Thursday, July 1, 2010

Women and body hair

For some, this post could be the most disturbing post I have written to date, which is really sad if you think about it.

To start, I do not have a position on women's body hair... I honestly couldn't care less if women shave, wax, or go natural on any part of their bodies providing that they are comfortable with their decision and at very least occasionally question it. Actually, that isn't entirely true.. when I see a female celebrity rocking body hair at a concert or on the red carpet, I feel a twinge of happiness!

I tend to shave my legs occasionally in the summer (and by occasionally, I mean like 2-3 times over the course of the entire summer)... and in the winter, maybe if there is a wedding or something I might consider it. The hair isn't particularly thick or dark, and is usually not that noticeable unless you are really paying attention.

Anyway, at school this week I was wearing knee-length shorts and had not shaved my legs in over a month. I was walking down the hallway and a man looked at me... you know that up and down "approving" look that isn't quite a catcall but can be very uncomfortable and even intimidating for the person being looked at? As he was looking downwards, he noticed the hair on my legs and his face changed to an expression that I would describe as shock and disgust. He then looked away and went on with what he was doing. The worst part is that it happened a second time the same day as I was leaving school... and I had my 5 year old son with me, so being a mother does not necessarily protect women from being stared at, neither does dressing casually, not wearing makeup, not being particularly feminine, and I could go on.... not that any of these things should be necessary, as all women should have a right to walk down the street or through their school without being made to feel uncomfortable by such things.

I'm not sure which look is more insulting; the I-am-entitled-to-look-at-your-body-simply-because-you-are-female look, or the disgusted how-dare-you-not-prepare-yourself-properly-for-my-gaze look. At least the second has an element of defiance on my part.

Seriously, the only explanation for this is a double standard. He sure had hairy legs (the first guy was wearing shorts), but that is fine for men; actually, it would be weird for him not to have leg hair unless he was a swimmer or something. I have had men ask me why I didn't prefer the feeling of soft, smooth legs over stubbly legs, and I've turned the question back on them, considering they don't seem to prefer their legs hair-free. And they aren't stubbly... after a few weeks the hair gets soft, and it is actually quite fun to play with (maybe that's just me??).

There is absolutely no biological or even hygienic reason to remove body hair; it is almost entirely related to cultural expectations, and this is an expectation that I have rarely seen challenged. So I will continue to challenge it, albeit intermittently, because I don't think that we can pretend to live in a "post-feminist" world if there is one standard for men (functional) and a completely different standard for women (conform to men's standards of beauty).

On a more anti-consumerist note, I wonder how much money a woman spends on shavers, shaving cream, after shave lotions, hair removal creams, home and salon waxes, etc. And how much waste goes into the landfills... And how many dangerous chemicals get absorbed into her body and into the environment...


  1. A friend and I were talking about this very subject a couple days ago. For some reason she really wants me to move out to Seattle from Florida, and I told her that if I did I might as well "go all the way" and move into a anarchist commune of some sort, but the only thing I wouldn't look forward to is the probability that the women would be hairy. I don't know how to properly describe her reaction -- and let's face it, none of you know us and how we interact -- but she clutched her chest and kind of laughed but said she was a bit offended especially since she considers herself a "hairball." That is, she puts in a lot of work to not be "hairy" though she conceded that she enjoys doing all of it albeit she's a bit obsessive as well (and probably not for a good reason). I told her that I understand that this culture controls the female body a lot, but that would be the only thing that I would want. I guess, looking back, I would also want some semblance of what I now believe is "femininity," so that she could otherwise break gender norms, but I would be attracted to her so long as I thought was she was still "feminine." And where I draw the line I have no clue. But I told her that in this utopia I doubt that I would free of expectations of my body as well since sexuality tends to involve that anyways. So my question for everyone is can we have gendered expectations of each other's bodies but without a gender hiearchy? And if we should do without gendered expectations altogether because they're gendered. Also, I was wondering if Ms. Marx has written about being "checked out" by people (especially men, I guess), otherwise I would like to see her thoughts on that as well.


    P.S. I'm a heterosexual male (I know, what a telling description) and my friend is a heterosexual female if that happen to not be clear.

  2. Can we have gendered expectations without a hierarchy, probably, although I'm not sure how freeing that would be or what it might look like. But we definitely have a hierarchy in expectations right now, which are apparent in the amount of work that women need to do as opposed to the amount of work that men have to do in order to fit into that box. I think it becomes incredibly apparent how much work women have to do when you watch an episode of Toddler & Tiaras, because when children do this work we notice it more.

    As for writing about being "checked out" by people, I have not yet written a post about it, but I can offer a short story about my own experience. A few years back, I would get honked at as much as 3 times a day when walking my son to daycare, which really confused my children. I was a bit annoyed that it happened when they were with me, but other than that did not mind it too much from certain people (mostly young, attractive, non-threatening people of either gender), until one day I was walking down the street and a young man stuck his head out the car window and panted as he was driving by... it is hard to describe the look on his face, but it scared me. I felt violated, and disgusted, and even shameful (my shirt had cleavage- i was "asking for it" type of bullshit that you so often hear). It still bothers me to think about it, and now honking and "checking out", especially that look you all the way up and down look, really bothers me as I see them all as connected in a continuum of violence against women. The word violence may seem harsh, but it is the same types of objectification against women that leads to more obvious forms of violence.

  3. The problem I have with Anonymous's comment (which may or may not have been intended) is the conflation of "what I want in a sexual partner" with "what all women must do in order to be treated as deserving of being acknowledged as human beings." You may like your sex partners to remove body hair. Bully for you. Don't go out with women who don't shave. But treat women on the street with the respect they are due as human beings whether or not you are attracted to them or would want them as a sexual partner.

  4. I agree with Samquilla. It might not be what everyone likes, but I think women have the right to not shave certain parts of their body if they wish not to. I know personally if I made judgments about someone because of body hair before getting to know them I would have missed out on a very nice person.

  5. Re: 'stubbly'. I'm a woman who loves women. My body hair (and often my facial hair) is given free reign, and when I met my current partner she was a shaver. She did this not out of personal preference, but the fear that women would reject her. She went au naturel too, and we'd both agree that stubble is not fun, I'd certainly take silky hair than a face full of stubble rash!

    Anyway, one of our gay male friends came over one night and I was wearing shortie pjs. He was petting my legs saying "The hair is so soft, why do women pull it all off and make themselves scratchy?". He'd had his legs waxed for a charity fundraiser, and he actually cried himself to sleep one night because his legs were cold, and the feeling of the hair growing back was keeping him up at nights!

    I told him that a lot of women are pressured into feeling that hair=dirty, and he couldn't get his head around it at all. He couldn't understand why anyone would use precious time, money and effort when "Someone who demands that of them probably isn't worth it."

    I should send him on a world tour, shouldn't I?

  6. The fact that as humans our default is at-least-somewhat-hairy and altering that involves some degree of time and financial investment, definitely adds to the politics of body hair. Men often shave their faces, but I don't know how many of them translate their awareness of what that entails into an awareness of what women go through removing hair from other areas.

    I am lazy and dislike investing time in "maintenance" procedures that don't provide any enjoyment, sense of accomplishment, or noticeable result. So despite my personal aesthetic preference for hairlessness, shaving waits until the body hair becomes long enough for me to actively dislike being aware of it or be embarrassed at its visibility.

    This means my legs fall under the Law of Diminishing Returns: unlike underarms and pubic area, where shaving produces the dramatic result of visible swaths of hair disappearing, my legs don't have enough before/after discrepency to be worth the effort. So they get shaved maybe twice a year, when I'm in a mood to go the extra mile for everything to be as perfect as I can make it.

    The rest of the time? If someone calls attention to it, or looks disgusted at it, I call it my shallow-people repellent.

  7. Regarding men staring at your body - I think it is a stretch to relate that to violence against women. People get pleasure from seeing another attractive person - there is a measurable electrochemical response in humans' brains from this kind of stimulus. Can you really blame somebody for examining you (considering we are inquisitive, randy primates)?

    This goes both ways - men also get looked at. If you really feel violated then don't go out, or perhaps wear a burqa to shield yourself from the prying eyes of homo sapiens everywhere. Implying that this sort of activity is an instrument of sexist oppression is just silly.

    Regarding body hair - rock on! If you want to cultivate your hair go for it. I personally am not attracted to hairy women (no doubt due to my cultural conditioning) and I also go to significant lengths to maintain myself according to certain standards - like removing excessive back hair (which lots of women I know are repulsed by).

    It is all down to personal choice. Don't expect society to conform to your ideals though - if you don't want to be the odd one out it would be a lot easier to shave your legs than to convince everyone else out there to stop doing so.

  8. Yes, men get looked at too, but if you want to read about how that might be different from women being looked at, I would suggest looking at the work of Liz Kelly on the continuum of sexual violence, where she describes the double standard in "looking" at people of the other gender. It shows how this activity is a form of oppression.

    Also, studies suggest that it doesn't matter what women wear, they experience catcalls and various other forms of sexual harassment even when wearing a burka. (see this Jezebel post for an informal example- (

    And I don't think I wrote anywhere that I expect society to conform to my ideals, or that I had a problem with being "the odd one out" as you put it, just pointing out some of the social consequences of not removing body hair.

  9. I shave everything for 2 reasons
    #1 I'm Italian with dark hair.. and a LOT of it.. I really don't want to look like a Wookie
    #2 I have folliculitis everywhere.. i get sores anywhere on my body that has more than peach fuzz, I have scars all over my legs because I am the type of scratcher that WILL keep at it until it stops( even if its bleeding)Keeping myself hair free.. keeps the itchy at bay