That is the question.
…Well, not really. There are not that many people asking this question. Actually, rarely will any woman seriously consider living with hairy legs or armpits (I don’t mean because of laziness, I mean intentionally and maybe permanently) unless she is either questioning her gender identity, making a feminist statement, or trying to ward off unwanted sexual advances from the culturally enslaved, judgmental, disgusted masses. Body hair and gender presentation have become hopelessly entwined.
Obviously, there is a different standard for men than for women when it comes to body hair. The U.S. standard is quite simple for men: you can have as much body hair as you want! Just shave (or trim) your beard if you want to look professional, but for heaven’s sake don’t shave anywhere else for fear of losing sight of all boundaries and turning into a woman (think of what those poor male swimmers have to endure!). For women, it’s a little more complicated. The lowest common denominator is smooth legs and armpits, but many women also remove hair from their eyebrows, upper lips, toes, fingers, and bikini lines. Sometimes I want to scream at people: “We’re mammals! Mammals are supposed to be hairy!” At the same time, though, I also find smooth legs appealing! So do I want women around me to compromise attractiveness for feminism?
It’s very much an issue of the fashion industry. As women begin to wear increasingly less clothing in magazines and on the beach, more hair removal becomes normal and expected. You don’t see middle aged women stressing about this issue because they come from an age where clothing usually covered these hot spots. My mother once told me I really didn’t need to ever shave above my knees, but you would never hear a thirteen year old at a slumber party say the same.
When prompted to give up waxing, shaving, and tweezing for a month, television presenter Cherry Healey said, “I began to calculate just how much time I spend in the bathroom each day removing unwanted hairs from intimate and not so intimate parts of my body. It’s often more than half an hour.”
She makes a point most gender-conforming girls and women can relate to (although hopefully not the over-thirty-minutes a day part–yikes!). Healey’s account is indicative of a more deeply ingrained obsession, but most women at least take the time to shave or wax when getting ready for a date, an evening out, or any kind of special occasion. Smooth skin is a societal expectation pretty much everyone takes for granted, be they male or female. In fact, you’re probably wondering why I’m still talking about this like it’s interesting.
The answer? Because I’m fascinated by the implications of this weird phenomenon! Our culture which once went to great lengths to hide a woman’s body and save it for her husband now makes a habit of putting it on display for everyone to see! As a result, women must be hairless and silky smooth while men are allowed to remain rough, tough, and hairy, as nature made them. Young girls absorbing this information and wanting to shave their bodies are, at worst, encouraged, or at best, told, “wait until you’re older.” Seem reasonable? Most would say yes, but what are we really saying when we encourage a girl not to sexualize herself or worry about her body image…yet? Because that’s what body hair removal is: sexualizing grown women so they appear more like pre-pubescent children–helpless and weak; ready and waiting for a man’s protection. Shudder.
If it’s unhealthy for a young girl, why should it be any healthier for a grown woman? And how does this play into the issue of gender identity and presentation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!