I started shaving my legs in sixth grade, after an impassioned campaign begging my mom to let me. Other girls my age had shaved, smooth, hairless legs, and I desperately wanted to be like them. Images on T.V. and in magazines reinforced my desire. I can picture myself sitting in the school locker room, observing my classmates and feeling such longing to cross over into the world having shaved legs. As if removing my leg hair would actually give me the security of being accepted by others. As if it would make it possible for me to accept myself.
My first attempts at shaving were marked by deep, bloody cuts. To this day I cringe a bit remembering what it feels like to carve out a big chunk of my skin with a razor. I still have scars from that learning curve. My memories of starting to shave my armpit hair and pubic hair are not as vivid, but grooming those areas has been a part of my life as well.
In college, I discovered feminism and briefly fell into the “hairy legged feminist” stereotype. That unshaved statement was short lived. When I got my first office job after college, I thought it a better strategy to look as professional as possible, not wanting my appearance to undermine my efforts. Once back in the habit of shaving, I kept it up. Today I’m wondering why.
When I transitioned from childhood into young womanhood, shaving my body hair was a rite of passage that went along with starting my period. Now, as I start to approach the end of my menstrual cycle, I am experimenting with not shaving.
What’s the relationship between body hair and liberation?
[As I discuss this topic from my straight cisgender perspective, I want to acknowledge that queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks have layers of factors contributing to their shaving decisions that I cannot speak to. I am also abled-bodied and have the ability to choose whether or not to shave.]
Shaving has mostly been an unconscious practice for me since I first began. It was simply what I was supposed to do. While I have yet to research the specific historical roots of women shaving their body hair, it certainly feels like another way patriarchy controls women’s bodies. A friend pointed out that the only time in our lives when we don’t have body hair is when we are young girls. Connecting those dots is so obvious and disturbing.
While men shave their faces, and may even feel social pressure to do so in certain situations, their freedom to rock body hair is apparent, as is the greater power they possess in our society.
There are countries where women do not shave their body hair, though I have not spent any time in any of them. Of course I have good friends and know of women in our country who do not shave, though they are the exception to the rule. The reasons women make the choice not to shave their body hair are varied. I’d like to hear from more of them, like in the short film by Helen Plumb at the bottom of this post, which helped inspire me to write this. My favorite quote on the topic is from musician Amanda Palmer who said, “The time I save not shaving I spend on the revolution.”
In addition to requiring our time, shaving exerts a cost on our fragile planet. Razors and shaving creams are non-biodegradable trash and toxins. We use water and other resources to shave. For what?
Social norms and expectations hold incredible power. It can be frightening to challenge them.
While I have an intellectual understanding of the plethora of reasons I do not need to shave, at this moment I am completely uncomfortable with my returning body hair. I look at it frequently, much as I did when it first started growing. My self-consciousness about it is palatable. I even have been looking longingly at other females with shaved legs, much as I did in middle school, envying that they are not compelled to challenge the status quo as I currently am. After all of these years, I still struggle with self-acceptance.
The influence of a lifetime of messages that I must strive to be appealing to the male gaze is acute. As is the influence of a lifetime of messages to compare my appearance to that of other women. Even though I have a wonderful partner who loves me and is attracted to me no matter what the status of my body hair, I am compelled to care about how I am perceived in public. Needing to be found desirable is a persistent impulse.
A biological argument would connect this impulse to our evolutionary requirement to reproduce. But in our society, the standards of what makes one attractive to a mate have been distorted. For example, racism perpetuates a standard of beauty steeped in white supremacy. I don’t buy that standard, and I don’t buy that not having body hair makes a woman more beautiful. Yet, for the most part, we stay shaved.
We stay shaved, and spend time and money to manipulate our looks in countless other ways. Ways that men do not trouble themselves with. All the while we are often unsafe, targets of violence and abuse and harassment and oppression in such an endless array of forms we aren’t aware of most of them. Women are the majority in this country, yet lack political and economic power. Clearly, we need more time for the revolution.
Not shaving my body hair feels like a way to reclaim some of what the patriarchy takes from me. It feels like resistance. It feels like loving my body as it is, naturally, rather than taming it. And yes, it feels liberating.
Originally published at amiworthen.com on June 5, 2018.