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Not necessarily radical: further thoughts on body hair September 24, 2007

Posted by Winter in beauty myths, body politics, class matters, feminist theory.

This post on body hair is based on one I wrote last year and posted on my personal blog. Since Laura Woodhouse and Zenobia are talking about the subject, I thought I’d repost an updated, expanded version here as a contribution to the general discussion. I agree with both that there are lots of good things to be said for bra burning and hairiness and even more good things to be said for not allowing stupid sterotypes to define your feminism, but I want to say something more on body hair. This is done with the proviso that I don’t think this issue is exactly high on the list of planetary feminist priorities and I doubt the world really needs another body hair post. Having said that, the issue obviously does matter to a lot of woman and keeps returning in certain feminist circles, so I think it’s worth talking a little about why it matters.

Last year I made the decision to stop shaving under my arms. Until that point I’d been one of those women who removes the hair when it’s likely to be visible and doesn’t bother much the rest of the time. But while I see Laura as doing something challenging in the context of her life, in the context of my life, I don’t see myself as doing anything radical for the following reasons.

First, I spent my childhood in a white, middle-class bohemian hippy community where a woman who removed her body hair would have been an anomaly. My hippy mother never encouraged me to remove body hair and I only started shaving in my teens after encountering heavy peer pressure at school. When I was a child I regarded female hairiness as completely normal and even idealised as “natural.” Of course, I now know it had nothing to do with “natural” (a word I’ve come to deeply distrust) and everything to do with “political.” Even less acknowledged was the fact that it had a great deal to do with economic and class privilege. Ok, so my childhood probably made it easier for me to reject certain beauty practices than it is for a lot of young women, but did the women’s hairiness really indicate more than usual freedom from patriarchy? No, I don’t think it did because the hairness was the patriarchal beauty standard in that community and men expected their women to be natural. In the context in which they lived, those women were just as “patriarchally approved” as (some people might argue) are women who wear lipstick to make themselves more attractive to men. After a few years, most of the families found they couldn’t make a living off the land, so the men drifted back into paid employment while the women often ended up at home manning the small holdings and adding unpaid farm labour to their load of unpaid domestic labour in the home. If they did paid employment, though, they usually had educational advantages that enabled them to choose alternative jobs where kaftans and hairy legs wouldn’t result in harassment. I suppose the point I’m making here is that I don’t think any self-presentation is inherently feminist, or radical, or free from the possibility of patriarchal co-option.

Second, I’ve now reached a stage in my life at which I’m privileged enough to be able to choose employment where my appearance is not much of an issue; I’m safe to be out at work and not under pressure to conform to feminine beauty practices. This is an enormous priveilege and I don’t take it for granted. There are many working-class and middle-class jobs in which female self-presentation is very much an issue and women are not at all free to dress how they please, or display body hair. This is why I find the feminist debate about whether or not women should remove body hair in order to be “good” feminsts extremely problematic. It’s one of those debates (is it just me, or are there ever more of them these days?) that seems dangerously cut off from the lived reality of most women. I mean, tell a woman who works as a receptionist for a smart hotel, or a female flight attendant, that she should stop wearing makeup and grow her underarm hair so that it sprouts out of her short sleeved blouse and see what she says. I doubt it would be an option.

Third, because I mostly socialise with other feminists and lesbians, being hairy is unlikely to have dire social consequences for me. In fact, I’m more likely to receive admiration than censure and I don’t have to deal with certain social pressures experienced by feminine heterosexual women. When I stopped shaving I was aware that although the decision rendered me a nonconformist on one level, at the same time, I was simply conforming to norms and ideals I find preferable. I’m not using “conformity” as a pejorative here; we all conform to the norms of the groups we identify with, but I do think it’s important to be aware that what we do is done within a specific context and never only for ourselves. Sure, lesbian attitudes to depilation do vary, but it’s generally viewed as a question for consideration rather than a given. Some lesbians wear their refusal to remove body hair as a badge of pride and sexiness, although not always for the same reasons — there is a difference between not shaving because you are a feminist and not shaving because you are butch, for instance. As Zenobia noted in her post, in some groups, it really isn’t the thing to do and if you do remove body hair you may find yourself being interrogated and disciplined for doing so: “Are you sure you’re a lesbian/feminist?”

This might all seem like a very long roundabout way of saying “context matters,” but I’m bothered by feminist debates on beauty practices in general because I think the incitement to women to police and discipline each others’ gender performance is so deeply embedded that it rarely vanishes from feminist spaces; it is more likely to take on another face and may even become constructed as feminist behaviour. If the end result is simply to install a new set of feminist anti-beauty standards to which we expect women to conform, then we won’t have made any progress. We’ll just have inverted the system and set up a new hierarchy in which some women are viewed as “better” than others.

*Have changed the title because the other one was crap. Not sure this is much better but hey.