Armpits4August: Body hair, beauty myth and PCOS

by Philippa Willitts // 21 July 2013, 12:40

Tags: armpit hair, armpits4august, body fascism, body hair, body politics, facial hair, PCOS, underarm hair

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I'll be honest, I hate Movember. I've never been a big fan of moustaches, but a few years ago I saw a man on TV that had such a terrifying tache that it left me virtually phobic. Seriously. And now, every November, when the sky is endlessly grey and the air is freezing cold, there are also increasing numbers of people growing their upper lip hair. Not only that, but people encourage them by sponsoring them money to do it. I would happily sponsor the men around me to not grow a 'tache for a month, rather than give any kind of positive reinforcement to any facial hair growth.

However - and this is important - what people do with the hair on their face is none of my business. I might not be able to look at somebody directly if they have a particularly scary moustache but that's my issue, not theirs. Moustaches on women don't scare me for some reason and in women who, like me, have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), they can be quite common. I don't have one, but if I didn't pluck under my chin quite so obsessively I'm sure I'd be close to having a full beard.

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Body and facial hair are, for women, complex issues. We live in a society obsessed with smooth, hairless and conventionally beautiful legs, underarms (thanks for that, Dove), genitals, tummies, and anywhere else you might think of. The pressure for women to remove their body hair is immense, and women who refuse or can't be bothered are described as unhygienic, unfeminine and unnatural.

Needless to say, women with armpit and leg hair have no more problems with hygiene than men who also don't depilate, and hairless vulvas may actually be bad for us, risking irritation, inflammation, and providing an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Very hygienic!

Drawing obvious comparisons to Movember, a group of women have vowed to refuse to remove their armpit hair throughout August to raise funds for, and awareness of, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Armpits4August say,

PCOS affects up to 10% of women and is even more prevalent amongst trans* men, yet it's hardly ever talked about. A common symptom of PCOS can be hirsutism (excessive hair growth), so by growing our body hair we are working towards having pride in our body hair, not shame. Armpits4August will provide a stimulus and safe space to discuss the complicated, emotional, or embarrassing experiences of body hair that women, trans* and non-binary people often have. We believe the shame a lot of people feel about their body hair is a consequence of living in a society that regulates, controls and dictates that female-assigned bodies must conform to incredibly narrow beauty standards, and which upholds a rigid gender binary that deems body hair a 'masculine' trait. This creates a physically, socially, and mentally damaging image of what is 'natural' - an image that turns out to be no more than an idea. There is no standard, universal, typical - let alone 'normal' - pattern of body hair for women, men, or anyone else. We think that the display of underarm hair growth every August will be one way of demonstrating this, so we are also constructing an online archive of photos to show the diversity of hair that we have: colour, shape, density, texture, speed, etc. We also provide resources and hold events to help you celebrate your body hair, including body-hair workshops, pit pride parties, discussion groups, and more.
I rarely shave my armpits anyway, and I am happy to continue to not do it throughout August. I have PCOS, and when I was diagnosed I was told it would only be treated if I tried, and failed, to get pregnant. 14 years on I have only now discovered that, these days, it can be treated and I am in the process of pursuing this. But even though I am reasonably well-informed on these matters, I had no idea that treatment beyond the contraceptive pill was ever offered.

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Women who do normally shave, epilate or wax their pits who embark on a month of hair growth may find it strange or difficult, but I hope that if it does nothing else, it will demonstrate that nothing terrible happens when the hair starts to sprout. Some may stick with it once the month is over, and that would be great.

There is always the danger that suggesting that women stop removing their hair sounds like an implication that those who do depilate are less feminist, less radical, or less worthy, and this is of course not the case. However, challenging the dominant discourse that prescribes societally-approved beauty standards and insists that women fit the picture men have created of us is always worth attempting.

Consider growing your armpit hair out. Whether you do it for this cause or just as a personal experiment, give it a try. When I first stopped shaving I was surprised by how much I prefer the look and feel of having hair, and the sense of liberation from that particular prescribed "norm" feels powerful and deliciously subversive.

[The three images are of women showing their armpit hair. Thanks to Sor Cyress, Brooke Graham and Sara for Dinner for photographing their own underarm hair and for making the photos available under Creative Commons Licences]

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 21 July 2013 at 14:57

I haven't removed my armpit or leg hair for seven years now, and everything I wrote in this post back in 2007, after I'd reached my first hairy anniversary, still stands.

Every summer I look at women's legs hoping to see another hairy pair, but I very, very rarely do. I think it's interesting that (based on the women I see in public, anyway) this beauty practice seems to cut across all ages, ethnicities, sexualities, subcultures and styles in the UK. While plenty of women seem quite able and willing to resist the pressure to wear make-up, say, the idea that women absolutely should not have body hair and that female body hair is disgusting seems to be so strong that very few women are able or willing to challenge it.

Solidarity to all those who are giving it a try for August!

It's appalling that you weren't offered any treatment for PCOS unless you were planning on trying to get pregnant - as if only women who can and want to reproduce matter. I hope your current treatment works out well :)

Philippa Willitts // Posted 21 July 2013 at 15:08

Thanks Laura. When I was looking for photos to illustrate the post there were more than a few "ewww look at this woman's armpit hair!" stealth-type photos so I had to make an active choice to only use photos women had taken of themselves. I have no idea why it fills so many people with so much horror.

As for PCOS, yes, it was really rubbish that unless I was trying to have babies I wasn't entitled to any treatment! As just a woman with horrible symptoms I didn't qualify - I felt a bit like bad breeding stock! I'm having some tests now to see if the treatment that seems to be the best one will suit me. Fingers crossed!

Fairy // Posted 21 July 2013 at 16:30

I was also diagnosed with PCOS at about 14 years old. I was given the pill to regulate my periods and told I probably would never conceive naturally and left to get on with it. Now at 30 I have frequently asked for help from various doctors over the years am option other than the pill to stop me from bleeding constantly, investigation to see if my depression and hypothyroidism are connected to the PCOS, and maybe some support with my constant struggle to lose weight. Event I am denied any help because I am not yeah ready fore children. Anything that can highlight this illness and maybe give suffers help without enquiring after their child care plans has to be a good thing.

That said I hate my armpit hair with a passion. It really upsets me to look under my arm if I haven't shaved fora few days. It should be interesting to see how long I can let it grow for.

tattyapple // Posted 21 July 2013 at 21:13

This is really interesting - thanks Phillipa (and Fairy)!

I was diagnosed with PCOS about 6 years ago, depression 4 years ago and am about to go to my GP to discuss hypothyroidism as my sister has just been diagnosed and our mum has it.

I was told I shouldn't have any problem conceiving naturally; it was just that it might take longer as obviously a PCOS sufferer ovulates fewer times in a year (for example). I was also told that it was useful to know before trying for a baby as if I was struggling after 6 months of trying, I would be referred for IVF treatment (non-invasive first; eg drugs to increase ovulation) whereas if you don't happen to already have a diagnosis, they won't even send you for tests until you've been trying for 18 months. Bonkers huh?

I was also told that there was no treatment but that going on the pill would alleviate the symptoms - so I did, and have been ever since. It doesn't really suit me though so I am really pleased to hear that there are other options - I will research and go and ask my GP - any tips for good websites by the way?

PS I haven't shaved my armpits or legs for a couple of years now and although I still struggle sometimes to be out and proud with my armpits in vest tops (don't mind the legs as they're far less noticeable I suppose) I am sticking to my guns. Bloody social conditioning! Great news about Armpits4August promoting awareness of PCOS at the same time as challenging preconceived notions of feminine beauty.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 21 July 2013 at 21:16

It sounds like there's still a lot of conflicting advice about PCOS around, especially about what treatments are available. I can't take hormonal treatments, so have had nothing except the odd acne cream for years, so I'll be interested to see what happens at the end of this round of tests.

I actually find it easier to have hairy armpits on show than hairy legs! It's funny, the messages we absorb isn't it? Well, not funny exactly...

Sam // Posted 21 July 2013 at 21:38

Brilliant article Philippa! I have several friends with PCOS but hadn't heard of ArmpitsforAugust or the charity it works with. I will be sending the links to my friends for sure. I have stopped shaving my arms and legs because I realised social pressure was the only reason I was doing it when it was actually causing me a lot of pain. I have eczema under my skin and shaving causes me to itch for hours so I stopped and am far happier for it. I've had the odd comment but I feel I have a good set of arguments to get people to understand. I'd love to do ArmpitsforAugust but in reverse of the shaving pain, my skin gets very sore if I don't shave under my arms so I'm not sure how I'd cope. I have heard that there is some itchiness when women stop shaving anyway so maybe I can try and push through and see how I get on!

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