The discourse about female body hair isn’t a new one. People have been talking about the topic for quite a while now, and most people I have interacted with recognize the importance of normalizing it.
However, while many readers may readily accept it, they may not realize the wider, darker implications of its stigmatization. Most think that the sole purpose of embracing female body hair is to promote body positivity among women. Some people think that conversations about it are less necessary than other pressing issues, and call women who bring attention to the subject ‘pseudo-feminists’ (a person who claims to be a feminist but misinterprets or misuses its principles according to convenience). Furthermore, people uneducatedly consider body hair to be ‘unhygienic’. Thus, the agenda of today’s article: why the acceptance of female body hair is more important than one may think.
To begin, one needs to understand why throughout centuries female body hair has been ritualized to be waxed, shaved and epilated while male body hair escaped society’s scrutiny. Hair removal is not a recent phenomenon; in fact, it dates back to the Stone Age. However, double standards then were not as common as they are today. For instance, it was common for both men and women to shave their body hair for survival advantages. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, both genders were known to remove all their body hair due to the excessive heat (and also as a sign of cleanliness). Various trends existed across the globe, sometimes resulting from necessity (frostbites, lice, heat etc.) and sometimes from sheer vanity. But what caused this new, uniform craze, or rather necessity, of the hairless woman in contemporary society?
Why do women need to be smooth while men get away with being hairy?
This modern wave of female hairlessness can be traced back to Charles Darwin’s ‘Descent of Man’, which came out in 1871. It claimed that having less body hair (than our ancestors and other primates) was of no significant advantage, thus it must be a result of sexual selection, not natural selection. In simpler words, Darwin suggested that being hairy is unattractive. Moreover, he also linked having more hair to being more aggressive and having criminal tendencies. The problem originated, however, when these observations were only applied to women – implying that looking attractive and being docile was much more important for women than for men, and therefore body hair should be removed.
This paved the way for society to bend and mold women as influential individuals saw fit. Capitalists jumped to profit off of this opportunity. In 1915, Gillette launched the first razor for women, manipulatively labeling their body hair as an ‘embarrassing problem’. Soon enough, a sprawling industry of hair removal specifically for women, as we know today, was birthed, feeding off insecurities which society itself created for women (Veet, Schick, Panasonic and Phillips Epilator sound familiar?).
Well, this might have been informative for some, but one could ask, how does this affect us today when women have the conscious choice of celebrating their body hair? To that, I would like to recount an embarrassing personal experience from my school days.
My Experience With Body Hair Removal
It was 9th grade, only 4 years ago. This was around the time I had started getting conscious of my hairy body, just slightly. In middle school, I was untainted and barely conscious of the hair growth on my limbs because I never had much hair, and my mother never insisted on getting me waxed. So, I was perfectly comfortable in my own skin. But one day, I overheard my teammate (from my football team) complaining about how she had to wear full trousers to practice because she couldn’t get waxed in time – which made me stare at my own legs in shorts, so irresponsibly comfortable with being furry.
That day changed a lot – it turned me into a woman. No one told me so, but since that day, I was a woman because loving my natural body was no longer an option. I felt careless and immature for not worrying about my body hair like all other girls. So, on another fine day, even though I had a choice and no one forced me to, I decided to get rid of my leg hair using a pumice stone. Frantically, I was scrubbing my legs for hours… and the result was horrendous.
A few minutes out of the shower, I realized that I had abrased both of my calves. Fully. I had gotten rid of my hair, yay, but my legs were swollen and pink. The next day, they began to scab. I even went to a doctor, where I embarrassingly tried to explain the cause of my visit. However, my obsession didn’t end there. Soon enough, I was regularly getting waxed, paying the beautician monthly to fix my 'ugly' body. I saw no wrong. I was content.
So yes, that was my dark history with body hair (perhaps funny today, but very painful in the moment). But recently I have learned a lot of lessons from it, that I did not realize then. I found a lot more problems with body hair stigma than just body shaming.
1. It is time-consuming and distracting.
Once I started getting waxed, I spent considerably more time on waxing appointments and fussing about whether my growth was too much to wear shorts. I observed my friends complain about the pain and the inconvenience while never missing an appointment. Suddenly I started noticing others’ body hair and was doubly conscious of them noticing mine. All of this may seem insignificant, but in the long run, it plays a considerable role in shaping our lives and decisions.
2. It subconsciously causes young girls to focus more on their looks than boys.
Not only this, but hair removal reinforces the idea that a woman’s looks are super important. Important enough to bear the pain or inconvenience of waxing or shaving (or other removal techniques) and make appointments and pay for them. Men are expected to shave too, but their case is much more liberal. What would this mean to a young girl? Having been a young girl, I know: it means that the price of being a girl is to always look pretty and appealing.
3. It also costs quite a lot.
In a lifetime, shaving in the USA and waxing in India can cost around 7.5 lakhs INR (10,000 USD). And this is excluding the other costs of maintaining our appearance, like makeup. Additionally, women are already paying for feminine hygiene products. Due to the high cost of hair removal, fewer women opt for it in developing countries like India – which contributes to yet another problem of a class divide between the rich and the poor.
Now, why is constant conversation necessary?
It is interesting to think about: what happens when an entire generation of kids grows up seeing smooth, hairless women and hairy men? They perceive it to be the norm – men can have body hair and women cannot. After years of such ingrained conditioning, it is not enough for society to just proclaim that female body hair is ‘acceptable’. Why? Because it is much more difficult to unlearn than to learn. Even I, myself, am not entirely at ease in my own skin – conscious reminders that having body hair does not make me an outcast are constantly required. That is why regular discourse, posts and pictures about normalizing body hair are extremely necessary.
If a feminist keeps posting pictures of unshaven women, it is to show you and re-introduce you to the actual ‘normal’. Unwaxed armpits do not mean that the Feminist movement is diverging from the actual agenda, neither do they indicate frivolity. In fact, they are extremely necessary to help familiarise people with hairy bodies as much as they are with smooth bodies. This is hard to see because the campaign against body hair removal may seem inconsequential at first, but embracing body hair gives us back the power which society took away by making us conscious of our appearance in the first place.
One might still say that advocacy for female body hair in places that haven’t even achieved say, equal pay or the right to abortion should take a back seat. But I believe that here, a simultaneous conversation about body hair is as important – to reinforce that women are more than their appearances, that they can make their own decisions, and deserve to. And this message is equally meant for men.
It does not imply that the spotlight of a movement must always stay on body hair. Yet, normalization of it through conversation in popular media must never die out. The fight for equality isn’t one dimensional, one-issue-at-a-time – rather, sexism needs to be tackled on all fronts, in every small or big aspect of our life, which includes even our body hair.
Lastly, this is not to say that people who choose to remove their body hair are oppressed, or sexist – in the end, empowerment is about the freedom to choose. Creating a new, rigid ‘acceptable’ identity isn’t what feminism stands for. But as long as we let one section of the society grow up believe that being smooth and attractive is the cost of existing peacefully – we cannot attain equality.