A hairy dilemma

Women are signed up at puberty for a lifetime of relentless hair removal. But, asks Emma Chaplin, if the alternative is pariah status and the laughter of children, what can a feminist do?

Emma Chaplin, 2 May 2007

"The absence of hair on the body is to a certain extent a secondary sexual character; for in all parts of the world women are less hairy than men. Therefore we may reasonably suspect that this is a character which has been gained through sexual selection."

Charles Darwin

hairy armMuslim comic, Shazia Mirza, writing in the New Statesman, said her New Year's resolutions this year were "to grow my body hair and stop shoplifting". She was in the process of making a film for the BBC about women and body hair. Part of it included presenting a lingerie collection made from human hair and modelled "by the UK's most hairy" women. The collection was shown in February at the Café de Paris, under the strapline 'Hairy Women Unite. Hair is the New Black'.

Mirza reckons that, if you added up all her hair removal sessions, she spends the equivalent of three days a month getting rid of it. In the film, she talks about how the hair removal industry is rarely seen but "feeds on our desire to get rid of body hair at all costs".

Day after day we rip it out, slash it off, dissolve or bleach it with harsh chemicals with a savagery that makes me uneasy. Why is every female body featured in porn virtually hair-free (with the exception of hair fetishist sites)?

She describes walking down the red carpet at the British Comedy Awards with armpits full of fake hair, a la Julia Roberts, to see how the paparazzi reacted. Harry Hill was behind her, and all she could hear was people shouting "Harry, Harry!", but in her confused state she thought they were shouting "hairy, hairy!" so she started shouting "I know! I know!

Is hair still a feminist issue? One that divides the women from the girls? There is no biological or hygienic reason for women to remove body hair, yet most of us do. But it is such a powerful cultural expectation to do so, it is rarely challenged these days. To break it and be hairy is regarded as taboo, extreme, Andrea Dworkin-esque. If you are hairy, you are regarded as unclean, lazy, a witch, the most extreme kind of feminist in an era when any kind of feminist is regarded with deep suspicion. Can we be feminist and feminine? Can we tolerate a contradiction, acknowledging that the culture of hair removal is oppressive, absurd and possibly racist (Asian women being more susceptible to excessive dark face and body hair - see Shilpa Shetty and the facial bleach incident in Celebrity Big Brother) yet admit that we feel more comfortable without it?

Day after day we rip it out, slash it off, dissolve or bleach it with harsh chemicals with a savagery that makes me uneasy. Why is every female body featured in porn virtually hair-free (with the exception of hair fetishist sites)? Images of sexually-available women, gay and straight, seem universally pre-pubescent, both in their thinness and their lack of body hair.

Where does that leave women like me, who are dark haired and covered in the stuff? Bored and irritated is the simple answer. The whole business of body hair management is much akin to painting the Forth Bridge. Perpetual, expensive and very dull. Yes, it helps that laser treatment is available now, but only to those who can afford it. I was in my front room recently, lying on my back on a portable massage couch, holding onto one foot with my leg in the air in what was frankly an undignified position, hoping that no-one could see in through the blinds. Was this some kind of home-gynaecology exercise? Well perhaps, in a way. It was home waxing. Cheaper than going to a salon. Painful, obviously. And completely bloody ridiculous.

The hair still haunts me and I spend a lot of time and money shaving, plucking, bleaching, using depilatory creams just trying to keep the most obvious bits at bay

Why do I feel the need to get rid of the hair? Well I've tried the leave-it-to-grow bit, but if you work with kids, they just stare at your face and taunt you, and it is humiliating. And since the school have forbidden me from using my powers of witchcraft to give those kids the warts they so richly deserve, or even allow the judicious use of a stun-gun, I have had to cave in. If I did nothing, I would have a full beard. The face hair has been by far the most problematic and humiliating. The doctors have assured me, after numerous tests, that there is no traceable hormonal imbalance. It does not seem to be hereditary. I have two sisters and neither they nor my mother have the same problem. I have had laser treatment courses twice for facial hair (despite what people think, it is not permanent, but gets rids of a lot of it for good and some of it for a many months). But it costs a fortune and is not fun. There was one notable occasion where I met a friend for coffee afterwards and skin peeled off onto my croissant. Eugh. Exactly. And it can be painful and shocking as well.

Before that, I endured hours of electrolysis. I developed a Zen approach, retreating to a meditative mental space whilst the horrible zapping went on. I tried to maintain the inner calm after leaving the salon and having to walk around with a red face for a number of hours. I am more relaxed about the whole business than I was when I was younger. I have been fortunate in having a partner who never seemed fussed about me being vulpine. But the hair still haunts me and I spend a lot of time and money shaving, plucking, bleaching, using depilatory creams just trying to keep the most obvious bits at bay, like the face (and the palms of the hands).

And nose hair. That's joyous discovery after the age of 30 that you are every bit as disgusting as that creepy 'uncle' Harry you used to mock. Nipple hair. And what a friend cheerfully calls her 'treasure line' (from navel to pubes) translates on my body as a full-on furry belly.

Maybe I should give in gracefully, use my impediment as an asset and become the circus freak that has clearly been trying to get out all these years.

About the author

Emma Chaplin

Emma Chaplin is a counsellor and writer. She wrote a regular journal for the Guardian Unlimited website last year, and now write articles and a weekly column for a local webmag, Viva Lewes. She has been a feminist for 20 odd years, after listening to an eye-opening debate about pornography.

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