attractive”. I have also felt the accusation when the “compliment” was absent or “constructive criticism” was offered on how I could “improve” my looks. It felt like a personal failure not to receive a “compliment” based on my appearance. Compliments on other aspects of myself were nice too, but the ones about my appearance felt especially important to me.
Advertisement has a great deal to say about what makes a woman beautiful. Part of the message is that women must be “clean shaven” in order to be “pretty”. That “clean shaven” or “clean feel” is cleverly linked and implies that body hair on women is unhygienic and dirty. Often you will see women in commercials dancing and jumping around happily when they have just shaved their bodies. It is implied that women must feel insecure before shaving and are only allowed to be happy and enjoying themselves once they checked that beauty ritual off their lists of daily chores. Most of the time you will only see women shave their already hairless legs in commercials, yet through the idealized images of models we learn that a “good woman” doesn’t have hair in her armpits, crotch or on her legs.
So how does this work for feminists? We often know what these malestream media messages do to us and how they infantilize and insult us. We know why these messages are out there and how much they hurt us, yet a lot of us can’t let completely rid ourselves of the influence the messages have on us. We also feel worse, because we know the truth and we still comply with the orders that we are given. That we must be beautiful at all times and at all cost. Many feel extra guilty over not being able to let go.
I think this is in part due to beauty-privilege. Even though women are often punished for being “too beautiful”, it is worse to be considered a cautionary tale for women. There is also this nagging feeling in the back of the minds of a lot of us that we do not want to scare women away from becoming feminists. Having body hair confirms a certain stereotype about the “man-hating, hairy legged hysterical” feminist. Everything that is considered ugly and bad gets attributed to feminists by the opponents of feminists, so that women who fear social rejection can separate themselves from that image and consequentially feminism. And there are very few women who do not fear social rejection at some level.
We still live in a patriarchy after all and too much social rejection will prevent us from paying our bills and being able to live in this world. On the other hand, as feminists we also feel we are selling out when we comply with any patriarchal mandates, especially for women. It is a double edged sword that makes it very hard for women to unite, feel good about ourselves and destroy the patriarchy. Which is ultimately what every (beauty) mandate for women is all about, preventing them from seeing their own strength.