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Women and the body hair taboo

9 mins read

We have undoubtedly come a long way as regards the expectations which are set out for girls in terms of how they should look and act. Many of today’s social media influencers are empowering girls and women to embrace all the natural aspects of their bodies, including the historically-tabooed body hair – ‘go old-school, grow out the fur!’, numerous Instagram posts are shouting. However, despite these progressive trends, it appears that some damaging ideals persist in our society, particularly concerning this aspect of appearance.

There are various reports on how much time and money we spend/waste managing unwanted hair – Refinery29’s recent inquiry, for example, revealed that women spend between £400-1,200 a year on hair removal products, along with 22-59 hours of time that go with that.

There are, moreover, strong indicators, such as VMedical’s published study, which show that the majority of us ladies think of it as a ‘time-consuming’, ‘tedious’, and ‘expensive’ chore. So why do we still bother?

Credit: Glenda Lissette Instagram

In part to answer the question, and in part for my own amusement, I decided to start this year off by participating in ‘Januhairy’. I reckoned it would be good fun, after rocking the hippie-look for a few weeks, to shear all of the hair back off my body by the time February rolled around. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and see if I could do it, purely out of interest.

Not shaving would be entirely new to me, after all. I hadn’t gone a month without since I was 13, when my mum had suggested my legs were starting to look a little on the fuzzy side. The following day, in art class, my best friend spurred me on to buy my first razor when I mentioned I was embarrassed. She claimed she was a new woman, having recently set out on her life-long hair-removal journey:

“The feel of freshly shaved legs against bedsheets is so satisfying,” she gushed, “and my skin is so smooth! You’ll see what I mean when you try it.” Then she huffily rolled down her art-apron sleeves and informed me I was lucky it was just my legs. One of the boys in our year had called her ‘monkey-arms’.

I think I first heard the term ‘Januhairy’ in the latest special of Gavin & Stacey. Upon watching the episode, I did a little digging into what ‘Januhairy’ actually was. Immediately, I wanted to try it out – not planning to go as far as growing ‘a full goatee’ like Nessa, of course – I simply fancied seeing what the end result would be, and thought ‘why not’?

This should be a walk in the park, I told myself. A walk in the park with my leg hair flying freely in the breeze.

The challenge proved more difficult than I had originally anticipated. Especially since I was entering the second semester of my first year at university – where, in my experience, one goes out with at least a third of flesh on show, to make at least a few dubious drinking decisions, at least twice a week.

It was tougher than I expected, to brave showing that flesh. After a month, I can officially say that, yes, even in this day and age, you will still get odd looks if you flash a bit of armpit hair.

People often don’t realise that the everyday conversations they have perpetuate these ideals. This is because they are ingrained in our minds due to the lack of body hair shown in the media. For example, half-way through the month, there was a minor meltdown as I evaluated the contents of my wardrobe before a night out. I had a slight ‘happy-trail’ going on (hair leading down from the navel), and all I seemed to have left on the hangers were crop tops.

The meltdown wasn’t helped by an offhand comment I had overheard my friend make earlier that day, on how repulsive it was that Willow Smith doesn’t shave her underarms:

Credit: Willow Smith

“Ew-ww,” my friend had said, dragging out the word. She recoiled from her phone as if the image on the screen (where only slithers of the award-winning artist’s armpit hair are actually on show) were something disgusting and disturbing. ‘Willow Smith doesn’t shave her pits. I don’t enjoy that at all.’

Credit: Woman

Hearing this comment, I realised I hadn’t told a lot of my friends I was participating in ‘Januhairy’, for fear of being judged. I felt even more afraid to open up about it now, having observed the look of revulsion that crossed my friend’s face at seeing a picture where the focus was not even of body hair, but of a complex, impressive yoga pose.

So, there I stood, with limited time left to get ready, staring at a crop top and silently berating myself:

‘But I’m a feminist! I should be able to sport skimpy clothing and not give it a second thought.’

It made me feel like a failure, the fact I couldn’t bring myself to put the crop top on. I considered giving up altogether and going back to my usual hair-removal routine. Fortunately, I struggled on and, a few days later, finally built up the courage to wear the top.

I was inspired by a scene in White Girl on Netflix. In this scene, Katie, one of the supporting female characters, exposes her fiery-red armpit hair as she leans back on a couch in an indolent, laidback position. Unsurprisingly, this causes the boys surrounding her to fall about laughing. Unfazed by their reaction, she poses the straightforward question: ‘What, you never seen a real woman before?’

This struck me as a significant moment in a film where it is unusual to see any body hair at all, and where, moreover, the female body is frequently objectified. It provoked me to reflect on women being told that they are most desirable when they look like prepubescent, hairless girls. Now that’s what I call unusual.

It got easier for me as the month went on. I kept reminding myself that in 2020, women should be at a point where they are able to own how they look. They shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed by something which naturally occurs from a young age (as early as eight years old, for some).

It’s hard to understand why we are labelled as ‘lazy’ and ‘unhygienic’ when we fail to meet this strange standard which, for some reason, men aren’t held to. At the end of the day, what is so inherently intimidating and wrong about body hair?

Featured image credit: Baaz.com

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