Body hair is not a personal choice

When I told my boyfriend at the time that I was thinking to stop shaving my legs, his first reaction was « Oh fuck me. » That was over 1.5 years ago. I had not realized yet how much other people would be bothered by my body hair.

Here is a mix of some of my experiences with body hair, as well as the experiences of other women.

I shaved my eyebrows because I thought they looked too bushy or too masculine.

I was indifferent towards my body hair until my mother pointed out that I have hair on my neck and chin, after which I became extremely conscious. Plucking hair out with my tweezers left marks around my face.

A male friend spent an entire night trying to convince me to shave my legs for the sake of my relationship. « He will end up leaving you. I would leave my girlfriend if she decided to stop shaving. » He could not comprehend that if my boyfriend does not want to be with me because of that, then I don’t want to be with him.

A coworker offered to buy me razors.

A man on a dating app told me he could not see me when he saw a picture of my body hair I had posted.

A boyfriend refused to give me oral sex until I shaved my pubic hair.

While we were showering, a boyfriend started shaving my legs without asking me. He knew I had decided to stop shaving. 

Someone told me that hair on my legs was disgusting. 

My mother told me “Don’t be like those feminists who don’t shave”

The problems with hair removal

On top of being time consuming and painful, I reject hair removal because it is a useless beauty standard imposed on women that has roots in sexism, racism and capitalism. For example, before Gillette realized selling razors to women would be a profitable new market, it was uncommon for women to shave their armpits. However, body hair removal started way before that, with roots as early as Ancient Greece and Egypt. Back then, body hair was considered unclean and “uncivilized”. Hair as a symbol of class was also present within the Romans (400 BC), being hairless meaning being an upper-class woman. Later in the early 1900s, hair for the American woman was associated with being lower class and immigrant.

Today, we believe myths around body hair, that is has a practical or medical value to wax or shave. We are told that our body hair is disgusting, dirty, unsanitary. You’ve probably heard women say that it is better not to have pubic hair for good hygiene. This truth is actually the opposite: pubic hair has many purposes for your health.

It serves a purpose to have you believe those myths, a capitalist one. Hair removal is a profitable industry. Think about it: epilator devices, wax, laser procedures, bleach, tweezers, disposable and electric razors, depilatory creams, etc. In the U.S., the wax market itself is estimated at $2.6 billions for 2020. A survey revealed that on average, the American woman will spend $10 000 on shaving in her life time. On top of having way more beauty standards to adhere than men, women are charged more than men for the same products, aka “pink tax”. On average, women are charged 7% more than men for the same products. Companies simply have to brand their razors pink to sell them at price. That is one of the backlash since women have massively started working: women have to spend more than men in order conform to sexualized and objectifying beauty norms.

To shave or not to shave

For those reasons, I don’t want to shave. But I am not comfortable since I stopped shaving.

I am constantly paranoid about people’s judgement of my appearance. I am reluctant to wear clothing that will expose my legs and armpits. I avoid lifting my arms when I wear a tank top. I avoid certain positions when sitting in a park or the beach so my friends don’t see my leg hair. I am reluctant to have sexual encounters because I am afraid to be shamed once I am seen naked. And even during the encounters I had where my sexual partner didn’t say anything, I spent the whole time focusing on what they might be thinking about me. I have this constant awareness and paranoia, but it is justified, it is based on my experience. I know people see it. I see it in their gaze. I often reconsider my decision. It would be so much easier just to shave. I might end up doing it.

And that is only my experience as a white woman. I have some privilege in choosing to grow body hair. My eyebrows, facial hair, arm and armpits hair and leg hair is quite light and sparse. Women of color carry an additional burden when it comes to hair removal. Women with darker body hair are even more more exposed to the shame and judgement of others. We live in a system where fairness and whiteness is the norm for beautiful. For example, it is not uncommon for women in India to be shamed for having too much body hair, hair that’s not light enough or simply visible body hair. In China, 20 years ago, armpit hair was not an issue of femininity until western ideas of beauty were introduced. Iranian women also experience the pressure of conforming to western beauty standards, where “a hairless physique alludes to a certain stature or glamorous lifestyle; that you are well-groomed and look after yourself, perhaps that you are more modern or Western.” 

Never blame a woman for not shaving. But never blame a woman for shaving either. It does not make her less of a feminist. Women conforming to beauty standards is a survival strategy, in order to be more comfortable in the world, even to avoid death threats. To be able to get out of our house without that additional burden of feeling like we are ugly because we do not look like the ideal of a beautiful woman. We conform in various ways : makeup, shaving, clothing and cosmetic procedures including surgery, changing our bodies to meet beauty standards.

The “personal choice” argument

I refuse to believe is that hair removal is a personal preference, just like if you prefer blue over red. So many women have told me that they ONLY shave or wax for themselves, as self care. I think we believe ourselves when we say it. It’s easier to think we are completely free of pressure over our body image than to recognize how much of our “choices” are constructed by patriarchy and capitalism.. We have not yet achieved the liberation of all women from oppression. We still live in a patriarchal society that coerces us to submit to beauty standards. The coercion is so strong that we even believe we came up with these ideas ourselves.

Don’t let a man convince you preferring a woman without pubic hair is only a matter of taste. . Most men watch pornography, and a lot of women too. In fact, if you are my age (29) or younger and you do not watch porn, you are the exception. The massive consumption of pornography has influenced women’s sexuality and body image in many ways. A hairless pubis is definitely the norm in pornography. But if you think about it, what is a woman without hair? A child, a teenager. Pornography has contributed to the normalization of sexual relationships with girls, transforming pedophilia into the socially acceptable.

Now, there is a “trend” for pubic hair in pornography. Another argument is that some men like pubic hair on women. I think that’s just another fetish created by pornography in order to make money. Because men are willing to pay for fetish and niche porn. Pornography or not, men shouldn’t “like” women with pubic hair. Pubic hair should just be the norm. There’s nothing to like about it.

Even when women don’t fully shave, there are standards: groomed, trimmed, not sticking out of your swimsuit, not too dark on the arms and legs, small and defined eyebrows. The message is: you can be natural, but not too natural. Even when women don’t shave regularly, there are standards. It is social acceptable to postpone hair removal because you didn’t have time, but it not acceptable to stop hair removal entirely. The message is: you can have hairy legs temporarily, but not permanently.

When I do get encouragement in my refusal to shave, I get comments like “It’s great that you embrace it and you are comfortable and confident in your body”.

I might disappoint you but I am not more comfortable in my body. If anything, I like my body less. I do not feel any of what the body positivity idea is telling me I should feel: empowered, strong or even sexy. I do not “own it” or “embrace it”. I hate it. I hate it if I shave, I hate it if I don’t shave. I am pressured to shave, and I am pressured to love my body if I don’t.

So what is a woman with body hair, in the eyes of society? She is not fully a woman because it makes her resemble a man, but she is not a man. She is probably a lesbian because a woman with male features cannot be heterosexual. She must also be a radical feminist because, whether she wants it or not, she is making a political statement out of not shaving or waxing.

Since I was already a radical feminist, I guess I will stick with that.

 

Pic above: Artist Laeticia Ky, one of my favorite image of resistance to body hair removal.