I have tweezed, plucked, trimmed, and stroked myself with a razor. I have fought an unwinnable war, again and again, with the hair on my body. But for the first time this summer I asked myself the big question: “Why do I shave? Is it really a personal choice or a post-puberty expectation?”
It started out with a trip to the doctor’s office. I had some random pesky bumps on my leg that had multiplied due to shaving (warts are disgusting). The doctor gave me one order upon leaving, “Don’t shave your legs for a few months!” I was immediately upset. I had been shaving my legs since I was 13. It is the puberty rite of passage in the Western world, transitioning girls from young ladies into womanhood. For eight years I had been shaving my legs and my armpits, but it was not until I was forced to stop when I really, really thought about my reasoning for shaving and do some research on the history of shaving.
First and foremost body modification has been around since the beginning of humankind. Shaving practices have faded in and out throughout history. But it was not until the early 1900s that a hairless body expectation was created for women.
The concept that “advertisements are powerful” is entirely accurate. At the edge of the 20th century, marketing campaigns targeted the abolition of women’s body hair. The first to be ousted was female armpit hair. In the May 1915 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, the very first advertisement was run displaying a woman from the waist up with her arms raised, revealing her hairless pits. Leg hair soon became the next culprit. As hemlines were raised and nylons faded from popularity, leg hair was soon to follow. Advertisements successfully convinced women and men alike, that female body hair was: 1. Unhygienic, and 2. Unfeminine. Body hair removal soon became a universal expectation for women in the United States.
In my own experience, not shaving my legs was the most effortless thing I have ever done. My feelings towards my leg hair, however, were ultimately very negative. As my leg hair grew, at first I felt bothered, unclean, and somewhat gross. The disgust that I felt towards my leg hair was the most disturbing part of my forced social experiment.
Similarly Arizona State University Professor, Breanne Fahs, decided to begin a social experiment with her gender studies class. Professor Fahs offered extra credit to her students to shave (for males) and to not shave (for females). She broke down her experiment into two subsections: 1. the imagined reaction to body hair, 2. the actual response to body hair growth. In the first study, one theme was common: women viewed body hair growth as a “personal choice” that they decided not to participate in and dismissed the idea that social pressures were involved in that choice. In the second study, Fahs discovered that the female students in her class who chose not to shave for a semester had internalized feelings of disgust, viewing themselves as “unclean” or “dirty”. My feelings towards my own leg hair at the beginning of the summer were exactly the same.
One of the most common views towards female body hair is described as unhygienic. I was given several reminders by my friends and family members that there is nothing wrong with having body hair “as long as you’re being clean!” This has always struck me as very odd. How is that men are not viewed as unclean for their body hair? There is nothing unclean about body hair. It is a myth created by advertisements for over a hundred years, which has no basis. If someone is showering and using soap, then there is really no cause for anyone to view body hair as unhygienic.
Another commonality in regards to female body hair is that women worry about their romantic partners sentiments towards their hair. Pubic hair, armpit hair, and leg hair have all been labeled as taboo for women who want to have a healthy sexual life. In pornography, women without pubic hair are mainstream and considered the standard for “sexiness”. To perpetuate this idea, television shows and films portray women as more sexually attractive when they shave.
For instance, in a rather dramatic episode of How I Met Your Mother, Robin explains to her friends her “no shave policy”. She does not shave on her first date with a man, so that even if she is tempted to have sex with him, her hairy legs will instantly stop her from having sex. Or who could forget in Amélie when she calls a XXX store and the man on the line says, “Are you shaved? Fur pie doesn’t sell.” All these examples attribute to the one truth: in Western culture, shaving, waxing, and plucking are all done to reach the trifecta of sexual attractiveness.
Over the summer, I began to accept my hairy legs. Hell, I even submitted a photo of my hairy legs to the infamous Hairy Legs Club Tumblr page! I feel empowered to not shave my legs and am also considering my next step as “Freeing the Armpit Hair!” The hardest part is in the beginning, avoiding the temptation of picking up a razor in the shower. Then the next step is to allow the little stubble to grow into soft, long hair. The final step is acceptance. I had to learn to accept the stares that I received and be at peace with it. It seems that whenever someone branches out from the “norm”, scrutiny and judgment are always given. Body hair is completely natural. It is not unhygienic or unfeminine. It is a part of who I am and I am no longer afraid to reveal it.
The truth of the matter is that: yes, body hair on females in Western culture is viewed as unattractive. But it is impossible to truly understand if you are shaving or not shaving because you want to, or because of the social normality of body hair. Either way the choice is yours and yours alone. As for me, my leg hair is here to stay.