“Most women shave off the hair under their arms,” whispered a horrified five-year-old. “I know,” I whispered back. She shot me a look of mingled incredulity and distain.
I haven’t shaved for 23 years. I know, I know. Shaggy underarms are at the top of the list of Feminist Stereotypes, probably right next to “burning your bra.” You’d think I attended college in the 1970s rather than been born during that decade.
I tried shaving, but after six years of gashing my legs and getting red, itchy rashes under my arms, I threw in the towel.
Actually, the reason I thought that not shaving could even be possible was due to Pia, the Swedish exchange student who attended my high school during my sophomore year. Pia wore miniskirts, showing her long, white-blonde leg hair to God and everybody. Of course, within two months she had begun to shave as part of her acculturation process. But she had already made her impression on me.
I’m going to say right here, because I know the first riposte this post will provoke, that I have had my fair share of sexy times with men even though I don’t shave. (I say only “men” because I doubt anyone is going to chime in on the comments with “No self-respecting hot lesbian would want you with that disgusting pit hair.”) Yes, Virginia, there are hetero cis-men who hit skins with women with body hair and either don’t mind or actively enjoy it. After all, ahem, I do have two children with my handsome, hetero cis-man husband.
I am not alone in my alarm at American culture’s intolerance for body hair. Not because I think that all women should let their body hair GROOOOW FREEEEEE! I am not opposed to women (and men) who trim, shave, wax, electrolyze, or thread off some or all of their body hair. Bodily autonomy is a feminist principle.
But I do object to a culture that excludes, shames, or punishes women (or men) who do not wish to participate in depilation.
I never thought about how early this enculturation starts, until one day when my daughter’s friend, five years old, came up to me and whispered, “Most women shave off the hair under their arms.” She said it in the exact tone of an old lady admonishing another that her slip was showing. “I know,” I whispered back, and smiled. She shot me a look of mingled incredulity and distain and walked away.
I am fortunate that the kind of places I have worked — queer-oriented public health, publishing, teaching abroad, graduate school — did not require a conventional [American] cis-woman presentation. I didn’t have to shave, wear high heels, or wear make-up. This is not to say I don’t groom myself (although my grooming has slipped a bit since my small children have transformed the simple ritual of showering into a major undertaking).
I just don’t think women should be held to a higher standard of appearance — that is, one that demands more attention, time, and expensive products — than men.
I hate that stock sitcom gag where a man rolls his eyes over how long it takes a woman to get ready to go out. On the one hand, the joke theatrically bemoans the vanity of women; on the other, it writes over the ways men have historically required women, as their property, to represent and display beauty and — by extension — wealth and class. Although most of us are no longer categorized as property, we can still be props — as adornment, as visual pleasure for the male gaze, as symbols of affluence, often in service to increasing men’s social capital. (And the methods of beautifying — the couture, the accessories, the jewelry, the shoes — simultaneously showcase yet hide the labor of those of far lesser economic and social status — mostly women, some even children.)
My refusal to shave is one way that I opt-out of the expected time-consuming ritual of costuming for feminine performance. It’s my small, daily rebellion against this facet of sexism. By being “out” about not shaving, perhaps I can be Pia to another woman or girl.
It is also an assertion of the importance of my pleasure, my time, and the integrity of my body. I have decided that men’s aesthetic pleasure does not rank above my bodily discomfort — pain from cuts, itching from rashes. I prefer to use my time doing something that gives me pleasure rather than removing my body hair.
For some women, the removal gives them pleasure, and that can be a feminist act, too.
But in a gender-equal world, every woman deserves the right to her own calculus.
Originally published on ArañaMama on March 18, 2014.