Armpits4August: Body hair, beauty myth and PCOS
Philippa Willitts // 21 July 2013
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.
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.
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]