Just over four years ago, I participated in “Movember” by not shaving my armpits. I am not a very hairy person to begin with, so I had quit shaving my legs the year before. It was a decision initially rooted in the prospect of eliminating another mundane task from my daily hygiene routine coupled with a complete disinterest in pursuing a love life, but it evolved into a fierce component of my autonomy as a woman. “What else could I grow out that would have some sort of personal significance,” I thought to myself. It ended up being my pit hair.
I absorbed the idea that woman = hairless almost by osmosis. I remember sneaking into my parents’ shower when they were still at work so I could use my mom’s razor to shave my legs. In junior high, I got the best piece of makeup advice I’ll ever receive from my friend in P.E.: Never pluck above; only underneath. By that time, girls were already getting things waxed.
By high school, it was pubes that had to be eliminated. I could never stomach a Brazilian so it was shave, shave, shave. I never took the time to think about how it looks, to shave all of my pubic hair. It was kind of gross to me, in a prepubescent way. I had just become a woman in most senses of the word -so, why was I supposed to look like a little girl? There of all places? Don’t get me wrong: women all have their own reasons for doing things and I respect everyone’s right to do as they see fit with their own hair. The effect is still off-putting for me personally. But enough about vaginas. This is about armpits.
So I grew them out. It was the only time in my life I had ever made a conscious decision not to shave my armpits, so I saw what my natural body hair looked like literally for the first time. And well, it looks like armpit hair. But there is something nice about it – it’s soft and still a little wiry and somehow a little lighter than the hair on my head.
I haven’t shaved them since that first day of November four years ago. The biggest thing I noticed and still struggle with is that I’m self-conscious about it. Seldom will I wear anything sleeveless out in public without a sweater over it. Even knowing all my reasons for maintaining this personal grooming decision, and even feeling passionate about them, I’m still very susceptible to feeling like I’m doing something wrong. Why?
The obvious answer is that it has been ingrained in my (and probably your) head since I was a little girl that women are supposed to be soft and smooth and hairless. That women with any kind of facial or body hair are “gross” and don’t “take care of themselves.” But how many times have straight/bi women had to cuddle under the hairy ass arm of some sweaty dude? Sure, there are some men who adhere to the hairless standard themselves, but they are few and far between in my experience. And honestly, like who actually gives a shit?
This experiment made me realize how completely I had adhered to this standard of feminine beauty without ever really thinking about it. Why are women “supposed” to be hairless? Is it because it’s more pleasing to a man’s touch? If that’s the reason, why do women of all sexual identities also shave? It it more aesthetically pleasing? Probably, but wouldn’t that also be due to our ubiquitous exposure to this one beauty standard? Is it “cleaner” or “healthier?” Well, no, we have body hair for a number of reasons, including protecting sensitive areas of our bodies from exposure to pathogens and better regulating our body temperature.
Once I asked myself these questions, I got angry. I had been doing something for the majority of my life, usually every day, that was completely unnecessary. Shaving serves no practical purpose and is very often painful, uncomfortable, and annoying (see waxing, razor burn, having to shave every day, etc.) to boot. I think the part that made me the angriest, however, was the realization that I still feel like I’m doing something wrong.
In German, pubic hair is called “Schamhaar,” which literally translates to “shame hair.” This word perfectly describes my troubled relationship with my body hair. I look at my husband, who is about as hairy a man as you can imagine, and he looks great. I think every new person I’ve ever introduced him to compliments him on his beard. Why do men get to have their hair celebrated and ours is scrutinized? It’s not fair.
So here’s the deal. Ladies & femmes, I’m not advocating that you stop shaving and be one of those loud, hairy feminists like me. All I’m saying is stop and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it because you like it better, or is it because it would be strange (to you and to others) not to? In my personal experience, it was the latter. The only way to change a social norm is to challenge it and to think critically about how we pass along the message to our kids.
I saw a great episode of Bob’s Burgers where Tina realizes she has leg hairs and doesn’t want her classmates to make fun of her about them. Her dad takes her to go wax her legs, where he gets it done too out of solidarity. When someone later refers to body hair as “your little friends,” Tina thinks about body hair in a different way and starts to regret her decision:
The episode ends with the message that everyone gives into peer pressure sometimes, but the most important thing you can do is learn from it and decide for yourself what makes you happy.
For me, for now, not shaving feels liberating. It feels natural and rebellious. I still have to confront my own reservations and I still cringe a bit when I think about what other people might think if they knew or saw. It may be a little thing, but breaking down this barrier for myself has made me feel bold and brave – and that’s a great way for all women to feel.