April 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
Cross-posted at F Collective.
I don’t shave at all most of the time. This habit formed sometime at university. During the second year of my arts degree at the University of Newcastle, despite my avowed feminism, I still felt compelled to shave. I saw body hair on women as ugly, and ugly was (is) a powerful thing.
Then I started spending a lot of time with another activist. Let’s call her J. J wasn’t so much an outspoken feminist like me, but she was an amazing part of Newcastle’s environment movement, and a bit of a hippie. J was hairy, and she was beautiful.
I spent a lot of time with J, working on things we both cared about. After a while, I just couldn’t see body hair as ugly anymore, when she was so lovely in every way. I stopped shaving, and found I rather liked my underarm hair, despite the fact that I am very hairy, and dark-haired.
I realised shaving and hair-removal had taken an enormous amount of time, and cost me a lot of money. More importantly, it had always been painful, itchy and uncomfortable.
I came to be glad I had stopped shaving.
Nonetheless, I still find my hairy body a challenge sometimes, in how I dress and in how others perceive me.
Body hair is intimately connected to other aspects of bodily presentation. It impacts what I wear, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. I love art, I have a sometimes grudging love for fashion and clothes, and aesthetics remain important to me, and to how I engage with the world. Different clothing styles play differently with body hair – and since I love to play with aesthetics, I notice. I find that while body hair ‘goes’ with some things I wear, it’s jarring against some of the more vintage styles I like, which are otherwise comfortable and suited to my body type. Body hair seems to clash with the more ‘classic’ dresses I might wear to formal occasions, like a friend’s wedding or farewell.
These styles and occasions are socially constructed as much as as my body hair or lack thereof. A 50s style dress on a body that isn’t playing by the rules of the traditionally feminine can be seen as ironic, and sometimes I’m ok with that. At other times I wish my body wasn’t a small-scale visual, stylistic and representational battleground.
To say my body’s appearance and indeed, my body, is socially constructed, isn’t a dismissal of the power of the constraints on women’s bodies I’m discussing. As Stephen White (1) puts it, what could be more powerful than social construction? We are all social animals.
My body hair can be an affront to others without me saying a word. Sometimes other women look at me with distaste in the gym. Woman on woman misogyny is very real when it comes to appearance.
At least two of my more serious partners, while not daring to tell me to shave (cue fear of my feminist outrage!) have used their ‘preference’ and social pressure to indicate disapproval. What to do, what to do? I try not to blame myself in these situations, for whatever choice I make (hypocrisy be damned if you want or need to remove hair – feminism teaches us our bodies are our own!). But for all options there are costs, however minor. As I said, it’s physically painful for me to shave, quite apart from how torn it makes me feel.
I think that even though it’s popular to believe we have agency on the body choices front, women’s bodies and body hair are powerfully socially disciplined and constrained. I do have agency when it comes to my body, clearly, as do you. Yet my preferences and those of others are shaped by beauty norms and the beauty industry, an industry that under capitalism needs to sell us stuff to make a profit. This is a powerful motivation to keep people unhappy with their bodies. So I have a constrained agency, and there are social costs for my ‘choices’ not to shave.
That my agency is constrained is the case for me even though my body is privileged in a lot of ways – white, buxom, medium weight, cisgendered. As a white woman, I can be seen as ugly or angry or making a statement if I don’t shave. If I were not white, I might be seen as representative of a ‘people’ who are ‘naturally’ ugly or dirty. For trans women, body hair might be seen as validation of the notion that they are not real woman. The threat of violence in this case is never far away.
One thing I think we can do as feminists, is take responsibility for not shaming other people for their choices about their bodies. This is especially important if we are in a position of looking like the ‘norm’ or are otherwise privileged. Those odd looks and judgements about my body hair are responses I could do without.
I have questions unanswered.
How are feelings about body hair influenced by different social scenes and identities?
What is it like for YOU being feminist and negotiating your body hair?
(1) White, Stephen K. “As the World Turns: Ontology and Politics in Judith Butler.” Polity 32, no. 2 (December 1, 1999): 155–177.