Celebrating the Choice to Be Wild and Free
The first time I saw a woman with body hair, I was thirteen. She was my teacher for a summer creative writing class. As she stretched her arms above her head, I was transfixed by her curly black hairs. After that, I waited for her to do it again, because, wow, I’d never seen a woman with armpit hair before. Every so often, I’d sneak a peek at her leg hair. I thought I was being casual enough about it, but now that others pull the same move on me, I realize how obvious I must have been. She knew I was looking, the same way I know when others are looking at me.
I have a certain sense of pride when it comes to my body hair. I actually like how it feels and looks. No razor burn, no in-grown hairs or stubby, scratchy growth fighting through the surface. Just natural hair, growing as it should. But when I’m in public, I’m overly-conscious of it, checking around me before I roll up my pant leg or stretch my arms above my head.
I stopped shaving when I was sixteen. My armpit hair was the first I let grow, mostly because I used to cut myself a lot while shaving and underarm cuts are just uncomfortable and not fun. (Has anyone else encountered this, or am I just a bad shaver?)
My high-school boyfriend asked me, “Why aren’t you shaving your armpits?” To which I replied, “Why aren’t you shaving your armpits?” He told me that shaving was a “secondary sexual characteristic” and females should shave, but men didn’t have to.
Well, turns out there isn’t an innate need to shave. This habit is dictated to us through media images of the unattainable woman’s body—impossibly thin, clear skin, smooth curves—that bombards our lives. Thankfully, people are starting to challenge these Photoshopped manipulations, but even in progressive ads that feature a variety of bodies, one thing remains generally true: women are hairless.
It’s no surprise that advertisements continue to preserve this ideal, because that’s where this image was first created. In May of 1915, an advertisement in Harper’s magazine published the first image of a woman with hairless underarms. In true capitalistic fashion, Gillette released their first women’s razor that same year. Only a few years later, women’s razors were featured in the Sears Roebuck catalog. The practice of female underarm shaving had begun.
As the years progressed, women’s clothing became more revealing and body hair was portrayed as untidy and unhygienic. Around WWII, pin-up girls, most famously Betty Grable, revealed long, smooth, hairless legs, and leg-shaving took off.
The 80s and 90s brought on the rise of the VHS tape and the distribution of pornography to a home audience. In S&M, hairless vaginas made women appear child-like and helpless. The image of cleanly-shaven pubes quickly spread throughout the entire porn industry.
Today, almost all women in porn are cleanly shaven. Maybe there’s a “landing strip” here or there, but, ironically, if you wanna find some natural pubic hair, you have to search for fetish or vintage porn. Because today, even in our struggling economy, hair removal has become a 500-million dollar industry.
Young women learn from an early age that body hair is not socially acceptable. I remember junior high sleepovers when we would talk about getting rid of our hair “down there,” only ten years after the pube-shaving trend began. I lied and said that I shaved because everyone said that they did and I didn’t want them to think I was gross. I felt pressured. I felt ashamed. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. For the longest time, I thought shaving was as necessary as brushing my teeth or trimming my toenails.
I believe in body hair because it represents the freedom and ability to make decisions about my body. There are so many images that dictate to us what we should look like, but hardly anything that affirms our options. We are pigeonholed. From a young age, we learn to feel embarrassed about what’s natural, instead of realizing that we should never have to apologize for our bodies.
These days, I spend the majority of my time around children, and I aspire to be a great role model for all of these young people in my life. I feel as though presenting a different appearance and showing them some of the options and body choices available contributes to that.
But even so, I still sometimes worry about what people think when they catch a glimpse of my body hair. even though I’m a secure, confident adult, I don’t feel any shame about my body, and I have made a conscious choice, I still worry. I don’t want to be scoffed at, broken down into my separate parts, limited to “the woman with armpit hair.”
This summer I’ll be teaching full-time to students K-12 and the contract I signed told me that I need dress every day in professional attire. So, what about my body hair? If my leg hair peaks out from beneath my skirt, does that go against my dress code? What will my students say? What if my teenage students cast me as a “gross hippie” and disregard everything I try to teach them? What if one of the parents calls my supervisor? Could I lose my job because of my body hair?
The answer, I realize, is probably no. But still I wonder, is it worth the risk?
And then I think back to the teacher I had for the summer when I was 13. Her body hair opened up new possibilities for me. It showed me an alternative. And, if I can do that, if I can show my students that they have options, that there is more than one way, than that will probably be the greatest thing I could ever teach them.