The acceptable manifestations of women’s body hair in western culture have disappeared piecemeal over time. Like a backwards jigsaw puzzle or a tray of appetisers at a party.
All human bodies naturally grow hair pretty much everywhere in varying qualities of thickness and presumably for a brief glorious period between the evolution of the modern homo sapiens and the invention of the patriarchy we all accepted that and let women chill out with their fuzz out for five whole seconds. But what even are human gender and sexuality unless the female form is being constantly controlled and policed to fit a random ever-changing societal ideal?
The bush was the first to get the chop. We have evidence from Ancient Rome of courtesans and other women shaving their downstairs with sharpened oyster shells or plucking out each hair individually with tweezers (yeowch). This is one of the reasons many classical statues seem to suggest that naked women are as smooth and featureless between the legs as a Barbie doll.
(Side note: is it worrying that the oldest recurring trend in body hair removal is the one that makes vagina owners look reminiscent of prepubescent girls? Yes. Yes it is).
In the Middle Ages it was the hot trend for women to shave their eyebrows and pluck their hairline back several inches to create a big sexy fivehead. This is an example I want to emphasise because hair trends and lack-of-hair trends are not universal human preferences that are secretly the right way we should look – they are just random trends. Societal preferences for women’s hair vary between cultures across time – just because something is default in our society today doesn’t mean it’s any more valid than corsetry, or foot binding, or low-rise jeans. This article mainly focuses on the western tradition because that’s where I live and also bc the ‘Western World’ has a nasty habit of getting its gunk on everybody else’s cultures like a red sock in a white wash.
Hairless legs and underarms were invented in the early twentieth century to sell more razors. I’m not kidding, Gillette invented the lady razor or ‘Milady Décolleté’ in 1915 and then launched what is known as ‘The First Great Anti-Underarm Hair Campaign’ to spread the idea that women’s underarm hair was disgusting, dirty and uncouth. And then in the 40s and 50s they just did the same things again with leg hair. This particularly annoys me because if I’m going to be self-conscious and develop body issues and shit, I’d rather it be for higher, nobler, anthropological reasons than one Don-Motherfucking-Draper being like ‘I’ve got an idea boys and it’s real swell!’ (I’ve never seen Mad Men, that’s what they talk like, right?) (Not really – ed.)
The eradication of women’s pubes came back again through the 1980s and 90s with the rise of high-cut leotards and brazilian waxes. A lot of research seems to point to Carrie in Sex and the City getting a Brazilian as a turning point in this particular movement so thanks for that one Sarah Jessica Parker.
And so we come to the twenty-first century woman who is supposed to be hairless from the eyebrows down and if she fails to naturally achieve this (spoiler alert: literally everyone in the world except maybe one very statistically anomalous alopecia sufferer) she can shave, pluck, wax, bleach or fire lasers into her body to rid herself of the dreaded, dangerous disgusting body hair. The world is her sharpened oyster shell.
As always when writing about ‘women’s issues’ I would like to take a moment to acknowledge trans women, who are often held to far higher standards of performative femininity than cis women, especially in regard to things like body hair. Thick, coarse, or excessive body hair is considered by some to be sexual dimorphism exhibited only by men. This is of course not true, like many elements of biological sex it is more of a sliding scale than anything resembling a binary and many women, both cis and trans, are more hirsute than the imaginary (and racist) norm. Trans women may feel a stronger pressure to uphold high standards of hairlessness in order to escape harassment, transmisogyny, and violence. This is one of the reasons why social narratives about what is ‘acceptable’ ‘feminine’ body hair need to be challenged.
I started shaving my legs at the age of eleven. I remember quite clearly being in the library learning how to burn music onto CDs (that skill aged well) and a girl in my class leaned over, put on her hand of my leg, said ‘Ew, Bonnie, you’re all hairy, you need to shave’ and planted a seed of self-consciousness that still lives as a resilient flowering weed in my mind no matter how often I have tried to come at it with gardening shears.
I’m not mad at this girl. I still follow her on Instagram and all. When I think of this now all I think about is how someone must have said this to her first – earlier than age eleven.
So I went home and told my mother I needed to shave my legs. I inherited my thick, dark, Mediterranean body hair from my mother and she had been bullied in school about it because her mother refused to let her shave until well into her teens, so in the midst of some trauma flashbacks she was like ‘ok baby let’s go, right here, right now’.
This is the interesting thing about feminine depilation: though it is a symptom of the patriarchy, it spreads, is held up and is passed along by women of their own free will. Like many parts of the patriarchy it is something we swallow and reproduce sometimes without the input of men at all – except for the Don Draper Motherfuckers at the top of the chain selling us images of women shaving already hairless legs and pre-renaissance Europeans who don’t grow body hair because of magic or dragons or whatever (cough Game of Thrones).
So I was shaving my legs for years before other body hair even grew in – because I was literally pre-pubescent. I hadn’t even started growing all the hair a girl can grow and I was already self-conscious about its existence. My armpit hair barely got a chance to grow in before it was shaved off. I even tried shaving my forearms a couple of times, to predictably disastrous effect.
My lady garden was a more contentious topic. As a young girl doing anything to it seemed like an admittance that someone other than me would see it. And as I grew older and more likely to one day take off my pants in front of another human being the stress about this grew. What was I supposed to do? The only images of naked women I saw were art and porn and both of those came decidedly down on the baby-smooth side of the equation but I had the suspicion that it wasn’t the only option. I didn’t exactly want to ask the girls I thought were cool enough to know the answer, so like any true millennial, I turned to Google. I vaguely remember search terms like ‘normal pubic hair??’ or ‘bush fashions 2012???’
One universal human experience is the feeling that everyone else knows the secret rules about life and that you are the only idiot struggling. Everyone is struggling. I hope so, anyway. Otherwise it truly is just me.
(In case they are young teens reading this now like ‘yes this is me what is the secret answer?’ I will let you know: some girls do and some girls don’t, most young people are so excited to get into someone else’s pants they don’t care what they find. Also, if a sexual partner can’t stand to traverse a little bushland they are unlikely to be very good at sex anyway.)
In my first year of university – the time of peak-insecurity – I shaved my vulva bare just to see if this was it. I immediately hated it. Not only was it logistically complex to do in the shower, and incredibly itchy, I just didn’t like how it looked – all vulnerable and unprotected and to be honest I didn’t like looking down and having flashbacks to being nine years old. There wasn’t enough insecurity in the world to get me to repeat that experience so I just didn’t. Like Ned Kelly and his gang of outlaws, I embraced the bush lifestyle.
And so, as if in a reversed YouTube video of ‘100 years of female depilation’, I started growing out my body hair in patches. As an exercise in curiosity, I let my armpit hair grow naturally for the first time in my life … and I liked it. (Side note: this process was helped by a massive crush I had on a woman who didn’t shave her armpits. Part of that magical sapphic experience of loving something in another woman that you perceive as a fault in yourself and wondering if you, too, might be worthy of love.)
There’s something that pleases me about seeing dark hair in the curves and crevices of my body. Like, I’m an adult woman and this is what my adult body looks like. Generally we should pursue things about our appearance that ground us in our meat suits and make us feel good so I dug in and stood my ground, letting my hair delineate and define the shapes of me.
And then in the course of this odyssey of inaction I came up against my oldest friend, my long-time enemy … shaving my legs. I was good at it by now. I’d been doing it for over a decade. That’s a lot of disposable razors and hair down the drain. I could do it quickly, cleanly, even the tricky bits around the knees. It was hard to give up.
It was just this year I was in the shower, looking down at my winter leg hair collection and thought to myself ‘what if I just didn’t shave my legs? What would happen?’ It turns out what happens is that I get annoyingly pretentious and write a whole historical think-piece to justify my experience.
My mother is a fantastic mother and a good feminist. She absolutely hates my au naturale style but womanfully struggles against this to support my bodily autonomy. My sister is a so-so feminist (she lets her boyfriend tell her what colour her hair should be) and she loudly and often hates my body hair and demands I shave my legs if I want to share a hammock with her or tangle our legs on the couch while we experience the complex, frustrating, yet ultimately rewarding experiences of being sisters. The kicker is no men have really offered commentary on it at all – my father called it ‘very French’.
This is not me letting men off the hook. Men are still the one shaping ideas about what the ideal woman should look like, putting it in advertisements and films, and surrounding us with it from a very young age. They have shaped the system so that they don’t have to tell us what to do – we are already doing it. And then they can sit back and say ‘we aren’t doing anything, it’s a woman’s choice’ – like it’s a fundamentally unbiased decision that is made without social conditioning, exterior pressure and young girls not being exposed to any other options.
This is the cultural soup of over-commercialised choice-feminism that gets us ‘girl power’ razor commercials. And I’m not saying girls can’t shave if they want to. I’m not going to break into your house and steal your Nivea Home Waxing kit or start putting bricks through a J. Sisters window. There are other concerns out there in the world. I’m just saying, if you don’t actually want to, you can stop. They can’t make us. A woman is a woman is a woman even with a moustache, or a unibrow, or hairy toes, or that weird bit of heavy fuzz in the small of your back. We’re fine.
Even knowing all that, there are days where I am so unconfident in my choice that I wear trousers instead of shorts or layer cardigan over a singlet, because I don’t want to ‘confront’ people and because I am not immune to the idea that I am dirtier, unkempt or gross because I haven’t shaved my legs in six months. I don’t mean to sound like I think I am any kind of hero, but I am making this choice not only because I am incredibly lazy – not just because I like the way it looks, but because I want to push back against the restraints placed upon me and all women. I am making a small political statement every time I appear in public, hairy as a kiwi fruit – one I know from my own experience unites and consoles women, even in the smallest of ways.
Strange that it is a political statement to let your body exist in its natural state rather than spending considerable amounts of time and money for the upkeep of a non-harmful, constantly regenerating feature. Whatever. I trudge onwards, arm hair blowing in the wind.
Image: a 1961 ad for the ‘Just Whistle’ Gillette razor