Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Conundrum of Body Hair

1933 ad for underarm-specific razor with curves, which I can't believe isn't a thing now.

It’s skirt season again (my favorite), which means the body-hair feminist conundrum is cropping up again. I shave year-round, and at this point I don’t particularly examine the “why” behind it anymore. But it’s a loaded topic, and for good reason: The traditional feminist arguments in favor of performing beauty work fall flat when applied to depilation. It has little to do with fantasy, play, or self-expression; it’s expensive, occasionally painful, a time-suck, and just sort of a pain in the ass (actually, it’s a pain somewhere else). Sally successfully argues for the role of confidence in deciding to depilate—certainly that’s why I do it, more on that below—but in reading comments it struck me how loaded the whole body hair thing really is. And in some ways the answer is obvious, but I still have to ask: Why?

People have been manipulating their body hair for centuries; an excavation of a Sumerian tomb dating from 3500 BC contained tweezers, and there’s evidence of techniques like sugaring (still used today) and quicklime depilation going back just as far. But pit shaving as we know it came about after a Harper’s Bazaar ad campaign in 1915 started up with ye olde pit shame. The idea was, of course, to sell depilation products, but it was also a way of managing the fact that women were now showing more skin than they ever had. If pits were now shown, pits must now be problematized, and if pit-showing meant that women were beginning to think that maybe they didn’t need to be managed in every facet of their life, well, we’d better come up with a way to make sure they had to manage them pits, eh? (We see something similar now with Dove’s “Your Armpits Are Naaaasty, Girl” ads for their armpit-beautifying deodorant.) Leg shaving followed, after an uncertain era of fluctuating hemlines, and as for pubic hair—well, that’s another post altogether.

So I get that body hair policing is a way of adding onto the list of mandated beauty work, and I get that there are certain connotations of youth—dangerous youth, prepubescent youth—that make depilation particularly troublesome from a feminist perspective. But when you think about it, isn’t the whole thing...weird? I mean, most adults are attracted to other adults, not to children; hair growth should be all rights be a symbol of mature adult womanhood. Body hair should be a sign of sex, or at least sexual readiness, the same way evolutionary psychologists want to trot out our cultural fascination with breasts as being about our animal instincts.

Yet unlike breasts and hips and plumped-out lips and breath voices, body hair remains verboten for women because it breaks the ultimate taboo: gender. In my conversations with various women about what beauty work they conceal from partners, by far the number-one item done behind closed doors only is depilation. We’ll let partners see us in goofy face masks, but to let them see us plucking a stray hair—especially if that hair is in a place other than the legs or pits, like, say, the chest or toes—seems a step too far. It’s like admitting that sometimes hair grows on our toes is just a step too masculine, a threat to the status quo, even if that status quo is within a relationship of equals. Body hair contains a threat, and in fact maybe it’s a combination of its embedded masculinity and its embedded female maturity that makes it such. Body hair is thriving proof that gender isn’t entirely binary (testosterone prompts its growth), and it’s also proof that women’s sexual characteristics aren’t limited to just the curves that make such nice statues.

All this is nice rhetoric, but where does that leave us? Well, in going to the post that prompted this one: It leaves us ambivalent. Like Sally, I feel much better when I’m depilated according to my own standards (which, in my case, are legs, pits, and a very literal bikini line, as in everything that would show in a bikini), but I also see, as Sally puts it, the “baggage and hypocrisy” that surrounds it. And I hear the argument about how nothing will change about beauty standards unless we actively challenge them...and then I think about picking my battles, and how this isn’t a battle I’m willing to spend energy on. In fact, it’s a battle that has actually wound up giving me energy once I’ve withdrawn: When I was struggling with a particularly bad bout of depression, I realized that part of feeling so gross on a day-to-day level was that I hated feeling stubble on my legs from not shaving daily. I could either spend even more energy than I already do trying to deconstruct the relationship between stubble and “gross,” or I could just fucking shave my legs and spend my energy—energy I would not have were I to stay in a depressive mode—thinking about the larger picture. Shaving my legs didn’t cure my depression. But it was one of many small things I did to take care of myself, and the more I take care of myself in the small ways, the better I’m able to take care of myself in the big ways, and the better I’m able to care for those around me and give my best self to the world.

There’s also an argument about feminism and body hair that gets lost. It’s actually a non-argument, and it’s this: I’ve never personally known a feminist who has refused to shave her legs or pits because of her politics. I've known plenty of women who don’t do it because they don’t like the act of it, or they have sensitive skin, and I suppose the refusal to participate for those reasons is to some degree political. Point is: There are probably plenty of hairy-legged feminists out there, but in my entire 35 years as a feminist (okay, okay, 34, there was that one year in junior high where I really wanted to fit in), I’ve never met one. (That is, I’ve never known that I’ve known one. And while I could count Rebekah’s Body Hair Laissez-Faire month, I get off on a technicality because it was just a month. It’s not even really a technicality because the point was to examine these issues, not reject them wholesale, so, hey!)

So while body hair has political implications, I suspect that the caricature of the “hairy-legged feminist” is actually more responsible for the intense feelings surrounding body hair than the actual politics of the stuff. (Look at the intense discussion on the three posts Sally has done on the topic for proof of how provocative the topic can be.) I think conversations about body hair are absolutely worth having (in addition to Rebekah's series and Sally's work, I also recently enjoyed this piece on how skipping the pit-shaving actually wasn't an identity act for Kate Conway). I just want to make sure we’re not being “bra-burned” into imbuing it with an importance it might not need to have—and I want to make just as sure that we’re not fooling ourselves into thinking that it’s some sort of post-Beauty Myth “but it’s for me!” act. Yes, it’s for me; my boyfriend couldn’t care less. But I know full well that I wouldn’t have dreamed this up—this irritating, time-consuming, and occasionally bloody act—on my own.

54 comments:

  1. I think this is a really interesting approach and you're right that this is being imbued with a poltyical importance it probably doesn't deserve.

    For some reason shaving legs, armpits and ripping that single hair that keeps growing back out of my chin i have no problem with. And waxing the very edge of the bikini line that would actually show. But brazilians and such I do find distasteful as much as i try not to. I really try not to judge people and I totally appreciate its people's own choice. But some of my friends are spending hundreds and hundreds of pounds every year on something that comes from porn, is extremely painful both during and once the hair growns back, and that is as much of a crazy social construction to their partners as them (most men would not have dreamed this up either). And becuase i myself am of the hairy variety, seeing hairless women just looks wrong. Like a prepubescent child, not even a masculine-feminie thing. I just, honestly, do not get it and it's a lot of effort not to judge.

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    1. I'm in the same spot, Franca--Brazilians make me sad, though I understand that probably women who do them are treating them like I treat leg shaving. I've had to kind of come to terms with understanding that I...just don't understand.

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  2. I apologise for the incredible number of typos!

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  3. I'm a feminist who doesn't shave because of her politics. Also a unicorn, apparently.

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    1. Ha! No, not a unicorn. I realize that there are plenty of feminists who refuse this form of beauty work, just saying that its prominence as a feminist issue may be disproportionate to the number of people who do wind up refusing it. I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on refusal.

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    2. I am a feminist who tries not to shave because of her politics, and feels somewhat guilty when she capitulates :-/

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    3. Anonymous, I'm glad to hear from you, and I hope that reading some of these comments can help with the guilt--either in assuaging it or, if at the end of the day you'd just prefer to not shave, in figuring out how not to capitulate. So many viewpoints here!

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  4. Yeah, I get your point about feminists, hairiness and stereotypes, but I need to add, that some of us do try to fight the fight. Somebody just hast to do that.

    And frankly, I get everything else you write about here, everything you said about energy and choosing your fights. I can sympathize. But still - I can't feel anything but betrayed. It's like I'm trying to do the right thing here, trying to make things better for everyone, but they just let me down.

    I don't like the look of hair; I've been conditioned to dislike it. I don't like being the odd one out, I don't like the negative attention. I want to look pretty and feminine (so I use clothes and jewelry that are deemed feminine), but I feel this is way more important than whether I feel desired/accepted or not. Something needs to be done, and if nobody is willing to make sacrifices, then nothing will change. And that makes me sad.

    And I want to say you are so right in that last paragraph. The claims that it's a choice are so annoying. It's not a choice when the other option is much, much worse. In reality - you either suffer through the crap that depilating is or then you get ostracized, ridiculed and discriminated against. Good luck to those that truly do enjoy hairlessness and would opt for it even under different conditions, but the rest of us are screwed. Damned if we do, (much more) damned if we don't.

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    1. Anon, I absolutely hear you--that people who do refuse this form of beauty work are doing something that they're punished for, and then feminists like me sort of get a "free rider" pass. Ouch, now that I write it down that was I feel sad too. This stuff isn't easy for any of us, no matter what the end choice.

      >It's not a choice when the other option is much, much worse.<
      I feel like this is so very real for pretty much any form of "choice" feminism. It's like we've had to reconceive certain acts as "choice" in order to make them acceptable, instead of exploring the space of ambivalence.

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  5. I find the body hair thing very interesting, because I absolutely do not think that shaving my legs or armpits is something I'd do for myself. I have no problem at all with my hairy legs! I do, unfortunately, worry too much about others' opinions to stop shaving my armpits, something that bothers me a lot.

    I shave my pubic area for me, since I have no husband. I do so for comfort and that's about it.

    I have no problem with people choosing to remove or encourage the growth of whatever hair they happen to like or dislike on their bodies, but I do have a problem with the mass removal of body hair by women who haven't actually thought about it. If you want to, fine! If you think you want to because society has told you that you're disgusting otherwise, not fine! Society shouldn't be allowed that power! (Complaining about society there, not women who cave to society's pressure, since I am one of those women.)

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    1. Contrary Kiwi, that's so interesting--I've never shaved my pubic area so I really don't know, but when I hear someone say it's for themselves I'm all, "BUT HOW?!" because it seems like something that couldn't possibly be for one's own self. I'm totally not saying this to put you on the spot (from comments, etc., I think I know where you're coming from with beauty work and I know you're not just blithely making choices to go along with the patriarchal flow, as you point out in your last paragraph here) but rather to point out how confounding the whole thing is: Here you are, someone who is highly aware of these issues, and you're doing a form of beauty work I can't wrap my mind around at all! It's so interesting to me. (And if you feel like elaborating at all on the shaving thing, I'd love to hear more, because it really is something outside of my experience.)

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    2. Well, I will clarify: when I say I shave, I mean that I run clippers or whatever over it to make it nice and short, but there's no actual removal of all the hair. I just don't like hair shedding of any kind, and shorter hair either doesn't shed as easily or is less noticeable (which was also a factor in me shaving my head again). I suppose part of it is beauty work because I do prefer how it looks short, but that might be a continuation of my preference for short hair. I'm not entirely sure there.

      I think, given a world where any hair matter was entirely your own choice, I'd still trim/shorten my pubic hair and the hair on my head while growing my leg and armpit hair, because short hair is easy to maintain without getting in the way like long hair does.

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    3. I shave/trim my pubic hair because of my heavy menstrual cycle and the inability to use tampons. It's a gross mess to have clotted up blood and hair sticking to things and then tearing out my own pubic hair when I'm already a period wreck. I got into the habit after dating a Muslim who said that shaving your pubic area made it easier to remain hygienic, so I gave it try and liked it.

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    4. Contrary Kiwi, I'm so glad you joined this conversation because the subtleties you're sharing here are really interesting and are casting a different light on the distinctions between private and public beauty work--really fascinating!

      Anonymous, I hadn't thought of that possibility before--I'm glad you've found something that works for you. I've heard the argument that "oh, hair is natural and it's hygienic" but it's also like, if you feel less clean by having whatever natural hair is there, by all means, get rid of it! Certainly when I've been in that situation I could've gone for a little less down there...

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    5. Cutting down pubic hair also helps you avoid getting it caught in friction fights with your jeans, pads, or panties ....

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  6. Autumn, you perfectly summed up the deep ambivalence I feel about body hair removal. I recognize all of the weird political messages about it, recognize that the expectation that women's bodies be hairless at all times is an artificial one, etc. etc. etc., and yet I shave pretty much every day. The only other things I do every day are brush my teeth and deal with contact lenses! There is no other area in which my understanding of the gender politics of an act has had so little impact on my willingness to perform that act.

    That said, I admire the hell out of women who don't bother shaving. I was hanging around a bunch of zinesters last month and a bunch of the ladies were rocking tank tops with hairy pits and I loved them for it.

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    1. >There is no other area in which my understanding of the gender politics of an act has had so little impact on my willingness to perform that act.<

      Perfectly put. The split is incredible--and the thing is, I don't actually want to stop shaving my legs, even though it's not an act I enjoy.

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  7. This is a very interesting topic, I think the link between pubic hair and gender/sexual identity is especially intriguing, but that’s another tale altogether!
    I rarely remove body hair, but this is not me making a feminist statement, this is just laziness haha! Mine is fine and blonde anyway, and I don’t wear sleeveless tops. If I want to look “extra nice” for something then I’ll wax, but for the most part I just don’t care. I know that sounds totally pretentious, but it’s just that my worries are focused on other parts of my appearance!
    I totally understand the desire to remove it, smooth skin is pretty and I know for some of my friends it’s associated with looking unclean or unfinished. I get that! I’d be sad if girls thought they “had” to remove their body hair to meet some sort of feminine requirement or Dove beauty industry-led fantasy, but it’s a matter of personal choice (and pain tolerance!).

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    1. "Unfinished"--that's exactly it. I feel ragged-edged when I don't shave, though I don't look at others and think *they* look unfinished. It feels like just sort of polishing the stage or something. Ha! The stage of my feminine performance!

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  8. I’ll raise my hand as someone else who chooses not to shave for political reasons. Shaving, to me, would be like wearing a t-shirt for a political stance I don’t agree with. A few years ago I shaved my ‘pits for a wedding in which I needed to wear a sleeveless dress, figuring it was only polite to the bride to ensure that she, rather than my subversion, was the center of attention. It felt horrible to capitulate in that way.

    Now that I’m getting older however I’m getting hairs on my chin and around my nipples, and leaving them be stresses me out a lot more than my hairy legs/ underarms/ pubis. I can’t convince myself to own them as a feminist statement in the same way... still working out how to handle that.

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    1. I'm so glad that people who don't shave for political reasons are sharing their experiences here--thank you! And that's particularly interesting re: the hair that you do remove. It's a tricky line--that level of stress, as you put it--and I imagine it's different for each of us.

      We've come a long way in challenging gender norms, but the non-glamorous aspect of gendered norms has a ways to go. We may be uncomfortable with a man in a pair of killer heels, but I think we're *really* uncomfortable with a woman in a moustache.

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  9. With regard to feminists giving reasons other than politics for not shaving, consider that it's a lot easier, socially, to say that one doesn't do it for some other reason.

    I can tell people that I don't shave because I like body hair, or that shaving makes me itchy, or that it's too expensive and I'm cheap, or that I'm lazy, or that in the culture I grew up in women didn't shave so it's weird to me. They might think I'm weird but they probably won't pick a fight. That's why unless I really feel like being Feminist Educator that day, I don't mention the other reasons.

    However, I would argue that anything women do or do not do with our bodies is political because our bodies are politicized. There is no such thing as a personal decision about our bodies. It doesn't matter if I choose for reasons that I might think are personal. When the world sees my hairy legs and pits, they will be *read* as a political statement no matter what my intent is. You know the old saw: the personal is political.

    If I were shaving it would also be a political choice.

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    1. >There is no such thing as a personal decision about our bodies.<

      Absolutely. And that's why I'm wary of the "I do it for me!" claims--it's possible to do something "for me" and still have it be in the realm of the political. Yes, I style my hair in a certain way because I prefer it that way and it suits me, but to say that's the only reason is shortsighted.

      But more to your point here: That's interesting that people will give you more of an "out" when you give a reason that doesn't challenge their norms--that the physical reasons (or even the cultural ones about your formative years) are enough of an explanation for them to not dig deeper. I wonder what that means--if people are unwilling to look at the more political reasons, or if people are genuinely willing to grant space but would rather just keep it in the realm of the "personal"? Hmm.

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    2. I get the same response if I tell people I'm a vegetarian because I don't like meat. That's far more acceptable to them than being against the suffering and killing of animals, though both are reasons for my vegetarianism.

      I suppose part of it might be that if it's expressed as a personal choice - "it's to do with me, not you, darling" - then people are less likely to get defensive about it because they feel safe about their choices.

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    3. Jumping in (if that's Ok; first time commenting) to give my 2 cents on the acceptability of proffered 'reasons' to be visibly hairy.

      I think the people who will say anything in the first place (or give you the stink-eye, or whatever) tend to have a lot invested in whatever it is that *their* 'choice' is; if you stand out to them as different, you are calling their 'choice' into question implicitly. I got a *whole lot* of that BS as an adolescent.

      If you present yourself as some kind of 'natural' exception ("I have an allergy to shaving cream/am from another culture"), then these interrogators can take themselves off the hook - it isn't about them, and they sigh with relief until their anxious adherence to whatever societal norm gets implicitly questioned the next time.

      If I were to state my "real" reasons? "So, glad you asked, because I think shaved legs look like skinned animals! Also, shaving is a tool of the patriarchy! So, um yeah, no offense to your patriarchy-supporting flayed flesh there. Um. Was it something I said?" ... Yeah, I don't do that unless there's a lot of mutual good will and a good long time for *that* conversation.

      Obviously, I don't think any woman should be pressured or censured whatever her choice on the depilate/don't depilate/depilate-some-places-but-not-others conundrum. So I never actually say that I don't care for the look of shaved legs.

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    4. Contrary and Caroline (welcome, Caroline!), this is so interesting--a sort of strategic depoliticizing of choices that are indeed political. I wonder how much of this is tied to gender expectations--in my experience women are more likely to use the "honey over vinegar" approach of persuasion (this is just my experience, and I'm probably looking to find it because that's certainly my approach)--and political discussions can so easily come off like criticism of another woman's choices, which I don't think most feminists are actually interested in doing. So reframing it is sort of a way of getting your actual point across (I don't shave my legs and it has nothing to do with you) without the risk of putting someone on the defense and having them write you off as one of "those" feminists who would criticize choices. Interesting!

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  10. Fame! Fame and glory! Thank you again.

    I recently went three months without shaving my legs or armpits, but failed to blog about it. I will remedy that situation immediately.

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  11. I stopped shaving my legs and armpits for my politics. I was eager to greet the world as a hairy-legged feminist. However, my leg hair is fine and blonde and virtually non-existent, and my armpit hair is the most lovely golden colour and I totally love it. So...I stopped for politics, my decision did nothing to proclaim my politics, there was no reason for me to shave again. I tend to forget that people remove body hair, actually, but that's a kind of privilege talking.

    I absolutely love body hair on everyone, though! I think it's very sexy. I especially love seeing women with leg hair wearing skirts!

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    1. Monster (hi!), that's an interesting point about intent vs. impact: Does it somehow "matter" more, or differently, if someone with very visible body hair abstains from depilation, as opposed to someone whose refusal isn't as visible? I'd argue not, but already I've received a couple of e-mails from personal friends who have read this and said that no, actually, I *do* know feminists who have quit depilating for political reasons...but I didn't know about it because it wasn't evident. Is this a case of the personal is the political, or does one have to externalize the personal to make it political?

      Anyway, I'm glad to hear from people who have abstained! I can't say I find it sexy, but now that I think of it I don't find it non-sexy either. I've never cared about my male partners' body hair situation so I imagine it would apply both ways were I attracted to women as well--but I really can't say.

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  12. I know lots of feminists who have stopped shaving their legs for political reasons. But I think that's because I'm older than you. What I have noticed is that almost all of them start shaving again because it's easier to not have to deal with other people's reactions. Sad, but true.

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    1. It probably is an age thing--I'm 35 so while I'm not of the millennial generation that grew up with pubic hair removal being a part of expected beauty work (I still remember the shock I felt when I started dating again after a long-term relationship ended in 2006 and suddenly finding that my natural pubic hair was "unusual" or even fetishized), the second wave missed me by several miles. And how interesting that even after taking the plunge, public pressure can lead to a choice reversal...

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  13. I personally always shave. But whenever these discussions come up I always think about how it was a sign of the Queen of Sheba losing her power when she was forced to shave her legs. Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe that story is in the Qu'ran.
    Anyway, issue as old as time and very interesting to examine.

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    1. Sort of a Samson-Delilah thing? Interesting--I'll have to look that up. Certainly I feel a sense of power connected to the hair on my head--it makes sense that there would be similar connotations to body hair. Thanks!

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  14. Thanks for writing this post! I have very similar feelings to those you've described. One day I realized how strange it was that my body had the capability of growing arm pit hair, but I hadn't experienced what that was like, because I'd started shaving daily immediately after hair appeared. So in the name of experimenting, and getting to know my body a bit better, I grew it out (while I was away on a camping trip, no running water = perfect excuse!) and discovered it appealed to me way more to have the pit hair. In the last 6 years I've only shaved it once (for a wedding, similar to Sarah above) and it confirmed how gross it feels to me. I'm glad I took the chance to experience arm pit hair. That said, I still shave my legs to the knee most of the time, in part because I like the feeling of smooth legs. I do feel guilty for not challenging this socially required beauty work completely, but I like that I've tried various options and feel like what I do now is a bit more of a choice than before. That said, I also have a lot of arm pit hair, more than some of my male friends, and I trim it because it feels too masculine otherwise.

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    1. Rachelle, this is so interesting and plays into what Erin mentioned above about it being a sort of power--it seems like you made a conscious effort to discover your body's range of capabilities, and ta-da! You know, I'd forgotten, but I did that once, out of sheer curiosity--I don't remember the exact situation but I was sort of secluded for a while and thought, Hey, maybe I'll see what growing out my armpit hair is like. It never reached its full length but I remember being surprised by how soft and downy it was, because when I'm shaving regularly all you get is stubble so I assumed it would be like that, just longer.

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  15. It's interesting that you mentioned that people are uncomfortable with a woman sporting a moustache, because Aaron and I were at a party a few weeks ago and were chatting with a really nice woman who had a pretty dark moustache, and of course we had to analyze and deconstruct it the whole way home.

    I often don't shave my pits and I like the how it looks, but hairy legs are not aesthetically appealing to me, which I do feel a great deal of guilt over. I'm also an unashamed partial pubic shaver, due to personal hygiene issues.

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    1. Kristen, women with visible moustaches are an interesting case, because it is such a challenge--I think I'm all sorts of comfortable with gender-bending, but then when it comes down to it there's still that part of me that has a knee-jerk, "What's going on?!" reaction. I imagine I'd have been there deconstructing right along with you!

      I was about to write that I was interested in all these accounts of women who depilated arms or legs but not the other, but then I realized I sort of take it for granted that I'd never touch my pubic hair (except for what falls outside of the bikini line)—it just doesn't make sense to me, for my own body, and then it hit me that's the case for most of us! ha!

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  16. Thanks for this post Autumn! Hair removal is the only beauty ritual that I taught to myself, all by myself (my parents were anti-shaving) - so I've always had this odd lingering feeling that I might be doing it wrong.

    One thing that is a bit weird in terms of my own double standards is arm hair. I have a lot of long, blondish downy hair on my arms, and I quite like it and would never attempt to remove it. The hair on my legs isn't all that different yet somehow it bothers me and I prefer to remove it.

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    1. Heh, at some point I should do a round-up of first-time hair removal stories. Would love to hear yours! Mine was a disaster--no idea you needed a lubricant of some sort.

      I used to bleach the hair that's actually on my arms (as opposed to armpits; I think you're talking about arm hair here, not pit hair, though I could be wrong) for special occasions, but that was when I was younger. I can't imagine doing that now--it just seems like one of those things that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY would care about but me, and I don't care anymore! I think there may be more personal choice involved here than I'd seen earlier. Hmmm.

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  17. Anyone else noticed the trend for men to remove body hair? I'm thinking this is less about gender as time goes on, because I do know men who shave their arm pits and "down below." I think it's becoming a trend, albeit, a bit of an odd one.

    And let's not forget cyclists and swimmers who generally remove most of their body hair (men and women).

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    1. Aimee, I hadn't thought of that when writing the post but that's an excellent point--I do think it's a bit of a trend. Hell, the term "manscaping" now exists, for starters. And as bad as I feel about women's bodies being trendified, I've always felt particularly unsettled by men's chest hair being seen as a trend--I went out with a hairy dude who lamented he hadn't been a man in the Burt Reynolds era. And when I think of the nerves I saw him go through pre-beach (he had back hair that he was really self-conscious about)...it's sort of heartbreaking. Because as much of a trend as it is for men to depilate, I still don't think it's a public matter--I feel no shame whatsoever about saying that I shave my legs (conflict, but not shame) but I imagine for a man to say he gets his back waxed still has some connotations of "ew! girl!"

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  18. Considering I was one of the women that said "I do it for me!" I feel like I'm required to comment here!

    I understand that no choice I make is in a vacuum but at some point I have to stop existing in rhetoric and politics and live in my body. And sometimes that body has hairy parts and sometimes it has zero hairy parts (the ones in question that it...). I understand what Dysmorphia said that "there is no such thing as a personal choice about our bodies" but that seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy since if I make a decision about my body it's met with "Ok but really? REALLY is that what you want?" It feels condescending and frankly, rather silly in a 'not feminist enough' type of way. I'm not a particularly well-read feminist so I'm saying that from the point of view of your average lady person/me.

    Maybe you're invested in that strip of skin means more than me and that's awesome! We need more people like that. But dang if a girl can't win around here! Or is the point that we all lose no matter what we do? Wah wah wahhhh. ; )

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    1. ModernSauce, in responding to comments here I'm seeing in sharp relief how complex and, yes, personal body hair is. I do think that women's appearance is by nature politicized--but I also think that there may be more personal choice in here than is traditionally allowed by political contexts. I commented above that I was initially struck by the number of women who reported shaving legs or pits but not both, and how I didn't get that, but then I realized I shave my legs and pits but leave my pubic hair alone and can't imagine doing otherwise. And yes, that's political, but it's also deeply personal—I mean, on a literal level (few people see that) and also on a...personal-personal level (that's my body! I don't want to change that about it!).

      And I think that your last paragraph hits something big: Is it that there's no way for a girl to win around here, or that there's no way for her to lose? Where's the intersection between the two? The best I can do is try to examine these questions without judgment (and I hope my comments didn't come off as judgy of unashamed depilators! I'm largely one of them/us, and I really am to-each-her-own, or at least I think I am--I'm certain I fall short sometimes) but then at a certain point it's also like, Well, there's only so far that conversations about personal choice can go before it totally loses context, i.e. the nexus of the conversation.

      (Visualizing a body hair powwow--)

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    2. "may be more personal choice in here than is traditionally allowed by political contexts" yes, I agree! That's what I was trying to say (clumsily) because after awhile all that talk is just circular and by the time we've hashed it out, I'm stubbly again.

      I think I WAS feeling judged a bit but that was probably a result of my personal experiences (it's a loaded issue and I'm also a delicate emotional flower!) than your word choice. I'll be a proud "Hair Powwow 2012" attendee! I feel like there's a really good logo for that...

      PS Look at all these comments from this post!

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    3. I don't think your feelings of judgment are just from being a delicate emotional flower (not that you're anything less precious than a daffodil, mind you)--this is really personal stuff, and I think that's actually why the idea of body issues and politics become so loaded--why, despite there being many other feminist issues that are objectively more "important," people keep coming back to what we do with our bodies as being a feminist touchstone. It's the weird place where private and public meet; it's a space of intense emotion and ambivalence. And in my case, when I see someone who has rejected beauty work I can't help but feel like I'm somehow not doing enough to question my own beauty work--but when I do question it by cutting parts of it, I just don't feel as comfortable in my skin, and then what good does my rejection of the beauty work do if I'm also rejecting myself?

      Hair Powwow 2012 would be awesome, let's be honest here.

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  19. I think this is such an interesting discussion, and somthing I've thought about a lot over the years. I am 37 and I've done much on the spectrum. There was a time that I shaved nothing, and yes, it was because of my feminist beliefs. However, I will add that at the time most of my friends didn't shave either, so I didn't stand out as much. Currently, I shave legs, pits, and do a good deal of grooming elsewhere. While I am still a feminist, I just don't care how my body hair reflects that any more. And, attack me for this if you will, but personally I feel much sexier to myself and to others when I do shave, and the men I've been with recently express that feeling as well. So,I shave away, it can be a pain, but it doesn't bother my mind one bit. And I still believe in equality for all.

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    1. Anonymous, this is totally reflective of what so many women are saying here. I'm struck by how complex this topic is--I thought I was the only one who felt so richly about it and I'm fascinated to see that's not the case. I absolutely feel sexier when I shave, and part of it is certainly buying into patriarchal beauty standards...and part of it is loving the feeling of silky-smooth legs. There's no "right" way to approach this. So glad to hear your voice here--

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  20. Your post was intriguing and so are the comments. A deceptively complex subject. Hair is so often a culturally-loaded signal for gender. On Halloween, for example, it's okay for a man to wear women's clothing *if* he's hairy and shows it, because that's his remaining badge of masculinity. Lots to ponder here. You raise great topics.

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    1. Oh wow, that's such a great point too--about how even when ostensibly engaging in gender play, the signs of masculinity need to be there and obvious. (And the reverse holds true, though women have it easier as far as crossing gender norms in appearance in this way. I remember dressing as a male pirate for Halloween one year when I was a teenager and loved it because it emphasized how not-masculine my features actually were. Hmmm.)

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  21. Just weighing in with my two cents, I self-identify as a feminist and I consistenly shave my armpits but only occassionally shave my legs (like maybe only during the summer shorts season, or the lower part only to end irritation with my socks catching on the hair).

    My reasonings for this are a multiple:
    1 - As a political statement - i.e. why should I "have" to shave my legs when men don't? Hair is a natural thing... Women being hairless isn't an inherent part of being a feminine woman.

    2 - I do a minimum of beauty work in general as I value my sleep and other activities more than beauty work - the time it takes to "beautify" myself takes away from those activities.

    3 - The reason I shave my armpits is probably mostly about the smell (smells more when hairy) and partly about the aesthetic, armpit hair on anyone (male or female) kind of grosses/weirds me out. BTW - my husband also shaves his armpit hair for the same reasons as I do - he did this prior to meeting me and I think came up with it on his own.

    In general, I agree that people should be free to make their own choices in what they do with their bodies. However, there is an ENORMOUS amount of pressure from society to conform to certain beauty standards. I remember as a teen (prior to deciding not to shave my legs) a guy rubbed up accidentally to a girl who didn't shave and he "freaked out"!!! That definintely made an impression on me at that point.

    But in the end, it's more about what the "group think" decides than what is inherently more beautiful or pleasing - exhibited by the fact that women in other countries don't shave like we do. I wish we could get to the point where society was more accepting of a WHOLE RANGE of choices rather than having one ideal or mode of acceptability.

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    1. HeyKeen, thank you for breaking down the reasons here--so interesting! And I hear you on wishing that our society was welcoming of a whole range of choices. I wonder what that would mean, though--it sounds awesome but I wonder if it would lead to even more "typing" of sorts, almost like a fetishizing? That's not what you're talking about (I'm assuming you mean more like a personal style choice--like how nobody thinks twice if I wear patterns as opposed to solids) but I do wonder if that would happen. Already with the rising advent of pubic shaving I've had men comment on how "unusual" mine is--almost like they're categorizing me in some sort of other category. But that's cynical of me, I admit!

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    2. Definitely. People aren't sheep, and whats right for one person isn't necessarily the right choice for someone else.
      You'd think people would be more supportive (or at least not so openly critical of others choices). Its not like its hurting anyone!

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  22. as a man (who isn't getting any) why do you care about another womans fanny?

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