Hello lovelies! Today I want to talk about a topic that has been on my mind since my first year of college: body hair. About a year ago I was inspired by two friends (Paige Charlick and Juliana Rodriguez, I love y’all) to start growing out my armpit hair. The simple revelation that the world doesn’t come to a crashing halt when a woman refuses to shave her pits sparked my curiosity with body hair, and more specifically society’s relationship with it. After a little over a full year of going au naturale and silently ranting in my head about the taboo that is female hair, I’ve decided it’s time to share my musings with y’all.
A (Brief) History of Shaving
In order to fully understand why forgoing the razor is such a revolutionary concept for women, we first have to discuss why shaving is considered mainstream today.
Ingird Nilsen does a great job of diving into the complex history of shaving in her YouTube video, which was how I was first exposed to the subject. One line in particular really stuck out to me, and is something I reflected back on whenever I felt conflicted about my body hair in the early stages of growing it out; Ingrid says, “I wanted to stop hating this natural part of my body, and I also wanted to not feel disgust when I saw other women and this natural part of their body.”
The entire video is well worth a watch if you have 13 minutes to spare, but I’ll do my best to condense the information she shares regarding the history of shaving in a timeline below:
- 3000 B.C. – Ancient beauty standards in Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies encouraged women to remove their body hair. This also created the association between body hair and cleanliness.
- 2 B.C. – Ovid, a roman poet, turned the male gaze onto women and further asserted patriarchal notions that body hair is tied to femininity and attractiveness.
- 1400 A.D. – Hairlessness during the Renaissance had class related connotations.
- Early 1900’s – As sleeveless dresses came into fashion, advertisements began to encourage women to shave their armpits. It was considered unfashionable to wear this new style of clothing without shaving first.
- 1940’s and 1950’s – It started to be socially acceptable to wear skirts and dresses with a shorter length, so women started to shave their legs. Ingrid makes the connection at this point in the video that shaving is intrinsically tied to trends in fashion.
- 1970’s – Feminism at the time used the refusal to shave as a rebellious act.
- 1980’s and 1990’s – Pubic hair was brought into the spotlight by fashion photography and pornography, and as a result Brazilian waxes became popular.
- Today – A study by Dr. Breanne Fahs concluded that “93 to 99 percent [of women] remove their body hair regularly.”
It was interesting for me to learn how the removal of body hair progressed over time, and to understand what trends or movements sparked the addition of a different area to the shaving list. The fact that the male gaze has informed beauty standards since 3000 B.C. is an interesting and terrifying concept – when you consider how engrained this idea is in our society as a result of thousands of years of reinforcement, it can feel overwhelming to go against it or even challenge it; but I’ll talk more about that later.
Masculinity and Shaving
As my curiosity around body hair grew (no pun intended), I started to wonder how the male perspective tied into everything. Ingrid’s video is highly informative about the overall history of shaving and how that impacts women, but she doesn’t touch on the relationship between body hair and masculinity. I started to research that idea by reading some of the work by Dr. Breanne Fahs, who was mentioned on Ingrid’s channel. Dr. Fahs is a professor of women and gender studies, and while teaching women’s studies courses she made a few observations on the men who attended her class. In her article Shaving it all off: Examining Social Norms of Body Hair Among College Men in a Women’s Studies Course, she aimed to examine the relationship that men and women form with shaving, considering the fact that “the majority of men do not remove body hair with any frequency, while the vast majority of women remove their hair with great frequency.”
She asked participating female students to go against shaving norms for a semester and participating male students to adhere to female shaving standards, and she found that the overwhelming reaction from the men was the questioning of their masculinity coupled with a fear of being perceived as “gay.” Some male students even admitted to receiving backlash from their family members for not “being a man.” They were also exposed to the intense double standard when they shared their experience with friends, many of whom said it was fine that the men shaved for the assignment but it was “disgusting for women to not shave.”
When I first read Dr. Fahs paper, my immediate reaction was shame and anger. Growing hair on our bodies is a purely androgynous fact of nature, and yet society has drawn a clear line between how much hair is masculine and how much hair is feminine. These gender norms are harmful for a few reasons: they can economically impact women who feel pressure to consistently purchase body hair removal products and services; it enforces intense double standards for men and women, which permeate throughout all aspects of our lives; it stops women from being their true selves.
Dr. Breanne Fahs isn’t the only person who has noticed the link between masculinity and body hair: we recognize and respond to that as an entire society. I did a few Google searches to test this theory.
First I looked up “manly man” on Google Images and came up with the following:
What do all of these images have in common? Facial hair. Every aspect of the spectrum is represented from light stubble to twirly mustaches to full beards; in fact, the only thing you don’t see is a clean shaven face.
The next thing I searched on Google Images was “attractive men,” which yielded the following pictures:
This time let’s look beyond the photos at the captions underneath. “15 Reasons Why Beards Make Men More …” “Men With Beards Are Officially More …” It’s not hard to imagine what the end of those sentences are. What also caught my eye was the suggested searches prompted by Google, which starts with “beard attractive men.”
With that in mind it’s impossible to ignore the link between masculinity and body hair: attractive manly men have beards, so if you don’t have a beard you’re not really attractive, manly, or a man. If you extend that logic, it’s natural to assume that women who grow out their body hair would be considered more masculine and less feminine, and thus less desirable as women.
One of the reasons that body hair is such a significant topic today is the fact that it is so emotionally charged, and there are a variety of connotations that shaving has for men and women – as a woman, when I reflect on body hair I think about my personal emotions towards it on my body, how I think of other women with body hair, what society tells me about it, and so on. As I’ve gone on this journey with body hair my perspective has shifted multiple times in relation to each issue, and I vacillated a lot between not caring what other people thought and feeling deeply self conscious about not shaving.
From my understanding, this inherent self consciousness is shared by a lot of women who experiment with growing out their body hair. The fact that not shaving is considered “going against the norm” makes it hard for women to feel comfortable embracing it as a lifestyle, and can be quite alienating if you do choose to grow out hair on any part of your body.
I want to briefly examine why we feel so strongly about female body hair in an attempt to dispel any myths and reduce the power society holds over us when it comes to this topic.
One aspect of society that encourages women to shave is the association between hairlessness and cleanliness. Razors are sold in the “hygiene” aisle, despite not being related at all to overall hygiene – it is purely cosmetic in nature. Ingrid makes a point in her video that when you enter a store and see razors next to products like toothbrushes, soap, etc. it generates a connection that shaving is something you have to do in order to be clean, whereas the decision to shave or not is completely optional and should be with other products that aren’t necessary for overall cleanliness, such as makeup.
Another reason women shave is the tie between body hair and attractiveness. Because being clean shaven is considered more feminine, and being more feminine makes you more desirable in heteronormative societies, we can conclude that having body hair is an unattractive trait. When I stopped shaving I was curious if anyone would bring up this idea – luckily, my predominately openminded and progressive friends and community didn’t bat an eye at my overgrown pits, but whenever I interacted with more conservative individuals (especially older men) they commented on my hair. “What does your boyfriend think?” was one of the more popular responses, as if I had asked John for permission before doing the abhorrent act of growing out my hair (you can go ahead and imagine my eyes rolling if you aren’t already).
These assumptions about female body hair create the societal consensus that shaving = good while body hair = bad. As I mentioned earlier, this can make it extremely difficult for women to find the courage to embrace the fuzz. I myself still occasionally feel nervous when I lift up my arms in a tank top or wear shorts, mainly because I have this ingrained female instinct to be embarrassed or apologetic. Most women tend to not only be more preoccupied with their appearance, but to also be preoccupied with what other people think about their appearance. Talk about exhausting, am I right?
I hope this blog post has empowered you to take a look at your perspective on body hair and embark on your own shaving related journey. There are a lot of other amazing resources out there that touch on this topic that I’ve included below, and I would love to add more if you find something that influences you in regards to body hair and gender.
- Unladylike Podcast. I started listening to this podcast in 2018, and I was instantly hooked by how the hosts approach each subject with honesty and depth. Unladylike has a three part series that focuses on body hair that I highly suggest listening to: you can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
- Call Your Girlfriend Podcast. I’m not too familiar with this podcast as a whole, but during my shaving revolution I listened to their body hair specific episode and enjoyed it.
- Lee From America. In her blog post titled Finding Peace With My Pits, Lee shares her own relationship with her armpit hair. I like this blog post in particular because she includes an armpit-hair-focused beauty regime at the end.
To wrap up this post, I want to give a shout out to all the ladies out there who are rocking body hair. I see you, and I’m constantly inspired by you. To anyone who still picks up the razor, I see you too and your desire to be clean shaven is perfectly valid. In case it isn’t clear, I’m not trying to shame women for choosing one lifestyle over the other, I just want to draw attention to the fact that body hair is natural and growing it out is okay!
So shave if you want to, grow it out if that feels right, trim it down if it makes you happy. Above all, be sure to respect and celebrate the women who present themselves and their body hair in a way that’s different from yours.
What are your thoughts on body hair? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption. Header photo by John Miller.