I wrote this in the early 90s, and since then the preference for hairlessness has spread to men. A commercial for a new product called Nono Hair features both men and women gleefully shaving off arm hair, chest hair, leg hair, you name it, all without pain. I’ll still argue that men still have a choice about removing their arm and chest hair, and women still don’t, so this essay still has relevance. Who knows where we’ll be in 15 more years?
I remember very clearly the first time I raked the blade under my arm. It gave me the shivers, not from excitement, but from feeling so uncomfortable, weird, unnatural—like the way your scalp hurts when your hair has been tied up on top of your head against gravity all day. Leg shaving came a short time later, and that’s when the cuts started in earnest. Cuts so close to the surface of the skin they bleed forever, especially the bad slices. From a skin cell’s point of view, you’ve scraped off an area the size of Texas . A cut that shallow and large completely stymies the blood clotting reflex.
My bad vision as well as my inexperience contributed to those cuts. As a teenager I wore very thick glasses, and my legs suffered when I was not wearing them. Finally, I took to wearing my glasses in the shower so I wouldn’t create so many red tributaries on my legs. Of course, when I say I could “see” better with my glasses on, you mustn’t take me literally. Without my glasses, my legs were a blurred white surface; with my glasses, my legs were a shimmering, elusive distortion as the water streamed down the lenses, giving me enough clear glimpses to hunt and shave and keep Texas cuts to a minimum.
I still have scars on the two most difficult parts of the leg: the shinbone and the lower calf, right above the heel where it’s just a convex, flesh-covered tendon versus the straight, sharp razor. These awkward, sensitive places have suffered some state-size cuts. The white round scars left behind remind me I used to be a real slasher.
Not long ago in the shower it occurred to me that I hadn’t cut myself in a long time. I know I nicked myself in high school and in college. But somewhere between then and now I learned how to run the blade lightly along the skin, applying no pressure. I abandoned my glasses and contact lenses and feel my way, running the fingertips of my left hand lightly after the blade checking for rogue hairs that have escaped. I expect—I want—to feel the smooth skin. Blind and naked I can shave like a pro.
However, when it comes to shaving my inner thighs, I’m still a slasher. Before college, I’d only shave that sensitive area if I wore a bathing suit. Since I lived in the Northeast, shaving four, maybe five times a year would cover beach trips in the summer. In college, however, living among many women my age changed all that; the hair that had lived happily outside of the boundary lines of my underwear off-season was no longer acceptable.
I learned the hard way that the skin in between my legs does not docilely accept the blade, nor can I toughen it up by frequent shavings. It fights back with a vengeance. I get one day of smooth, hairless skin followed by four days of rashy, painful red bumps. I was forced to search for an alternative.
To trick my skin into conforming to hairlessness, I bought a brand of depilatory recommended by no less an authority than Mademoiselle. I vowed to tame the hairy beast that crept down my thighs. The depilatory was called—appropriately enough—Bikini Bare. Dutifully I put it on, set the timer for 30 minutes, and sat on the dormitory bathroom floor with the magazine. I waited patiently through the fumes for my miracle. Every once in a while I checked the lotion’s progress, watching with satisfaction as the hair twisted and shriveled in the noxious cream. I returned to Mademoiselle, which was offering other ways to make myself beautiful and appealing. When the time was up, I wiped off the stinking lotion, now littered with severed hair (severed to the root, the product promised). I discovered, however, there was to be no miracle for me. While much of the hair was gone, a significant amount was still there; the stunted hairs held on triumphantly to their follicles. To spend 30 more minutes to launch another assault was more than I could stand.
I’ve either lacked the courage to try waxing, or have had the sense to avoid it. This is a “treatment” (we’re “sick” with hair, you know) performed in salons where a stranger puts warm wax on your naked legs, armpits, bikini line, or any other offending area. When the wax cools, he or she rips it off. My friends insist the pain, although intense, is quite temporary. I can’t get this image out of my mind: a giant Band-Aid being pulled ruthlessly from some hairy part of my body. The tacky back of the bandage pulls on each individual hair until the collective pain makes me either suck my breath in or cry out loud. Then I remember that the wax, unlike the bandage, will not give up its prisoner hairs, and I shiver. The fact that many women do this willingly on a regular basis should challenge any notion that women are physically weaker.
I did briefly consider electrolysis, until I read the definition in the dictionary: “The destruction of hair roots with an electrical current.” The ads make the procedure sound slightly more enticing: “Newest computerized equipment blend available,” says one ad. “Sterile Disposable Probes, Safe and Effective, Money Saving Packages,” says another. In fact, a lot of the ads talk about sterile and disposable probes. Perhaps I watch too much Star Trek, but any procedure that includes probes and a power source sounds like it’s better suited for exploration of the harsh environs of space. I will find another way to eliminate a natural product of my easily damaged, soft-tissue skin, thank you.
Of course, because all these methods have some undesirable element to them, I reached the logical question of why I have to get rid of the hair in the first place? What does it mean to find hairy legs on a woman repulsive and masculine? What are we seeing in ourselves that we dislike so much when we see hairy females? Does it remind us that we come from even hairier ancestors who grunted and had sloping foreheads? God forbid, does it make us think of strong-willed women who might be old-school politically active lesbians? Who knew a little hair could shed light on such deep-seated fears and insecurities?
A friend of mine suggested homophobia as a reason; straight men do not want hairy women because it is too similar to being with a man. Maybe, but there is so much less hair on women compared to men that I would suspect a man would have to be so homophobic as to need psychiatric care. And surely men aren’t that uncertain of their masculinity that women must act as a contrast to reassure them? Somewhere Virginia Woolf is laughing at my naiveté. Of course, straight women are not completely innocent in this mess either. Unfortunately, we can be just as terrified of being thought of as a lesbian for hairy indiscretions. But being a lesbian doesn’t get you off the hook either. All too aware of the political implications of society’s pressure to see its women hairless, lesbians can go to the other extreme where hairiness is an indication of how good a feminist you are. The best solution for everyone is to avoid including hair as a definition of masculinity, femininity, or how politically active you are. I offer following the general definition of sex devised by my sister: a person of the opposite sex is someone who has bumps where you don’t. A person of the same sex has bumps where you do.
Even though I am a feminist and I can see the blade that shaves me also controls me on the most subtle level, I too have been socialized against hairy women. This feeling is so strongly ingrained that it easily overcomes my constant hair removal discomfort. If I shave my legs this morning I will have five o’clock shadow tonight. When I get goose bumps, the natural body response kicks in to raise my hair. As the stunted, chopped off hairs struggle to rise on the backs of my thighs, I feel little pins of pains, irritating and uncomfortable. What is worse, I wonder, hair on my bikini line, or an”unsightly” painful rash?
I experiment with letting my body hair grow. I wait longer and longer between shaving, and the first time I did it, even I was startled by the outcome. I looked down at myself in my underwear. The natural hair growth emanated from the leg holes like wild underbrush creeping towards my knees. It was startling because of how disorderly it was. The smooth lines of my underwear were obliterated by the spreading hair. It looked uncivilized, cave woman-like. This is female, I thought.
I know the experiments can only last until summer comes, and I can no longer hold out against the pressure that comes from both men and women. My girlfriends, many of them feminists, are the first to inform me of hairy indiscretions at the beach. I have been chastised for a sloppy shaving job, never mind willful hair growth.
When I finally shave after weeks of growth, my legs feel the ghost hairs on them. The skin feels strange to the touch and to be touched—is this natural? Is that the point? Can we ever truly be liberated while we’re still taking the razor to our legs, armpits, bellies?
These questions lead me to the library to see if I could unearth the origins of shaving or the history of women’s body hair. The heading “Hair-removal” instructed me to look under the dreaded electrolysis (probes and a power source), which reveals these dispiriting titles: Beauty and Confidence Through Permanent Hair Removal, and Permanent Hair Removal: Out of the Dark Ages and into Today Toward a Better Future. Yikes! I turned instead to “Hair.” The screen suggested other headings for my search: “Health & Hygiene,” which seemed like a suspicious variation on the hair removal heading, and “Personal Beauty.” I kept scrolling and landed with hope on “Wild Women.” However, I discovered that wild women are only found in “Fiction” and “Folklore.” There seemed to be no nonfiction, hairy, wild women.
I made a detour to “Women-Sociological Aspects.” Perhaps someone had already studied the detrimental psychological effects of removing our hair. This path, however, was worse than the non-existent wild woman. It led me to”Women & Madness.” The computer search was turning out to be a feminist’s nightmare.
I reluctantly returned to the subhead “Beauty,” and that’s where I discovered the desired book, Put Down and Ripped Off, a book about the cosmetic industry’s oppression of women. Fortified, I panned for more nuggets of gold. I found another book called Femininity, which also discusses women and cosmetics.
My small victories quickly led to the numbing search through hundreds of titles under Beauty, which except for the two books I found have titles like number 129, Why Raise Ugly Kids? Fulfill Your Child’s Health and Happiness Potential. I shuddered and moved on. As the screens flipped by, I saw that every actress/model had a book on beauty: Christie Brinkley, Morgan Fairchild, Sophia Lauren.
When I arrived at the section of the library where my books were shelved, the feminist section, I found a teen-aged girl sprawled on the floor in front of the very shelf I needed. She was browsing, and I was annoyed at first, but then I realized it was a good sign that she was there. Perhaps she was learning to see herself as a person of beauty despite “helpful” advice from Christie, Morgan and Sophia.
Back at home, the retrieved books revealed a few facts and opinions about the history of female body hair removal. In Femininity, author Susan Brownmiller points out that in early Western art, the female nude is naked and hairless, but very often male nudes are graced with pubic hair. One art historian argues that a patch of dark hair would become the unintentional focal point of the painting. Brownmiller wisely debunks that pathetic notion: “I can’t help thinking that the great artists felt their omission was a definite improvement over the stuff of reality.”
According to Brownmiller, before 1920 leg hair wasn’t a problem because the legs were never revealed in public. After the skirt hems came up and the bathing suits shrunk, body hair removal became an essential part of the female regimen. What constitutes “hairy” anyway? She says the norm for most women is pubic hair that reaches just into the inner thigh. However, 15 percent of women have hair that extends further down the thigh and up toward the navel. I am in that 15 percent, which by the way translates into more than 18 and a half million women in the U.S. Talk about a market group for the hair removal industry!
These facts are somewhat illuminating, but if I was looking for Brownmiller to lead me into a hairy revolt, I was mistaken. Although she says she “stopped shaving as a matter of principle,” she has a hard time accepting “the unesthetic results.” She doesn’t even put up a fight for hairiness.
I decided to turn to other cultures of the world to find a hairy sisterhood. My friend Dara has traveled so extensively around the world, she’s on her second passport because she filled up her first. I asked her if she had ever been to a place where the women don’t shave. I hoped this obsession with hairlessness was purely a Western aberration. She went down the list: Asians do not have not much hair to begin with, so it’s not really an issue; the Africans she saw shaved their legs; Arabic women seemed to fare the worst. “They shave all of their body hair,” she said with an emphasis. Arabic people believe body hair is dirty, so the women even shave their pubic hair. Now, when I was younger and more foolish, I did this to please a boyfriend. If my inner thighs fought back with a vengeance, my pubic area declared nuclear war on me. Besides the rashes from blade, I suffered through the painfully long time it takes for the hair to grow back in. It is itchy and uncomfortable, and when the stubble makes its appearance it can make Ginsu knives seem dull. It was sweet justice that nothing could protect this boyfriend from that near-lethal stubble.
As for the Europeans, they used to be hairy and comfortable with it. But eventually they began mimicking the Americans, dutifully removing the hair from their bodies. After some thought, Dara said, “I think Berkeley is the only place I’ve seen women letting it all hang out.” And even in that idyllic situation, Dara said a friend of hers felt peer pressure not to shave.
I used to protest the absurdity of women’s shavers that cost more than men’s, are less effective, come in stupid colors like pink, and have silly names like Daisy. Obviously, the manufacturers forget that many women who buy these products have very likely had their hair electrified and ripped out. Women are seasoned warriors in their battle against hair, and a shaver called Daisy just ain’t gonna cut it. Eventually I realized the entire act of shaving makes me conform to a preset standard of beauty. Hairy bodies on women are unacceptable only because the majority of men and women say they are unacceptable. Do I have the courage to go against that?
Straight men reading this are probably puffing up with their own tales of shaving woes, especially the classic one complaining they must shave every day. I will use the unbiased purity of mathematics to support my unsympathetic response to their plight. Consider that women must shave their legs—ankles to bikini line—and their armpits, which I estimate to be a total area of 452 squared inches. Now men shave their cheeks, some of their neck and above and below their lip. I estimate this area to be 32 squared inches. Let’s assume men do shave every day, and let’s say that on average women shave every third day. Under those circumstances, in three days, men are still only shaving 96 square inches compared to women shaving 452 square inches. In one year, a man will only shave 11,680 square inches, while a woman will shave 54,993 square inches. Sorry guys, I’d change places with you any day.
Mathematics aside, I must also point out that this issue of hair is different for men. While they too must shave to conform, most of society, except perhaps for a small minority of conservative corporations, would accept them if they did not shave. More importantly, a man’s masculinity is not judged by whether or not he has a beard. In fact, I would venture to say the stereotypical essence of swashbuckling, he-man maleness is having a beard. Which brings us back to the hair-equals-male equation that makes female hair unacceptable and unfeminine.
The vicious circle has come round again, and what have I learned? Given all the discomfort, the political implications, the sheer square inch area, have I given up shaving? With shame, I answer, no. Although I have learned that disliking my hairy self is a programmed repulsion so deeply embedded in me that I almost can’t find its source. The revulsion to body hair on a woman seems instinctive, but it is learned. I am diving down to find the truth of this cultural assumption—to find the truth and beauty of my hairy self.
I am not going down alone, however. I know my dream of everybody accepting women as they are is completely unrealistic. And if I can’t have my dream, then I will resort to selfish, bratty behavior to get the next best thing: commiseration. If I can’t shave without my conscience kicking into high gear, then you can’t either. Women, I dare you to be happy and guilt-free every time a hair on your body is plucked, ripped out, dissolved, shorn and electrocuted. Men, I dare you to forget about a sheet of warm wax hardening around body hair like a noose. Try to forget as the wax rips away thousands of tiny hairs and activates a thousand pain receptors. Pull a pinch of your leg hairs and try to forget.
Think of your adolescent daughter or niece who is making society-accepted state-size cuts on her legs. Think of how she is learning to see herself as acceptable only when she is rendered hairless. Think of your sons who are learning the same thing about her. I dare you.