I 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!
YES WOMEN I was shouting. WE MUST ALL REJECT THIS NOTION OF HAIR FREE WOMEN AND EMBRACE OUR HAIR.
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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