Apparently 2015 is the Year of the Armpit Hair and 2014 was the Year of Pubes, so says Fashion Magazine (to be fair, they pose this as a question, rather than a proclamation, but by the end of the article, it’s clear that the question “Is ENTER YEAR the year of ENTER BODY HAIR?” has been answered, and the answer is YES!). Miley Cyrus has been posting photos of her armpit hair on Instagram, with more recent photos of her waxing it off; everyone is dying their armpit hair every colour of the rainbow (kinda want to join that bandwagon), and American Apparel added pubic hair to their mannequins for Valentine’s day. A love affair with body hair is blooming.
Or is it….? While body hair is certainly getting more attention in the media, I’m not sure if we’ve really moved that far away from the uproar that Petra Collins’ infamous pubes poking out of underwear Instagram photo caused in 2013. Just because we are seeing more – and by “more” I should really same “some” – pubic hair in the mainstream media, I don’t think that we should be ready to proclaim that pubic hair, or any body hair for that matter, is now widely accepted.
I say this because many women who define themselves as feminists, myself included still aren’t ready – and perhaps never will be ready, perhaps they don’t need to be ready – to embrace their body hair. Or, if we do, it might be for the winter, when our legs are buried under jeans; or maybe in the summer we won’t shave for a month, but then we do. So while the question of to shave or not to shave remains, what lies underneath that question is: Am I a feminist if I shave?
This is a question that has plagued me, many of my friends, and countless others women over the last couple of years since women have been embracing body hair. Feminist writer Caroline Rothstein wonders how she can be a feminist when she submits herself to the “hedonistic bikini wax.” In her response to Rothstein’s post, HermioneStranger notes how the “great pubes debate” has yet to die down and takes Rothstein to task for the “straightness that permeates [her] essay and the pubes debate at large.” Claire Litton-Cohn describes how “when I shaved my legs for the first time in a while, a friend angrily asked me why; he felt I was less of a feminist without the hair.” We’re being told that body hair is “on the frontline of feminist action,” and that it is anti-capitalist to not shave. And yes, both of these things can be and are true for many women. But for some, the choice to not shave is very fraught. Patriarchy has done a pretty great job ingraining in women the belief that body hair is dirty, undesirable, unfeminine, gross, etc. As a feminist, I can recognize that that message is SO WRONG. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel self-conscious when I decide to wear shorts when I haven’t shaved my legs in weeks. And I’m fortunate enough to be a woman with very light hair, so you can’t really see it. And yet, I believe that everyone can.
There are a lot of articles and essays and blog posts celebrating body hair. And I want to celebrate that celebration. But I’ve noticed that there aren’t as many that are talking about the choice not to shave or how that choice makes one question their ethics and their feminist beliefs. There isn’t a lot of discussion about just how much the patriarchal narratives of “no body hair ever” suck. So I asked some of my friends to come over one night for dinner, wine, and a discussion about body hair. It is important to acknowledge the fact that the majority of these women are white. I did my best to work within my social network and ask women from different backgrounds (academic, non-acdemic, queer, immigrant, half-Indian, Eastern European, light-haired and dark-haired) to be a part of the conversion. For more perspectives from women of colour, please take a look at Tasnim Ahmed’s “The Politics Of Hair Removal For Women Of Color,” in which she talks to other WOC and asks them some similar questions to the ones that came up below. And there’s also Aisha Mirza’s “Women of Colour and Body Hair.”
Because I loved all two hours and 14 pages worth of dialogue, I’ve decided to split this post into two. In this half, or “Act I,” we talk about when we first started shaving, what we were shaving, and what influenced us to start removing our body hair. In “Act II,” we talk about living under patriarchy, what feminism with or without body hair looks like for us, and the question of exhaustion and how to survive under a capitalist and patriarchal society. I hope that you enjoy this conversation. I can’t thank my friends enough for their honesty, humour, and vulnerability.
Warning: There is no shortage of “mature” content below. If you don’t really want to hear me talk about my vagina, then you should maybe forgo this post 🙂
The What, the When, and the Why
Question 1: What age did people start removing body hair and what did you start with?
Laura: Eyebrows. I can’t remember what age I was, but I remember finding my mom’s tweezers and plucking out the middle of my eyebrows and then I went to my mom and I was like, “Look mom! Now I have two eyebrows!”
Dee: My eyebrows were also first and my mom actually waxed them for me when I was 11 and I didn’t start shaving until many years after that. But I had a serious unibrow that I hated and that I wanted off my face. And I had cut my hair really short and thought, “I’m going to look like a boy unless I wax my eyebrows.” It was unbelievably painful.
Kash: Mine also happened in stages. I think I shaved my armpits first. I was maybe 12 or 13 when I started shaving my armpits and then a couple of years later I started shaving my legs and then my eyebrows. And then at some point my mom was like, “You gotta deal with your lip” and I looked in the mirror and thought, “Yes, I do.” I hadn’t noticed that before. And I don’t think I started dealing with anything pubic until I was wearing bikinis and feeling cute and making out with boys and stuff.
Abi: I was actually forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to shave or do anything to my body because my family wanted me to remain super humble and not vain, so there would be days where I would cover up with a sweater and get heat stroke… I went to school in Aurora, so I was not considered white [because of my dark hairiness]. I think the first was my eyebrows because I had one really beautiful eyebrow. And then I turned it into two for my baby prom in grade 8 and it was the greatest day in my life.
Barbara: I’ve absolutely no idea. It must’ve been my underarms and it must’ve been at some point in high school but I couldn’t tell you. Because I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup, I didn’t really think about other things that I could or couldn’t do to my body.
Me: I have a very vivid memory of me and my best friend deciding to shave our legs together – and she was a year older than me (I was 11) and so had been shaving for longer. But for whatever reason we decided to shave our legs in the bathroom sink, not in the bathtub and it was really awkward and I cut my legs up a lot. And then definitely armpit hair. And then I shaved my arm hair at one point and that was the worst ever.
Kash: The armpits started for me really young, but the legs, for some reason my mom wanted me to hold off on – a weird sort of staggering.
Abi: Enjoy your youth.
Kash: I felt like other girls were giving me side-eye.
Dee: Looking back, it’s also hard to remember things, but I actually think that shaving my armpits was first. I got my period really early, like when I was 9, so I hit puberty insanely early. And I don’t actually have really hairy legs, but my armpits are like old growth forest. And I’m having the memory of crying about it and getting upset. Maybe somebody said something. I can’t remember. But when you said “being around other people,” I remembered how we always had to be around other people for gym.
Kash: I remember lying about it once and that was the last time that I didn’t shave. I was in gym class and these girls were giving me looks and I lied and said that I’d forgotten to shave. But absolutely not! I’d forgotten to shave for like 12 years! And I remember going home and saying mom, “I absolutely have to do this.”
Question 2: I’m interested in what influenced your decisions to start shaving. Was it your parents? Your peers? For me it was pornography (as my mom passed away before I hit that milestone and my dad wasn’t going to broach the subject). I saw these women with no hair anywhere. And I was like, “Oh, okay, that’s how I’m supposed to look.”
Barbara: My mother threatened that if I shaved my hair would grow in thicker and darker and black. But then as soon as I was getting ready for prom my mom was like, “Okay, time to get your legs waxed.” And she made me an appointment; she didn’t even ask me. When I asked about it growing back in thicker she said, “Oh no, it’s fine as long as you wax it. Plus you can’t have hairy legs at prom.” And after that I didn’t stop. I started shaving because the pain of waxing was the worst. But I never stopped.
Abi: For me it was this boy that just wanted to inform me that I had super hairy arms and he was like, “By the way your skin looks like you’re from the Simpsons.” So it was clearly true love. I remember sneaking out to Shoppers to get that Veet cream, and in the dead of night I was going to do it – I had no idea what was going to happen. So when the burning and the smells started I just lost my shit and kept trying to wash it off. Then of course, you feel great for a day, and then it comes…the prickles.
Dee: I had someone make a similar comment about arm hair. I had a guy tell me, “You know, no guy will ever want to date you if you have arm hair like that.” And I was 14 at the time and I played it off, but on the inside I was dying and was like, “Is that true?” My skin is very light but my hair is very dark and so I asked a friend to wax my arms for me and continued to wax them for another 2-3 years, regularly. I’m talking up my hands and fingers. And it’s unbelievably painful.
Abi: And knuckle hair is real! I remember shaving my knuckle hair.
Laura: Yeah, I’ve done that. Mine’s really fine, but it’s definitely there.
Kash: I also had people comment on my arm hair in the weird manner of fact way. I remember sitting there in grade 10 or 11 and trying to look cute for some dude. And you know the pseudo-statement that’s actually shaming, where he’s like, “You have a lot of arm hair.” And that was it. I bleached my arms for a while. But then it grows back in and you have this weird Mohawk situation of arm hair.
Abi: It’s crazy what boys feel comfortable saying to you. I remember this guy coming up to me and saying, “You know you’d be pretty cute without a mustache.” And I was like, “Dude!”
Kash: Like I don’t want to be cute for you anyways.
Laura: I’m remembering now what first got me. In my mind, I’ve always just thought that it was internal (like it just came from me), because it never came from my mom. But I had the idea of hair removal and it must’ve come from comments from boys. I remember them being really mean. Lots of racist comments. I feel like I might’ve blocked something out.
Abi: Yeah, like you repress that shit the second it comes out of their mouth. You’re just like “Noooooooo.”
Kash: Mine was a lot of girls and other ladies. Boys came much later. They came for the hair that I didn’t realize I had, like the less obvious stuff. I remember not really having noticed that I had hairy arms until some dude pointed it out. And the same happened with my lip hair. Although my mom had been trying to convince me that that was a thing. But it took a boy to convince me it was real.
Natalie: I don’t remember when I started shaving my legs. But I remember going through puberty earlier than most girls – I got my period in grade 5 and most girls didn’t get theirs until grade 7 or 8. I remember going to some place with a water slide in grade 6. And I had this bright yellow Snoopy bathing suit that I loved and I felt awesome. I was waiting in line to go on the water slide and all of sudden I noticed these boys looking at me and laughing and like, down there. And I didn’t know what was going on, so I looked down and there was all of this pubic hair just sticking out of my Snoopy bathing suit. But it never occurred to me. I wasn’t conscious of it. And then I was like, “OH! Gotta deal with that.” It was a weird moment of: “Oh, this is a thing.”
The Where and the Hair…Down There
Me: Well, since Natalie brought up pubic hair, if anyone wants to weigh in on that…
Kash: I have very strong feelings about it.
* laughter *
Dee: I also have very strong feelings about it. I remember when I was 16, the girls at my school used to walk at lunch to the McDonald’s plaza where there was a hair salon and they would get full Brazilian waxes.
Natalie: On the lunch hour?!? I need like a full day to recover from that.
Dee: We’re all horrified right now. But I remember at the time, that I wanted to do it so bad! I asked my mom about it – and that was my first mistake – because she was fucking horrified. Because why do you want to remove your pubic hair if someone’s not going to see your vagina? So for her it was like, “NOOOO! NOOOO!” But I mean, it wasn’t even like I was planning to have sex. I just thought it would make me desirable in some way. I wasn’t even connecting it to sex. But I didn’t do it because I was terrified and my mother was incredibly nosey and I was like “She’ll know! She’ll know.” So when I first moved out of home, I was very young, I was 17, and one of the first things I did was make an appointment and get a Brazilian wax and I did that before I had sex with men, even before anyone saw my vagina. And I did it for a couple of years. It’s unbelievably painful, as anyone might imagine.
Kash: I remove a lot of body hair still. But that’s one thing I’ve never consistently removed. I waxed it once on the floor of my bathroom.
* laughter and snorting *
Indiscernible voices: You’re strong! You’re a beast!
Kash: All of your horrified faces express the noises that I made. You know, once you put it on there, you can’t wash it off. You’re fucking committed. So I turned on some punk music really loud, to get me amped up, because I had this wax down there and was like “I’m gonna fucking do it.”
Natalie: On your own?!?!
* laughter *
Barbara: Natalie didn’t want to hear it! That is unbelievable.
Kash: Other than that one time, I actually feel really strongly about not removing my pubic hair. For me, that decision was linked to feeling like a sexual being. But when I removed it, I felt like a little girl. Like, I don’t want to feel like a little girl when I’m having sex. Or even when I’m not having sex, going about my life as an adult, I don’t feel a need to be girlish. That’s the one thing that I’ve always felt, even when I was younger, that if some dude made a snarky comment about it, it was never up for negotiation. I did have one or two guys who were like, “It’s kinda hairy down there.” And even though I was so vulnerable to shame in so many other parts and this was this one thing that was just non-negotiable.
Abi: Just go down there and choke on some of it.
* laughter *
Kash: On your knees in service!
Barbara: That’s your penance!
Dee: That’s such a great story. I wish mine were the same. I stopped because I got a horrible skin infection.
Me: Oh I remember!
Dee: You’re actually probably thinking of the second skin infection. I don’t think we knew each other yet when the first one happened. But I did redo it one more time because I was going away to a cottage and I was like, “You know…I’ll just get it done.” But the first time I got a skin infection it was just horrifying. So I said, “Nope! No more! Whatever.” And I would say only later, in the last three or four years, I started to think about it more politically and ask about all of this discussion around how your body hair down there is related to dirt. You know it’s a weird aestheticization of being youthful, but there’s also this sense of dirtiness, which is the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do. And now I feel like I’d never do it on political terms. But that came much later. I wish it’d come earlier – and not because of that vicious fucking infection.
Kash: I’ve since read about the actual cleanly, healthy purposes of pubic hair. And even though other body hair for me is aesthetic, it’s like, cleaner and safer to have some pubic hair.
Abi: My experience was very similar to yours, Kash. It was like the first time I was going to have sex and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to psyche myself up for this,” and it was first year university and I call my girlfriend and I’m like, “I think I’m going to do it. Any tips?” And she was like, “Just make sure you’re good down there.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m good!” And then I called her back and was like, “What do you mean, good?”
* laughter *
Abi: And so oh my gosh, I can’t believe I took a blade down there, in a public washroom, it was so horrifying because I lived in res. Maybe I did it for a year on and off, but then after that I just stopped. And in a similar way I was like “Fuck this! Like why would I have to do this? This is dangerous! I might take the most important part of my body off!” So ever since then I kind of refuse to. Maybe some light trimming so that you can find it. Some kind of scaping. But I get highly offended when boys call it gross or unhygienic.
Kash: And just a brief moment of awareness for how shitty it is when it grows back in.
Dee: You’re whole vagina is unusable. Which is the whole purpose of doing it; like it’s supposed to be for sexy times but please don’t touch my vagina because it fucking hurts.
Me: Barbara, the look of horror in your eyes in kind of amazing.
Barbara: Clearly I probably have the least amount of experience in pubic hair at the table. Because I had so little body hair down there growing up, I just didn’t have to think about it. I didn’t have any issues until I was 21 or 22 and then I would see a stray hair outside of my bikini line and was like “Whoa! I’m gonna have to shave that one off!” And that was really exciting. I started to feel like a real woman. And my first partner never had a problem with it. So when we broke up and I first starting dating as a sexually active queer woman, I suddenly discovered the variety of things that women do with their pubic hair. I remember the first time I was with a woman with no pubic hair was when I started to get really political about it, because I thought, “Why do you feel like you have to make yourself look like a little girl?”
Abi: Like I understand why smooth is nice, like smooth things are fun * strokes table * smooth things are fun. My anger comes when it feels like it’s being enforced or how different methods of hair removal can impact your body over time. So that’s what makes me angry. It’s so casual and widely accepted that there’s never really any conversation on why we’re doing this, except the “Wink wink, I know why you’re doing this.” And that gets to me, the “Wink wink, we’re all girls here.” And it’s like, really, are we? What are we doing here?
Kash: And like, out of all of the body hair I’ve removed, my pubic hair is the worst. I can’t just be like, “I’m doing this for fun…for me…” because on the floor of my bathroom when I did that myself, that wasn’t fun.
Natalie: When I was in high school, the only time I got waxed when I was in grade 6 – not a Brazilian, just a bikini wax. But my mom and my godmother, my mom’s best friend, were going already. I don’t know how they thought to suggest this to a 12 year-old girl, but they were just like, “Why don’t you go? Just to have fun? This is an experience that women have. Fun. Whatever. Have an experience.” Maybe they knew I was self-conscious about it. And I was on my period at the time, so obviously it’s more painful. I did it once and was like, “That’s it! I’m fine! I’m good.” I never did it again. But I used to, in high school, shave little shapes into it, little hearts and moons for my partner’s amusement. And that felt really attractive and fun. I’d be in the bathtub thinking: “What shape today?” I’d still find that fun today. But I can’t be bothered. And other than that, I’m like wild and free.
We break for pie and return to the conversation about pubic hair after Natalie brings up those ads that are in the subways in Toronto right now about vaginal reconstruction and comments on the link between that and the policing of pubic hair…
Me: As I mentioned before, all of my lessons about body hair came from pornography. I watched a lot of porn from a fairly young age, because that’s how I had to learn about sex and my dad was definitely not having that conversation with me. And we had American satellite and unlocked pornography channels. So much of what I thought I should look like was defined through pornography. You shave all your pubic hair or have that landing strip…and I was never into the whole landing strip idea…
Kash: I don’t want to ask about what’s landing…
* laughter *
Dee: It’s a really bad metaphor. Totally in bad taste.
Abi: I know like nothing about the porn industry, it mostly scares me. There are some projects like make love not porn that are interesting to me or home-brewed cutsie pornography that I’d glance at. But like 9 times out of 10 it scars some young girl in terms of how they’re supposed to present themselves to partners that they desire. And I don’t know how to strip that away. I just want good porn.
Me: Well and now there’s like the internet and internet is sooooo accessible. For me –
Natalie: You had to really work at it.
Me: Exactly. And once my dad discovered that these porn channels were being utilized and blamed my brother for that (thanks for taking that hit little bro)…we discussed this at a later point * laughter * yeah the jig was up for us on that one…But then my dad put in passwords and you had to figure out what the passwords were. But now, with the internet, it’s so easy for anyone, male or female, to like find out about that. And the shit that’s on the internet is super misogynist…I was talking to my dissertation supervisor about this top recently and her observation about how because of the presence of internet pornography, men – and feminist men in particular – are feeling a lot of guilt and that guilt is linked to sexuality for them. And for women I think it’s more like shame that’s tied to sexuality for women. You’re expected to have to be more critical of your desire.
The Where, Where, Everywhere?
Kash: I kind of want to talk about the body hair that isn’t talked about. But stomach hair, neck hair, nipple hair, chin hair. And like I’ve read all of these articles where these kinds of body hair aren’t talked about. Maybe your mom takes you aside to address it. But otherwise you’re just like, “What’s this witch hair that grows out of my neck?”
Me: Let’s talk about it!
Abi: I’m always scared of waxing on my face because if I pull on my skin enough, then it’ll loosen.
Kash: It does change the texture. That’s why I get threading instead.
Abi: In my mind threading is magic –
Laura: I know! Like how does it happen?
Abi: Do you like your threader?
Laura: We [Kash and I] go to the same place. The lady that I had last week didn’t speak English very well, but we were chatting. And she was saying how it wasn’t fair being a woman and was like, “When I go to God, I tell him.”
* laughter *
Laura: And that was really comforting. There’s something really comforting about those places.
Kash: Yeah, you know that everyone is going there to take care of the same things. There’s something soothing about it.
Laura: There was a guy there last week and I kind of freaked out and thought “Oh my gosh! He’s going to see me have hairs taken out of my neck!” But then I realized that he had walked into a threading place and he’s gotta expect that.
Kash: The first time I ever told someone about nipple hair it was a mistake because I told someone who had very light hair. So she was like “Whaaaat?!?” And I was like, “Oh no! It is just me!”
* laughter *
Me: I don’t have nipple hair, but I do have this one hair lower down on my boob and it’s really dark and for a really long time I was super horrified by it. I was just like “I’m a freak! Oh my god! Women do not have hair here! What is this aberrant hair?” And I would pluck it out…but somehow I never saw it in the intermediate stage of growing back. One day it was just back!
Kash: This hair on my neck does that!
Abi: One time I was lying in the afterglow of sex and feeling great and it was daytime sex and the light was shining. And I remember this guy that I was with just gazing into my eyes and then he just went “flick” – for my nipple hair! He didn’t say anything. He probably didn’t realize what he was doing. I did my best to play it cool, but within 5 minutes I had figured out how to get out of the room and just bolted to the bathroom where I ripped it out, it was so sick. I went from feeling like Aphrodite to this gremlin. And I was like, why???? Such an innocent flick.
Barbara: My partner loves doing that all the time. I won’t notice that it’s grown back and she’ll be playing with it and I’ll be like “Stoppppppp!”
Abi: And the thing is, he was just like lovingly flicking my nipple hair.
Stayed tuned for Act II…coming soon.Tags: adolescence, body hair, body policing, capitalism, desire, family, gender norms, identity politics, Petra Collins, queer, sex, sexuality
This post was written by Margeaux