Sometimes, I just can’t help but flaunt it. I’ll put on a pretty, sleeveless dress, perhaps one in shades of pink or embellished with a hint of lace. My feet will sport some strappy sandal or a tall wedge. I’ll make sure my hair is perfectly coiffed and double check that my manicure and pedicure are chip-free. I’m not really one for makeup, but between my Audrey Hepburn-inspired sunglasses and a bit of tinted gloss, I know I look fierce. Everything about me screams ultra femme.
Well, everything that is, except for my armpits, where instead of smooth, clean shaven skin, soft, downy hair resides. My relationship with body hair is complicated to say the least.
“But why can’t I shave my legs?” It must have been the tenth time I had asked that week. My mother’s answers remained the same. “You’re too young. The hair will grow back darker and thicker. You don’t want to have to deal with it it all. And why the rush? It’s just hair.”
Sure, it was “just hair,” but I knew that she removed hers. I zeroed in on my mother’s pink Lady Schick razor each time I stepped foot in the shower. Clearly hair removal mattered. I was 11-years-old and ready for this next step into womanhood, or so I thought. I was already rocking a training bra — itchy, tight, white cotton that covered my barely budding breasts — so why couldn’t I do something about the hair on my legs? Despite there being so little of the sparse, blonde hair, I had got it cemented in my mind that it was meant to go away. But my mother wouldn’t budge. A few days before I left for overnight camp, I played my last card, my last desperate attempt at finally having hair-free legs. “If you don’t let me do it now, I’ll just do it at camp, and then I’ll probably do it wrong or hurt myself. Please let me do this.” My mother, exasperation written all over her face, finally caved. And so, my legs did eventually end up hair free, with a smattering of raised, red-tinted skin from where my inexperienced hand dug a little too close with my very own pink Lady Schick razor.
I’m still not sure how I knew I was “supposed” to shave my legs right around the time puberty hit, but it was something that just seemed like the right thing to do. All the teens and women I saw on TV, in movies and magazines were hair-free, as were the women in my day-to-day life. My mother certainly didn’t push it, but my friends were doing it, and I followed suit. And then, once my arm pit hair came in, that had to go as well – part and parcel of being a girl, right?I quickly came to realize I kind of hated it. Regular shaving was a pain, took more time than I was willing to set aside for it, and I found that I actually didn’t mind what my legs looked like with hair — though I couldn’t stand the in-between prickly phase. Yet I continued shaving all throughout junior high and high school, just … because. Because it was what everyone else was doing and it was expected of me. So, shave I did.
Then I entered college and discovered that it didn’t really have to be that way. I saw all different types of women — not just the hippie granola stereotype — proudly showing off their body hair. Perhaps I could also let my body hair grow and the world wouldn’t stop spinning, and boys would still talk to me. I started experimenting, letting my leg and armpit hair grow over the winter when nobody would really see it anyway. I soon grew more confident and would wear a t-shirt or skirt and see what would happen. Usually, nothing. Occasionally I would get stares, and very rarely a comment or two. But, while I allowed myself to test out my own comfort level, I discovered something interesting. My armpit hair grew in soft and light and I found that I actually liked that part of my body so much more with hair than without. I was noncommittal about my legs, occasionally preferring a sleek, smooth leg look, and other times letting the hair grow out. And then, I discovered that when it came to other aspects of body hair — namely “down there” — I preferred a much more groomed look. I began to rock my pit puffs, occasional leg hair, and a neatly trimmed bikini area with abandon.
My own preferences when it comes to body hair are all over the place now, despite my stubborn beginning. It sometimes feels like a strange mix of personal preference and social sway. Because despite how comfortable I am with my own diverse body hair choices, I also know I’m outside the norm. In fact, I’m quite aware of what the general public thinks when it comes to women and body hair, if the hyperfocused lens on celebrity is any indication. Seeing Julia Roberts with pit puffs of her own while on the red carpet of the Oscars in 1999 was revolutionary to my teen self, and definitely helped normalize body hair for me. What didn’t help was the heated response to it in the media. It was referred to as disgusting and unlady like. And it wasn’t just Julia. Madonna, Mo’Nique, Beyonce, Drew Barrymore, and Britney Spears have all been dragged through the mud for sporting some body hair. How dare these women leave their homes without adhering to every single standard of western beauty ideals (which, should be noted, included body hair for women until fashion changed in the 1920’s).We have such set, prescribed notions of what it means to be feminine and beautiful, that anyone who strays from it is immediately branded as controversial or weird. So, in a world that treats body hair on women as shameful, gross, or a mistake – even on the most stunning of women – it feels as if my own body is indeed a radical act. There’s a sense of subversive pleasure whenever someone does a double take of my legs or pits — and has no idea that I’m shaven elsewhere. I’ll continue to wear my femme clothes and allow these subversive hairs to poke through, doing my small part in changing up the idea of what it means to be feminine.