When we discussed women’s pubic hair a while back, there were lots of interesting comments from people with very diverse views on the subject. So you can just imagine my excitement when someone sent me research which asked female students to grow their body hair – legs and underarm – for 10 weeks and record reactions from others and their own feelings in diary format.
The 34 participating students were all under thirty, mixed racially (41% non-white) and mixed in terms of sexual orientation (70% opposite sex attracted; 18% both sex attracted; 12% same sex attracted). They did not have to disclose that they were growing their body hair to anyone else, or discuss it if they did not wish.
“Choice” is such a contentious term in feminism. I am not down with giving women a hard time about any choice we make about how we present ourselves or live our gender, whether that means rebelling, subverting or conforming to traditional ideas of femininity. But finding ways to consider how our choices are constrained and enabled I find endlessly fascinating, and I’m often frustrated when attempts to discuss this turn into “all choices are equally fine.” Because while they might be equally fine in the choosing, they are certainly not equally fine in the consequences for women. Which is why, of course, we all pick our battles around rebellion, subversion and conformity, based on energy, desire, analysis, capacity, access to resources etc etc etc.
For me, feminism is about a whole heap more than getting to do whatever I want because “it’s my choice.”
Back to body hair. Women participating in this research talked about a cluster of concerns the researchers call “heteronormative social control” and “gendered anxiety” while watching their leg hair lengthen. They were worried about receiving homophobia; being seen to be queer; or if queer, being outed when they did not wish to be. For many women, this included being scared about physical violence:
I keep worrying that it’s not just fun and games having body hair. Maybe some guy at a bar will see my armpit hair and think I’m a lesbian and he’ll round up a group of guys and attack me. I have heard about it happening to women who are perceived as dykes. I’ve seen guys harass women who don’t want anything to do with men.
Lots of women also talked about the social controls they experienced around suddenly not being seen as “real women” or male. One woman’s mother told her that her legs looked like men’s legs now; others had people in their lives asking if they were wanting to become men.
I was asked a question by a male coworker if my husband and I have sex during my body hair growth. I replied by saying yes. He asked if my husband thought he was having sex with a “dude.” I told him, “Why would he think that, the rest of my body is still there, I still have boobs and a vagina. I’m still the same person as before, I just have some hair.” I have really enjoyed making the guys at work cringe.
More than half the women talked about feeling “on display” during the assignment, having their underarm hair paraded by others as a “tourist attraction” or “circus act.” There was no question they were breaking gender rules.
The final cluster of concerns women shared in this research was to do with women’s bodies and male possession. Nearly all partnered heterosexual women were asked if their male partner approved of them growing their body hair. Many women also talked about ongoing social expectations that they should get their body hair under control in order to be attractive to men.
My fiancée told his father about the body hair thing I’m doing. He was very offended by it. The first thing he asked was, “Did she ask for your permission first?” I was so offended by this. As if my fiancée is in control of what I do to my body! I don’t need anyone’s permission for anything I want to do with my body. And if my fiancée said absolutely not, I would do it anyways and probably wouldn’t be marrying him right now. I guess his dad went on and on about how women need to have smooth bodies, that he couldn’t be with his own wife if she didn’t shave. “Women with hairy legs, it’s just not right!” Guys like him are the reason why I was so obsessed with shaving my entire body. Those guys ruined my self-esteem, my self-worth, and my confidence. Body hair isn’t gross. Men like him are!
This research is interesting because it questions the idea of choice explicitly. Can we “choose” not to shave body hair? Without punishment? Or when we call some things “choosing” are we glossing over social controls and constraints which are ultimately harmful to all genders?
I stopped shaving my legs when I was 18, and my underarms when I was 21. Both were feminist decisions about wanting to explore why body hair on women was unacceptable, and how my body would feel and look if I broke those rules.
My lovers have only ever expressed support and desire around these choices; no doubt potential lovers who haven’t approved have gone elsewhere. There’s also no doubt I’m not interested in being sexual with anyone who doesn’t like my body.
None of my family have ever commented, except for my mother who despite shaving herself explicitly supported me choosing to abstain and said many times she wished she had never started shaving. But as with the women in this research, there have been a multitude of ways I’ve been reminded over the years that this “choice” is deviant by others – that, I’m afraid, is another post entirely.