By Stephanie Enyeart
Growing up, it seemed perfectly natural that girls shaved their legs and armpits, but boys did not. When I was a kid, I eagerly anticipated learning how to use a razor, even becoming upset when my 16-month-younger sister ended up learning before I did. Before I hit puberty, my mom took me to the doctor to get a mole burned off my armpit so I wouldn’t nick it when I started shaving. In hindsight, I wonder what the big deal was. How old was I? Twelve? Thirteen? Who, or what, was I removing my body hair for? But I didn’t question it then, dutifully shaving whenever the hair started sprouting, along with every other girl I knew.
While I don’t remember if body hair disgusted me then, I do recall that the thought of having visible hair on my legs or armpits made my heart race with anxiety. The thought of people’s repulsed expressions if they saw hair creeping from underneath my arms or covering my legs in a soft down was enough motivation for me to stick to my shaving regimen. Girls weren’t supposed to have body hair. Any hair that wasn’t on your head or covering your private parts was hated and removed. Eyebrows were given strict boundaries, plucked so thin that eventually you could replace them with penciled lines. Even forearm hair wasn’t allowed to grow too thick. All this, I learned at an early age. So I probably was disgusted by body hair then. Because society taught me that I should be.
The first time I remember seeing a woman with body hair was in college. I was taking a Middle Eastern dance class (belly dancing) with my friends in our freshman year. One day, as we were clicking finger cymbals above our heads, I glanced around the room through the mirrored wall and noticed two women with patches of hair on their armpits. I couldn’t help but stare, but it wasn’t out of revulsion. I was more intrigued than anything. When I thought of women who didn’t shave, I pictured hippies living in the woods. But here we were in a dance class at a large public university. And there were women with hairy armpits. Didn’t they know the unofficially official rules? Weren’t they grossed out by their non-feminine hair? Why they didn’t shave, and how they acted so nonchalant about it, eluded me.
After that class, though, I didn’t think about those women, or about body hair, for around five years. During that time, I came out as bisexual and, as I immersed myself in every LGBTQ material I could find; I learned a lot about gender identity as well. Gradually, I frequented more queer spaces where gender was often discussed, performed, and challenged. I began slowly – and then quite suddenly – to recognize how so many things were gendered: clothing; birthday cards; hygiene and grooming products; relationship roles. Somewhat ironically, it took me the longest to realize how our bodies are gendered as well. It was literally right under my nose (women aren’t supposed to have hair above their lip either!) in ways I had previously taken for granted. Body hair was only one aspect of our gendered selves. Muscles. Height. Breast size. Butt size. Piercings. Hair styles. Makeup. There are many and varied ways we alter and present our bodies to conform to the expectations of being a man or a woman. And if we don’t conform, or we don’t fit within the binary, we are ostracized.
As I came to these realizations about gender, I tried to rebel against the stereotypes. It helped that I had made friends with a couple of women who didn’t shave. Inspired by their indifference to body hair, I started letting my hair grow longer in between shaving, testing the waters and seeing how I felt about my hairier body. Despite my growing irritation toward gender norms, I was still a little surprised by how I liked my own body hair, given the social stigma. I liked the patches of hair on my pits. I liked discovering the strip of skin on my shin that doesn’t grow any hair at all. I had never really noticed this quirk because I kept the rest of my legs shaved. The more I let my hair grow, the more comfortable I was with it, and the stronger my appreciation became for my body in general.
Unexpectedly, another person influenced my decision to stop shaving my body hair: my ex-boyfriend. Up until the past year, my dating life was sporadic and, although it was a poor excuse, I used it to rationalize letting my body hair grow out. Remembering those thoughts, I surprised myself when I realized I had consciously thought about growing, and even started to grow out my body hair near the end of a brief relationship with a straight, cisgender man the previous summer. I mention his identities because I think it’s significant that even in a relationship where I felt heteronormative pressure to uphold female stereotypes, I made progress in fighting the societal pressure to remove my body hair. On the other hand, it may not be surprising at all. During the entirety of our relationship, I felt intense internalized biphobia and erasure of my queerness. Growing out my leg and armpit hair may have been my way of trying to defend my identity by queering the way I presented myself as female.
From the start of going au naturel, I tried not to pressure myself to declare that I would never pick up a razor again. At any rate, it wasn’t like I needed to decide whether I was always going to shave my legs or never shave them again. That would only be creating another either/or dilemma for myself (did I mention that biphobia earlier?). I could shave at any time if I wanted to. The only rule was that I couldn’t shave just because I felt socially pressured to do so. If I was going to shave, it would be because it’s what I wanted. Slipping my smooth legs into cool bed sheets at night is an amazing feeling that I don’t want to miss out on just to rebel against society’s belief that women look disgusting with leg hair.
Ultimately, I don’t care whether women shave or not. I’m not arguing that all women should stop shaving just to stick it to the man. Sure, I’m lazy, and it would be nice to not feel pressured to keep my body clean-shaven so often. But it isn’t the worst chore; I don’t mind doing it if I want smooth skin. The problem lies in the huge double standard concerning societal expectations surrounding body hair. I think we can generally agree that body hair on anyone is gross on some level, even. It’s not like we ogle their armpit hair. Body hair on men is just something we accept. Women, on the other hand, are held to stricter beauty standards simply because we’re women and that’s what’s expected of us. Yet, there’s no practical reason for us to shave our hair. It’s all for aesthetics. So if women are expected to shave, men should be expected to shave. If we’re disgusted by armpit and leg hair on women, we should be disgusted by armpit and leg hair on men. Everyone should be held to the same standard. Regardless of gender, people should be able to maintain their body hair in a way that they want, however they feel beautiful, and for whatever reasons they choose, except for what society says you should do with it based on your gender.
I fully acknowledge that transitioning to a more open mindset about who can grow body hair is easier said than done. It can be hard to challenge our opinions about body hair because of the beauty standards engrained in our society. People are still going to have opinions of what is attractive and what is not. And that’s okay. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion. Opinions can change, however. Our tastes and preferences change all the time. Sometimes they do so naturally. Sometimes they change because we actively question our preconceived beliefs or we discover something that changes our mind. In the latter way, we could work toward challenging our notions of who should have body hair and what is beautiful. And even if we decide we don’t like something, who are we to judge someone on standards that are subjective anyways? This isn’t going to happen overnight, but I believe we could work towards developing a more accepting mindset around at least this one aspect of our gendered bodies.
In the meantime, I want my armpit mole back.
Stephanie Enyeart is currently figuring out how to navigate swimsuit season as a woman with body hair. She works in higher education in Indianapolis and has an on-and-off-again relationship with writing. In 2018, she’s attempting to draw a comic a day on her Instagram, @thefluffyskunk.