Abby OReilly // 7 June 2008
Why does hair growth continue to be integral to body image and self-perfection? This is a recurring theme in feminist circles, and is an issue I began thinking about again this week when the Daily Mail published close-ups of Geri Halliwell’s unshaved arm-pits, clearly basking in the revelation that supposedly demonstrated a hiccup in her beauty regime, and the possible beginning of a slide down the glamour scale straight into a pair of saggy-arsed slacks and flats: “It was a rare misstep for the usually impeccably groomed mother-of-one.” That Halliwell’s choice not to scalp her underarms prior to leaving the house is considered a “misstep” is testament to the fact that the female body in its natural state continues to be a source of fear and disgust. What exactly is wrong with a bit of armpit hair? Photos of men, arms flailing highlighting pits smuggling small poodles, are regularly published, and yet not even a hairless eyebrow is raised. While it’s not unusual for double-standards to exist in this way, why is it that a woman’s hair on anywhere but her head is considered unforgivable?
It wasn’t until I was about fourteen that I became aware of body-hair and the need to remove it, and this was owing to conversations with classmates who indirectly let me know that that’s what we, as women, were supposed to do. So, I began shaving my legs. I didn’t need to at that time, the hair grew blonde, and was not noticeable, but having spent many hours throughout my teens shaving to within an inch of my life I am now stuck in a routine whereby I have to ensure that my armpits, legs and bikini line are entirely naked most of the time. The idea that as women we must shave has become so ingrained on our collective consciousness that I suppose the vast majority of us don’t even question why we do it anymore. Why do I do it? Probably out of habit more than anything else. Plus the general consensus seems to be this: you’re feminine not if you have body hair (one of the primary physical indicators of sexual maturity and womanhood), but only if you remove it.
So why remove the hair? For many it feels more hygienic, although whether this is purely psychological or a physical reality is unknown. We have also been conditioned to think that it is aesthetically pleasing, and if a woman fails to adhere to this belief cultivating a pair of armpits so lush and vibrant that packs of chimpanzees can stow away inside to avoid extinction, then she is considered transgressive and automatically unattractive. A man with excess body hair is considered masculine, filled with testosterone and therefore attractive. A woman with excessive body hair is also considered manly, and for the same reasons unattractive. Male and female body hair is entirely natural, and yet for the latter the connotations of the word “hairy” is only used as an offensive prefix to a description if a woman is to be berated. Why is hair invested with so much importance? It’s strange, especially considering that the development of body hair is what makes us sexually mature, adults, although that’s the problem.
While with age men become “distinguished,” women are old hags. Removing hair therefore temporarily allows a woman to return to her prepubescent youth, with a soft, smooth, lithe body untarnished by the effects of time and maturation. While I’ve never had a designer pubic triangle, the idea of having our intimate hair teased into a specific style or shape (or even removed altogether), has become increasingly popular and is considered the ultimate signifier of a woman’s pride in her appearance. While I’m not anti-porn, I do understand that this is a trend emanating from the adult-entertainment industry. A woman cavorting on screen is expected to do so with nothing on her lover half, especially not hair that may hinder the complete view of her genitals and betray the fantasy that she is not simply an overgrown, sexually uninhibited nubile young thing, but rather a real woman who once a week has to hoist herself up on some beauticians trolley and talk weather-talk while some bright young thing pours hot wax onto her beef curtains in order to keep the viewers happy. A friend of mine told me she has all her pubic hair removed because she is more comfortable without it, which is perfectly acceptable: if a woman makes the choice to do this owing to personal preference, then good for her. The only time this becomes an issue is when a woman is criticised for not waxing to within an inch of her life, and by default is told that is what she has to do to be a woman.
Personally, I would find it a bit disconcerting to be told by someone that I needed to strip my vagina. Primarily because I would feel like a ten-year-old, and surely having a body that in any way resembles that of a child should not be sexualised in any way. I do wonder if the fact porn has told so many men that this is what they ‘should’ find sexy that they automatically want a hairless woman without questioning the reasoning behind it. Either way, I’m keeping my pubes.
So what she we do? Should we all take a vacation from our hair removal regimes and live our lives au naturelle to see the reaction we get to the exposure of our bikini beards? Or would this be too difficult to do, both socially and psychologically? The real issue here is the fact that whatever choice we make, hair or no hair, we are always subject to the criticism of another third party who holds an opinion, and it always seems like, as women, any individual action we take is not only always seen as representative of our entire gender, but also as having some political significance. So what if Halliwell was out with furry bits, maybe she just didn’t feel like shaving that night, is that ok with you Daily Male (Mail)?
But what do you think? Should we not all be allowed to make our own choice without having to provide an exposition of our hair removal preferences?