Splitting hairs

Even Dinosaurs were hairyI remember when I first tried to shave my legs. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really even have any hair to shave. I’d just picked up from the magazines I read (because everyone else was reading them) that it was A Thing Teenage Girls Did and that to not shave would be unthinkable. I used a disposable razor I found in the bathroom and some talc. Yeah. I know. As you can probably imagine, I made a bit of a mess of it.

A few years later real hairs actually grew, I worked out how it was done without looking like a victim of Freddie Krueger. It never occurred to me to question the whole shaving thing. Not once. Shaving legs and armpits was just what you did. You’re a girl, puberty has arrived, and therefore you shave because girls aren’t meant to be hairy.

I didn’t question that for decades. Not until I started playing roller derby, in fact, and met some girls who didn’t shave. At first I was shocked. Because girls aren’t meant to be hairy, right? The girls who didn’t shave had all, at some point, received actual verbal abuse for having hair in places where girls aren’t meant to be hairy. Keeping hair where hair grows, it turns out, is actually a radical political statement. Whether you chose not to shave because you can’t be bothered; because you have sensitive skin, or due to religious reasons, or for an actual political statement, being a hairy girl always ends up coming across like a political statement. Because girls aren’t meant to be hairy. But if girls aren’t MEANT to be hairy, how come we, y’know, grow hair?

A couple of years ago I developed one of my random allergic reactions. This happens to me occasionally. Some part of me will swell up, or burn, or flake, or itch or look like it’s trying to fall off. I will spend months trying to work out what the hell is causing it, cutting all sorts of things out of my life and then slowing bringing them back in one by one to try and work out what the fuck is making my life temporary hell. Sometimes, like accidentally watching the first part of a two part CSI while you’re sick off work and finding the second part isn’t on next because these things get shown in some bizarre order known only to some time travelling daytime TV scheduler, I never actually discover the culprit. The one that developed a few years ago that mainly affected my eyes, ears and patches of skin across my back and shoulders and made my skin extra sensitive was that unfinished two-parter. I had to cut out pretty much every strong chemical substance. For months I could wash only with expensive allergen free shower gel and put nothing stronger than coconut oil on my face. This also meant no shaving, so sensitive was my skin.

Whatever it was that caused this particular reaction left my skin permanently sensitive, so that I have to be really careful how often I shave it – unless I want to be a red flakey itchy burny mess.  And having spent rather a long time not shaving, I was out of the habit. And also starting to question why it was so important anyway. And wondering whether maybe it was better to be a bit hairy than a red flakey itchy burny mess, even though  I knew this would automatically put me into Not Shaving Political Statement territory.

Have you ever wondered WHY aren’t girls meant to be hairy? According to mental floss it’s all thanks to Harpers Bazaar (of course. Women’s Magazines. Have I mentioned before how much I hate women’s magazines? I am not sure I have. But I do. I hate them. I’ve hated them since I realised that on one page they tell you to be happy just as you are, the next page the best celebrity diet, the next a page shows you how fat this celebrity is, the next page worries that this celebrity is too thin. The next page points out that you don’t need a man to be happy, the one after tells you how to ‘bag your perfect man’ and in between all those pages are adverts telling you without these products you’ll be a fat, skinny, old, young, ugly, stupid, single trapped-in-loveless-hell frigid slutty wallflower harridan who no one will ever love who has to love yourself. So yeah. I HATE THEM.)

So, I decided to stop shaving for a bit just to see what would happen. And, well, not much happened. To be fair, it was winter, so the only time hair was ever actually visible was when I went swimming at the Ladies’ Pond, which is the least judgemental place I’ve ever been in my life. There are women in their 90s who’ve been swimming there every day for over 50 years and they couldn’t give a flying banana whether the other women there are shaving their legs or not, quite frankly. If you ever want to learn a lesson in Giving Exactly Zero Fucks then hanging out with nonagenarians who swim regularly in -0 degree water is a pretty good start.

As spring has drawn near and my shirtsleeves are getting shorter it’s got harder. I don’t really like the look of the hair under my armpits. To me it looks, well, kind of ugly. And knowing that this is decades of cultural GIRLS ARE NOT MEANT TO BE HAIRY isn’t going to just make me get the hell over that. If it was that easy to shrug off powerful media conditioning we’d all be much happier (and buy fewer things, and the beauty industry would pretty much vanish). But I was determined to persevere. And not only persevere,  but try to spread my message of STOP SHAVING THROW OFF THE HAIRY SHACKLES OF THE BALD LEG BEAUTY STANDARDS. Because if my friends all stopped shaving too I wouldn’t be the only hairy one. I started discussing it with other feministy friends and questioning their epilatory routines. I started questioning why women felt the need to remove their hair for OMG NO REASON STOP IT.

I started re-writing the lyrics of a certain Disney song to become a feminist anthem about binning your razors and depilatory cream.

Let it grow let it grow
don’t want to shave any more
Let it grow, let it grow
Slam the bathroom door!

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
about my skin
I’ll wear shorts anyway

Let it grow, let it grow
Think of the time I’ll save
Let it grow, let it grow

You’ll never see me shave

Here’s my hair
And here it stays

Razor in the biiiiiiiin

My skin never bothered me anyway!


And then, a conversation with a group of friends stopped me in my tracks. (Which is probably for the best because That Song being in my head, no matter the lyrics, probably will actually drive me round the bend.)

One friend was talking about an incident where her son had been playing with hair on her toes, and how it had led to an exchange between her male partner and son where her partner said something along the lines of “Son, when you grow up, society will tell you that women are more attractive without hair, and you’ll have to think about whether you agree with that.” (He probably didn’t say it in James Earl Jones’ voice, and probably didn’t call his son ‘Simba’ at any point but that’s kind of how it ended up in my head). What I took from this conversation SHOULD have been “what an amazing supportive partner and father, how cool.” What I ACTUALLY thought was “toe hair? Women have…toe hair?”

A whole conversation ensued, right in front of me, about toe hair. About how one of my friends shaves her toes more often than she shaves her legs. How one friend’s boyfriend thought her toe hair was ‘cute’ and hadn’t met any women with it before and wondered whether that was because they always shaved it. One friend then mentioned the agony of tweezing out the hair from her nipples. Another about having an awkward conversation with her children about women and moustaches. Another saying that if she didn’t tweeze her chin hair, she could probably grow a full on Kung Fu Master beard within a month.

My mind had already been completely blown by the toe hair so the rest of this conversation rendered me speechless (and that almost never happens.)

As soon as I got home I took my socks off and stared at my feet. And then I stared at my lip and chin. And, yes, I also stared at my nipples. My nipples were bald as anything. My lip does have downy hair on it but so downy pale you can’t see them unless in a certain light. My toes did in fact have one or two wispy little hairs, but they were so white blonde that they were pretty much invisible.

As an argumentative opinionated sort, who generally thinks she has a good grip on this whole intersectionality business, it was rather a shock to be confronted with an example of my own complete lack of awareness or knowledge about what other women deal with.  The idea that ‘girls aren’t meant to be hairy’ message is incredibly powerful, and is not going to disappear over night, and it’s certainly not going to disappear with pale blondie soft downy haired types like me haranguing our more hirsute female friends into not shaving their body hair and making them feel bad about having it. Especially when as a pale blondie soft downy haired type I even caved last week and shaved my armpits because I had a new tattoo and needed to wear sleeveless dresses for a bit and didn’t want to go to work with hairy armpits.

It’s terribly easy for me to stop shaving as a ‘political statement’ because as a natural blonde, the hair on the parts of me that are hairy is pretty damn fair. I am not actually, when it comes down to it, really very hairy at all. I can swan around going YEAH EFF YOUR  BEAUTY STANDARDS but in the right light actually not really showing much of a deviation from those beauty standards in the first place.

My friends had inadvertently slapped me in the relatively hair free face with a privilege I didn’t even know I had. Blonde privilege perhaps? Follicle privilege? Whatever it was, I had it. And I’d never realised. That’s the thing about Privilege – the capital P kind – we don’t know we have it because it’s a Privilege. The important thing about Capital-P-Privilege though, is what we do about it once we realise we have it. And what I need to do is stop thinking that I am making a grand political statement about letting my wispy pale hairs blow in the breeze, and stop making other women who don’t have the luxury of wispy pale hairs feel bad if they want to remove theirs to help them feel better about themselves.

Sure, Let It Grow, if you can, and if you feel comfortable doing so. But if you don’t, that’s ok too.

Society will tell you that women are more attractive without hair, and you’ll have to think about whether you agree with that.

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  1. I definitely have toe hair on my big toes. But it’s never stopped my from wearing flip flops. I shaved them once, but then decided it wasn’t worth it.
    But my legs and armpits I can’t give in to. Or my nipples. Despite a fortnight doing work experience in a youth hostel with a couple of very strong women who gave zero fucks about the state of their legs. I felt as though I was letting the side down with my bald limbs, but I can’t abide the Velcro feeling of stubbly legs and just feel unclean and shoddy with hairy pits. Yes, that’ll be down to social conditioning, but it is what it is for me.
    My bush though, now that’s another matter. 😉

  2. My name is Lisa and I have toe hair.
    I also have chin hair, and side of face hair and on just hair all over the place.
    When I was 14, my body suddenly exploded. In all directions, it seemed. Put on lots of weight, grew another 3 inches and then sprouted hair where there’d been none before.
    Long, dark, course stuff. Thanks, Heritage.
    Out came the Jolen facial hair bleach. Then my Nan nagged me to ‘get rid’ of what was on my face.
    “You don’t want to go to school like that, people will laugh.”
    I did. I shaved. I shaved my FACE. I then spent the next 2 decades hiding my chin and neck from people because NOBODY had warned me about stubble, or five o clock shadow.
    I didn’t stay over at friend’s houses. I hated anyone touching my face, or even getting near enough to look.
    Every so often I tried a New! Method! of hair removal. Hair retardant creams, different make up. Nothing worked.
    Finally I had 3 sessions of electrolysis, 3 times a week. It cleared the worst of it.
    Then later I found laser hair removal. It got rid of almost everything.
    I still have a moustache – I never touched that – and the odd chin hair or two, but I can, at last, stay the night at places and not have to worry about hiding the razor.

    I don’t care about my toes. My arms are covered in dark hair, but I kind of like it.
    The older I get, the more sparse the old Ladygarden hair gets, which has led to an apparently amusing but tidy bald spot. Rest assured I will not attempt a comb-over.

    Chin and neck hair is still a bit of an obsession. I can’t be more than 10 feet from a pair of tweezers if I stay at someone’s house, just in case.

    Armpit hair I shave, when I remember. I don’t like the look of it, and I just feel cleaner without it. Plus if I’m not careful it gets caught in the bloody roll on, so off it comes.

    All of which self-indulgent ramble leads to me saying I agree with you.

    “Sure, Let It Grow, if you can, and if you feel comfortable doing so. But if you don’t, that’s ok too.”

    Women don’t have to shave to be beautiful, but it can help them feel so.

  3. Hi. Came for the infamous and brilliant tea post; stayed, and read through to the beginning, because of huge smart writing, humor, and opinions. Nicely done.

  4. I don’t think that making a statement about your own body has to be considered shaming other women for not going along with the same decision. Hopefully no one interprets it that way, but anyway I don’t think you should have to feel guilty for coming forth and asserting why you don’t shave, just because someone else has their own thoughts…

  5. I come from Scottish & German stock (the dark, moorish kind), so I have thick, long, dark hair in all the best (my head) and worst places (everywhere else). Nipples, chin, mustache, brows, toes, the tops of my feet, my knuckles, and my arms and legs are “mannishly” hairy. I started shaving my legs as soon as I was able to convince my mother to let me, and began electrolysis treatments by about age 14 because of the bullying I faced as a pubescent girl with facial hair. Over the years I’ve run the gamut between “OMG SHAVE IT ALL IT’S HORRIBLE I’M HORRIBLE” to “I HAVE HAIR FROM HERE TO THERE: ZERO FUCKS GIVEN” I have agonized over it, beat myself up over wanting to remove it, and spent altogether too much time and energy thinking what it means for myself, my feminism, my womanhood, my identity, and how I will be perceived when I’m hairy versus shaved.
    I’m now in my mid-30s, and have realized that the best thing I can do is to be gentle with myself, and accepting of wherever I am with my hair at any given time. Sometimes I feel like Elsa (“Let it grow!!”), and other times I just can’t. So out comes the razor. And when I stopped seeing that as a failure, I was a lot happier.
    I also have two kids, and I’m aware of the messages I send when I agonize over the parts of my body I feel conflicted about. So being gentle on myself helps me reinforce more body positive messages with them as well. Shaving remains a non-issue in their eyes, a thing done purely out of personal choice. I hope I can maintain that.

  6. Its safe to say I’m a Hairy Mary – if there’s one thing my body is good at it’s growing hair. I don’t subscribe to the beauty standard at the best of times, but made the effort for a recent beach holiday so I wouldn’t get mistaken for a Wookiee in a bikini. It’s a terrifying amount of work and maintenance. I don’t think I could keep up that level of effort long term. PS: like others, I came for tea and stayed :)

  7. I hear you. I don’t like all the pressure put on women and I think it deserves not just one but repeated conversations. that said, I realized a long time ago that I shave for myself [toes, legs, nipples and all]. I do it in the middle of winter. I do it when I’m single and don’t have any dates scheduled. it’s genuinely something I do for myself. but where the initial idea came from, I’m not sure about. which is what I like about your post. it’s not all black & white. you can be a feminist and still shave your legs. and you can teach your kids something about gender issues and still shave your legs.

  8. One of those “I wish I’d listened to my mother” moments. I remember, age 13, her telling me I should never shave my legs, I’d regret it, it’ll only grow back thicker & darker & you’ll end up battling with it forever.
    But oh no. Why listen to the wisdom & love of my mother, when I could be influenced by gossipy teens at school?! And I was so pleased with myself. For about a year. Which is as long as it took me to get fed up with it.
    The last 10yrs or so it’s definitely never been top priority. But was something I “had” to do if I wanted to look nice in a skirt. And when roller derby came & I met proper feminists who didn’t shave, I was fascinated. But not enough to stop shaving my pits.

    Then the broken leg happened. Priorities very much changed. Getting out of bed was an achievement. Showing was mostly off-limits. Shaving? You can do one! I grew proper pit hair and I ENJOYED IT! I love how silky soft it is! I enjoyed the discussions about it with my mother (for all her “don’t shave your legs” turns out there is a “do shave your pits” double standard!) and others, it felt good talking about my body & my choices & priorities.
    But….it’s all very easy to be hairy when you barely leave the house.
    It took me several months before I shaved it off. Which was around summer time, vests!
    Then of course there was the second broken leg.
    Anyhow. I experimented with pit hair length (my legs I think I’ve shaved twice since I first broke 16mths ago….I was too scared of risking infection in my healing surgery wounds! The second time was the other week when I had a tattoo done) and I was pleasantly surprised that my gym class gave zero fucks about armpit hair. And it was Out There. I was lifting & the such, it was on show. And neither my PTs nor other gymmers made mention of it.
    So my next experiment is letting it grow for summer. My only hesitation is my other half admitted he wasn’t a massive fan of the hair. He never asked me to shave it. But knowing that makes me reach for the razor.

    One thing I learned when not shaving was confidence and pride in my body. I struggle, probably more than most, with self esteem & body confidence. But something about letting my pit hair grow & taking a certain sense of pride in it really helped me love my body a little bit more. That there is a bloody good reason to be hairy.

  9. This is something I tussle with from time to time: I feel like I ought to stop shaving my legs because it’s a boring waste of my time and I feel like I should be fighting against conforming to some standard of femininity; but, on the other hand, I do actually feel a bit better about myself if my legs are shaved so I tend to keep them hairless. I have never had any sort of internal debate about shaving my armpits (or oxters as I grew up calling them in Scotland) I guess because I associate hairless pits with hygiene. My husband and partner of over 20 years does not give a fig whether my legs are smooth, stubbly or hairy. Not a jot. So I don’t capitulate and shave my legs for him – or for anyone else for that matter – or to feel more desirable. I rather think that by this juncture I am just hard-wired to think that I prefer smooth legs and, therefore, I somehow do prefer smooth legs. Regardless of what side of the shaving debate I happen to fall on on any given day – and it often depends on the season – I am operating in accordance to my take on feminism. For me feminism is all about choice. It’s about women having access to multiple opportunities and options and having the power to determine what choices they make for themselves. So as long as a woman is deciding for herself and by herself whether she has hairy legs or hairless legs then I think it is all good. (Apologies for the rambling – sleep-deprived mother of four)

  10. I was told not to shave my armpits for medical reasons, and the way the doctor brought it up – nervously suggesting that MAYBE in the winter WHILE I WAS WEARING LONG-SLEEVED TOPS I could THINK of not shaving perhaps – made me question all this prescriptive bullshit. So as a personal experiment stopped shaving until I was no longer disgusted by my own body hair. I’m now okay with armpits in London, but wear sleeves at work, and I’m not brave enough to wear shorts…

    But I do feel more comfortable with my body, even if it’s been replaced with a sense of my own cowardice and a growing irritation that men can wear shorts without choosing between making a political statement or hours of expensive preparation. I should look up this swimming pool obviously.

    I loved the song too! Could easily be adapted to include freedom of shaving and non-shaving choices….

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