A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted a link to this article, which looks at the history of female hair removal. The fact that women (in some cultures) have been conforming to this norm for hundreds of years, LONG before the body parts in question were visible in public, really made me question this practice. We spend untold hours, and significant money, removing hair from certain parts of our body — for what???
In truth, I’ve been questioning female hair removal for over four years now. Sometime not too long after I wrote this post, I gave up the razor.* (You know what’s WAY more environmentally friendly than minimizing water use while you shave? Not shaving at all!)
At that point, I’d been shaving my legs since sometime in middle school. Specifically, I was allowed to start shaving my legs after I wrote an essay for my mom explaining why I should be allowed to shave my legs (oh, the joys of being an oldest child!).
I guess it was convincing, because next thing you know, my 13-year-old self was emerging from the shower, blood dripping from multiple razor nicks along my calves. It seemed pointless to bandage all of the cuts, so instead I found a pair of old, knee-length socks and let those absorb the blood.
At some point thereafter, I expanded into other areas, shaving my under arms regularly and my bikini line as needed (i.e., if I was going to be wearing a swim suit).
While the leg shaving got better (i.e., I stopped emerging from the shower dripping blood), the under arm and bikini line shaving always led to painful, unsightly razor burn. Ultimately, I switched to smelly chemical depilators (e.g., Nair) for these areas. While these modern counterpoints to Renaissance-era hair removal may not contain arsenic, I doubt that the ingredients are particularly healthful.
And then I stopped. Kind-of. I want to be 100% comfortable in my unshaven body, to not feel self-conscious when summer roles around, but it’s not that easy.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t shaved my legs since the fall of 2009. While I’m sometimes self-conscious about the hair on my legs, I’m largely able to ignore it.
The underarm hair is another story entirely. Leaving it unshaven makes me feel extremely self-conscious when wearing something sleeveless in public (i.e., I’m standing there with my arms firmly glued to my sides, shoulders hunched, lest anyone catch a glimpse). Sometimes, I just can’t take it, that pressure to conform, and I cave and grab a razor (I discovered last summer that Matthew’s electric razor is a bit kinder, razor burn-wise, than a standard razor).
I want to be able to not shave and confidently, unashamedly raise my arms over my head, but, no. I want to NOT be tempted to spend hundreds of dollars on laser hair removal to permanently get rid of the “problem,” but I think about it sometimes.
Why are women expected to have smooth, hairless legs and arm pits, while men are not?
For awhile, my kind-of, sort-of justification for this double standard was that it is acceptable for women to wear clothing that leaves shoulders, and thus arm pits, as well as [some-of] the leg bare in many settings where men are expected to wear pants and shirts with sleeves (in fact, speaking of double standards, it is almost always unacceptable for men to wear sleeveless shirts, except perhaps in a gym setting, but I digress). Maybe, I thought, expectations for female hair removal were a cost of being “allowed” to wear certain styles of clothing that bared those body parts. But the article on the history of female hair removal, revealing that women who exclusively wore floor-length, long-sleeved were also worried about body hair, nicely turned that reasoning on its head.
So, I’m back to the why? Why do we stay chained to our razors (or Nair, or wax)? Why is there an entire AISLE at Target dedicated to female hair removal?
I suppose, in some ways, the latter question answers the former. Female hair removal is big business! As estimated here, an “average” woman (in the U.S., I’m assuming?) spends $10k on “shaving related products” over her lifetime. If we all tossed our razors tomorrow, somebody stands to lose a lot of money!
Big business aside, I’m guessing this started with Victorian (or other societal) ideals of cleanliness and femininity, wanting to remove something that is seen as primitive, dark, and/or unclean.
While there’s been some recent backlash against the trend of removing [almost all] pubic hair (see here and here), it doesn’t seem to be carrying over to hair removal for other body parts. Since we’re fighting hundreds of years of “tradition,” some very well-entrenched social norms, AND big business, I’m not sure it ever will.
Which means that I’ll continue to be a hesitant, sometimes self-conscious, non-conformist, who sometimes caves. Or, this blog post could go viral, reaching millions of women, and we could embrace our bodies, hair and all, and stick it to the hair-removal industry! One can always dream.