The politics of body hair


I’ve just finished reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, a fascinating and thought-provoking book. I thoroughly recommend it to all; it was well-written and accessible to everyone, regardless of whether you consider yourself a feminist I believe you would still really gain something from reading it.

There was an important issue Wolf neglected to cover though, and I was sad not to see its inclusion, because I feel it is as intrinsic a part of the beauty myth as body fat, ageing, clothing or cosmetic surgery. The issue is body hair, and for me it is as political an issue as it is personal,and the part it plays in the subjugation of women through the beauty myth is just as important.

As women are taught that ‘beautiful’ means fitting within a certain body shape and type, with clear skin devoid of lines and soft, shiny hair on our heads, so we are also told that ‘beautiful’ means being hairless on our bodies. Hair on the head and eyebrows is permissible (so long as it is plucked, coloured and trimmed to a standard deemed acceptable to society). Any other bodily hair is impermissible, unacceptable, ‘ugly’.

This hair must be stripped through plucking, shaving, waxing or even more painful procedures like electrolysis, from the entire body. The upper lip, chin, armpits, pubic mound, vulva, legs – even toes, belly and chest must be one hundred per cent ‘smooth’ and hair-free. The hair on our heads must be our ‘crowning glory’; the rest of our bodies must be as bald as a newborn.

Much of this can be attributed to the fetishisation of youth. Like glossy hair, bright eyes and unlined skin, hairlessness gives the body the appearance and feel of a young girl’s, or what I once saw described on the website of a hair removal product as a ‘prepubescent appeal’. It is curious that in a society where paedophilia is so reviled and such a huge problem, it is thought of as harmless and ordinary that men live out their paraphilic fantasies by requiring that the women they are exposed to look as young as possible.

Pornographic media advertises its ‘barely legal teens’. Actresses are routinely referred to as ‘girls’ rather than women. The image of the ‘sexy school girl’ is accepted and even desired, not just in pornography but in advertising, music video and themed nightclubs. Women slather on creams and apply blusher to their cheeks in order to attain a more ‘youthful’ appearance. Cosmetic surgeons and expensive underwear promise to give the illusion of the ‘firm’, ‘pert’ and ‘perky’ breasts which generally only occur naturally in adolescent girls. Most curiously of all, women are required to remove the most visible, prominent physical sign that they have entered adulthood – their bodily hair.

I once spoke with a woman on this very subject – her male partner had expressed his distaste for her pubic hair. It looked messy, he had said, it was unhygienic and he ‘just preferred’ the look of a woman’s genitals shaved (a preference borne, no doubt, from the normalisation of baldness in both pornography and ‘mainstream’ media). “I don’t get it,” she wondered, bemused. “Why on earth would he want to feel like he was having sex with a little girl rather than the grown woman I am?”

Grown women are, after all, meant to have hair on their armpits, vulva and legs. There is nothing ‘unnatural’ about a hairy woman; if there were then the hair would not grow there in the first place. Likewise, there is nothing ‘unfeminine’ about a hairy woman; if femininity is defined as ‘like a woman’ then a woman in her natural state is by definition as feminine as she can be. Indeed, one could say it is the hairless woman who is ‘less feminine’, as she removes parts of her natural, womanly body.

So why the revulsion upon seeing a woman’s furry armpit or catching a glimpse of her leg hair? Why are these same features on a man not also seen as unhygienic or disgusting? Partly because of what has already been discussed here – the fetishisation of youth in women.

A man, upon the appearance of grey hair and creased skin, is not considered to be ‘past his prime’, instead he is seen as ‘mature’, ‘distinguished’. A woman, taught throughout her life that beauty through youth is her ultimate goal and that upon ageing her beauty dies, may feel compelled to remove every trace of adulthood within her control – and hair removal is so easy, so readily available, and she is so socialised to believe it is normal, that she reaches for the razor.

It is also, and perhaps more worryingly, another prominent way in which the beauty myth keeps women in their place. As fear of being fat keeps us self-loathing and self-starving, and fear of age keeps our self-esteem in check, keeps us preoccupied with ‘caring’ for our skin with expensive products that do not work, so fear of body hair keeps us worrying about our appearance rather than the multitude of more important issues we could be concerning ourselves with. We are kept busy and overtired, given a list of things we must do and not do to attempt to reach that impossible dream of ‘beauty’ and therefore be acceptable to society. For if women were one hundred per cent comfortable in our bodies without expending all this time, money and effort in pursuit of the beauty myth our new power, energy and self-esteem would make things very difficult indeed for the current patriarchal status quo.

“No woman is free until every woman is free.” Along the same lines as this truth lies the truth that no woman really removes hair purely for her own pleasure as long as there is still an obligation for women as a whole to be hairless. There is no real truth in the sentence “I shave because I like it,” when that preference is borne solely of social conditioning. So many women feel they ‘must’ shave if they are going to wear a skirt or a sleeveless top. So many women feel they ‘must’ shave before swimming or a gynaecological exam or a sexual encounter.

So many women stop shaving in the winter or when they are single or at any other time when they are sure that no other person will see the hair. If they really are removing the hair purely for themselves, why should any of these exceptions apply? The reality is that if these women existed in a society where the beauty myth and the Male Gaze were nonexistent, where body hair was accepted and even celebrated, very few would continue to waste time with hair removal.

What about hair removal in men? No conversation on this subject is complete without someone piping up with “But what about men? They have to shave their faces – isn’t that equally as unfair?” No. It’s not. Men have a wide range of acceptable choices of styles for the hair on their faces just as they do for the hair on their heads. They can shave it all off, grow it all, grow a goatee, grow a moustache, style it and trim it and wax it, and still fall within the boundaries of ‘socially acceptable’. People do not look with repulsion at a man’s beard as they do at a woman’s leg hair.

Women are given only one choice deemed ‘acceptable’ – hairlessness. If women as standard grew hair on our cheeks and chins, we would not be given the same options with it as men are (i.e. it being socially acceptable to remove it, grow it or anything in between), we would be compelled to remove it all – the same double standard which currently applies to the hair on the rest of our bodies when compared with that on men’s bodies.

So body hair, then, is political, and very much a part of the myth of beauty which pervades society. It is also personal; our decision as women to unnecessarily remove body hair or to leave it where nature intended is ruled by how much we mind going against the social norm and just how much we care about changing the patriarchal status quo. It has been said in certain feminist circles that body hair is a trivial issue, that there are bigger battles to fight.

But I believe it to be an important and valid concern – that of women’s self-esteem and lack thereof, of the way women’s bodies are seen as public property and the way we adjust them so that they will be accepted. It is important because society cannot stand to see a woman’s body in its natural state, much less can it stand to see a woman who feels comfortable, powerful and confident in her body in its natural state. It is about the way women are perceived and the way we are ridiculed and looked down upon as substandard simply for refusing to participate in needless rituals for the sake of fitting in.

So what can be done? The first thing is for you, dear reader, to put down the razor and truly and honestly examine your ‘beauty’ rituals. When Julia Roberts exposed a hairy armpit, dissenting voices said, “Maybe she didn’t forget to shave, maybe she just had more important things to do!”

Don’t you have more important things to do? Put the razor down, cancel that waxing session and let the hair on your body grow where nature intended it to. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea at first, think of it as a social experiment. Be proud of your body for looking like a real woman’s body and not the facsimile of a child’s. If people mention your hair (and I can tell you from experience that it happens a lot less than you might expect) take the opportunity to educate, to remind them that this is how an adult woman’s body is supposed to look, to ask them how often they comment on the body hair of men.

Take the opportunity to make a stand without having to do any work at all. Take the opportunity to give your poor skin a rest from the constant barrage of scraping and plucking and pulling. Refuse to conform to a ridiculous and sexist beauty double standard from which you gain absolutely nothing. Refuse to hate your body and refuse to let others hate your body – and if they do, refuse to care.

I stopped shaving when I had the lightbulb moment: the realisation that I really didn’t have to. I learned to treasure my body hair like every other aspect of my womanhood, and now you couldn’t pay me enough to shave it off. Every woman I know who has resisted the hairlessness propaganda and quit shaving has felt the same way – comfortable, liberated, having taken one step further to free themselves from the misogynistic standards of ‘beauty’.

Put down the damned razor and love your body the way it is naturally, not the way you’ve been taught it ought to be. By refusing to participate personally, but becoming one more woman who challenges the status quo by loving her body hair, you become one more soldier in the army fighting towards making women’s bodily self-esteem and equality a reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *