How I realised female body hair isn’t repulsive – it’s normal
Amy recalls the moment she realised removing her body hair (or not) was her choice
It’s summer now, which means one thing to pretty much all women: time to get rid of our body hair! When was the last time you saw a woman with leg hair? In real life, in a picture, or on TV? I’m wracking my brains but I can’t remember. That’s because there’s no way we can go out in shorts and strappy tops without being judged as dirty, ugly or transgressive if we haven’t shaved our body hair. So we shave and wax our legs, armpits, bikini lines – or all of our pubes. We make sure we maintain our facial hair including upper lip hair, eyebrows (of course, this goes on all year round) and any other stray hairs we happen to find. And we do this in silence, accepting it as a normal part of being a woman. Men don’t have to do this. The only regular maintenance of body hair they do is shaving off their moustaches and beards, and that is a matter of choice. It is equally acceptable for a man to have a beard and not to have a beard. When a man grows his beard, it is not seen as a political statement or a reflection of his views on gender equality. Then how come it is seen as just that when a woman chooses to leave her body hair alone?
There’s no way we can go out in shorts and strappy tops without being judged as dirty, ugly or transgressive if we haven’t shaved our body hair.
I have a LOT of body hair. I have hair pretty much everywhere on my body. If I were to get rid of all of it (apart from the hair on my head and a little for my eyebrows, of course, because, for some reason, that’s acceptable), it would take me so long that by the time I had finished the last part, the first part would be growing back again. When I was eight, I remember kids in the school playground pointing and staring at my hairy legs. One boy I barely knew even said to me ‘you have really hairy legs’, as if I didn’t know. Then puberty hit and I got even hairier. For a while this wasn’t a problem – my friends and I would talk about how many pubic hairs we had with enthusiasm and non-judgemental curiosity. I hadn’t even noticed the hair in other parts of my body. But, by the time I was 12, I had ‘learnt’ that all body hair was ‘wrong’ and had to be removed in order for me to be desirable or just ‘normal’.
My mum wouldn’t let me shave my legs until I was 11 and I was so angry with her. The first time I was allowed to was one of the biggest moments of relief I’ve ever experienced. Finally, I was free from the constant stares and feelings of self-loathing. Until I was 13, I shaved all the time to avoid judgement. Then I found feminism. I started questioning my attitude (and that of society’s) towards my body hair and concluded that it stemmed from the effects of ever-changing beauty standards, the patriarchy and capitalism.
The policing of women’s bodies is pervasive. There have always been invisible rules for how women should look. The removal of women’s body hair became popularised in the 20thcentury when companies realised they could make money from women’s insecurities, and the obsession is now so great that even on razor adverts women are shown shaving completely hairless legs. It’s insane that advertisers would sacrifice showing off their products actually working (as they do with men) so as not to offend viewers with images of women’s body hair. The influence of the misogynistic porn industry on the supposed unacceptability of female body hair has also been huge.
My mum wouldn’t let me shave my legs until I was 11 and I was so angry with her. The first time I was allowed to was one of the biggest moments of relief I’ve ever experienced.
But I found myself in a dilemma. Although I understood all this, I still wanted to get rid of my body hair to fit in and because I had become conditioned to be repulsed by it. I started shaving less frequently. When I complained about all this to a male friend, he said ‘just do what makes you happy’. I found it hard to explain to him that I didn’t even know what really made me happy because I had been socially conditioned my whole life to find body hair unattractive so, I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. How are you supposed to know what makes you happy when personal happiness has never even been part of why people remove body hair?
Then, suddenly, everything changed. I became very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome when I was 17, and my relationship to my body went through a transformation. I started to feel into my body in a way I never had before, and to listen to what it was saying. I realised that the illness was my body’s way of sending me a message: things were not okay and they had to change. I had been very unhappy for many years prior to my illness, but I had ignored my emotions and carried on. After years of this, my body decided to step in and give me a wake-up call. As odd as it may sound, I am grateful for this illness. I love my body for taking care of me and always feeding back what’s right and what’s wrong.
I became very ill with chronic fatigue syndrome when I was 17, and my relationship to my body went through a transformation. I started to feel into my body in a way I never had before.
When I was severely ill, I didn’t do anything to my body hair because I was incapacitated. But when I got a bit better, I started to think about it again and realised that my thoughts had completely changed. I actually didn’t care. It was as if I had gained laser vision and could see right into my body. I could see that my body is so much more than an aesthetic thing. It is made of bones and flesh and organs and blood and nerves, and it allows me to do things. As for body hair, it exists for health-related, biological reasons. I love my body, first and foremost, in its natural form. My body is always here for me. It is my best friend and I choose to accept it as it is.
I had to go through illness to feel this way. Before, although I understood intellectually that I didn’t have to shave, I didn’t feel comfortable with and appreciative of my body hair. Even now, I still get a bad feeling when strangers stare at my legs in the summer. But I’m happy to put up with this because I want to treat my body like the wonderful thing it is and not reduce it to something I can routinely hurt just so I look ‘pretty’.
Removing my body hair was never a way of expressing my unique personality. To the contrary – it was all about conforming to the norm.
But all this doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy changing my appearance sometimes to express my personality – I love wearing makeup and dyeing my hair bright colours. But removing my body hair was never a way of expressing my unique personality. To the contrary – it was all about conforming to the norm. I haven’t shaved my legs for four years. I may in the future. Or I may not. I will choose depending on how I feel. What I would really like is for women to accept and love their bodies and only change their appearance because they themselves have chosen to. What I would also really like is for men to recognise their part in the body hair shame game and to help create a safe world where women can exist as their natural selves.
People have body hair. And that’s okay.