On Body Hair and Lacks Thereof
5 min read
by Emma Glassman-Hughes | March 24, 2016
Almost a year and a half ago, I quit cold turkey.
I’m not talking about smoking or eating processed sugar; I’m talking about another potentially harmful habit: I’m talkin’ shaving. The old ball and shave, if you will. As a chain-shaver™ for nearly eight years, I had reached a point where I was shaving my legs, armpits, and crotch only because I was convinced that women needed to be relatively hairless to be attractive or significant. After years and years of it, my zeal for the daily shave felt more like an act of necessity as opposed to an act of “should” or want--a phenomenon anything but foreign to a large population of women who were surveyed recently about pubic hair (only 56% of whom believe they *should* be removing pubic hair, as opposed to the 76% who remove it anyway). This trend disturbed me more and more as I educated myself about feminism and my role in my own subservience and oppression. Oof. A change was well overdue. It was a difficult thing for me to commit to, but I promised myself on New Year’s Eve (I’m a real party animal) that I wouldn’t so much as pick up a razor for the entire year of 2015--and as of January 1, 2016, I had successfully kept that promise. I was furry, I was fuzzy, and I was fierce. But I was also extremely white. ...what? Who said that?
In a world that hails European beauty standards as the ultimate expression of femininity, it’s not suuuuper surprising that the conversation surrounding the recent body hair “trend” looks like a big ol’ jar of mayonnaise. When white ladies grow out body hair, the act is considered an expression of rebellion and bravery--maybe unsightly or obnoxious to some, but not altogether that offensive. When women of color grow out their body hair, the act is almost unthinkable--for some women, it’s even dangerous. But don’t just take it from me; take it from Paniz Khosroshahy, who explained in a beautiful essay this week the phenomenon of how white women seem to be "praised once they go after characteristics that are associated with women of colour, and this time it is hairiness." Culturally and historically, white folks have spent so (SO) much time and energy trying to whitewash people of color, trying to Europeanize their appearances and their practices. But, like, that same white culture then turns right around and embraces some of the exact characteristics of people of color that it was trying to erase, as if those characteristics are just a ~fun~ and ~funky~ new craze. It’s essentially like saying certain practices are only acceptable when appropriated by a white body--only a certain brand of body hair is acceptable, and it needs to be under the threshold of distracting or disgusting in order to be deemed feminine enough to celebrate.
Ugh. Two very hairy thumbs down for that. ??
The example of body hair also reminds us that what may be empowering to one kind of woman won’t necessarily be empowering to another. I’m able to find power in my hairy legs because my hairy legs aren’t contributing to any harmful stereotypes about my people; I’m able to find power in my hairy legs because I had the choice to let them grow that way. Feminism doesn’t look the same on every kind of human, or in every kind of culture, and limiting our understanding of female empowerment simply to the hairs on our bodies won’t do much to further our political needs. If removing your body hair allows you to comfortably and safely pursue a life of empowerment in a way that is meaningful for you, then removing your body hair suddenly becomes an empowering act. Three cheers for flexible feminism!!
Aside from race, there are other factors that strip women of their choice to shave or to abstain. Shakespeare may not be too happy about this, but to shave or not to shave is actually *not* the question for plenty of people subject to European beauty standards. Some women have disabilities or diseases that prohibit them from shaving parts of their bodies, or that at least make the process much more painful and time-consuming. There are plenty of women who can’t even shave if they want to.
And what about women who can’t afford razors? No choice there. Hairy legs it is.
The list goes on, people.
It goes without saying, but all this is not to minimize my experiences of embracing my body hair. There’s bravery and strength in my decision to nix the knicks (and the ingrown hairs); but the #inconvenienttruth is, I was 6 or 7 months into my no-shave challenge before I ever considered how differently body hair feminism can be experienced by women who don’t share my privileges. At the end of this long and winding and hairy road, it’s clear that the question of body hair is ultimately a question of privilege. While it can totally be an act of noble rebellion for an able-bodied white woman to trash her (extra expensive) pink razors in favor of going natural, it’s equally noble for her to recognize that the same choice doesn’t is not always viable for a variety of other women.
This past year and a half, I've regularly been told, outright, that my body hair is "ok" because "you can hardly see it from over here!" That's the exact opposite political statement that I wanted to make with my hair; there should be no condition to what makes body hair "ok." All body hair is "ok" if you want it to be "ok." And if you don't, then screw it. Shave it, wax it, dye it, bleach it, braid it, bop it, twist it, pull it--do the thing that gives you the fuzzies on the inside (even if it means not having any fuzzies on the outside). Truly none of the above necessarily says anything essential about your feminism; it’s your choice to live for you, no matter what the standards may be, that does. Power to ya.
by Emma Glassman-Hughes