Hair removal — a self-conscious nonconformist’s perspective

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.

*In the interest of full disclosure, [mostly] giving up the razor was a lot easier to do from the comfort of a stable, long-term relationship, with a guy who pretty fully supports my hairy decision.  I wish I could say I would have been brave enough and bold enough to do this as a single gal, but we’re back to those social norms and pressures . . . .


  1. EcoCatLady says:

    Very interesting topic. I’ve been around the block several times on this one. For about 10 years I didn’t shave at all. But the truth is I got tired of feeling self-conscious about it all the time… even though I was working at the folk music school surrounded by neo-hippies, many of whom also didn’t shave at all – I still felt like an orangutan. And I’ve gotta say that I enjoy being able to wear shorts and tank tops without feeling self-conscious about it.

    Oddly enough, when I lived in Norway as an exchange student in the 1980’s was when I stopped shaving because it was considered too risque. Apparently at that time, only prostitutes shaved in Norway. I wonder if it’s still that way… I sorta doubt it.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      We’ll see if I cave or make it through another summer. The truth, though, is that given my sun-averse ways, there aren’t ALL that many times that the underarm hair (which is what I am most self-conscious about) is uncovered. If I’m wearing a tank top, and outside, I usually have a long-sleeved sun shirt on over it. In our modern, overly air-conditioned buildings, it’s often too cold to wear a sleeveless top or dress indoors, without something over it. My legs are bare more often, just because it’s too hot to wear pants all summer. Plus, I like skirts. Unfortunately, body hair and sunscreen don’t go well together.

      “And I’ve gotta say that I enjoy being able to wear shorts and tank tops without feeling self-conscious about it.” This gets back to my whole point, which is that we should be able to wear shorts and tank tops without feeling self-conscious about it.

  2. Oh, I am all over this one, M! I am cheap and I don’t like many beauty routines that require constant cost and upkeep. I love the option for a very quick shower, and shaving legs slows me down. So I have experimented, and here’s where I’ve landed (finding the balance between what your spouse finds aesthetically pleasing and what you are comfortable with is one of the biggest hurdles and best things in a relationship)…
    (1) Underarms: wax ’em in warm weather only, as needed (about once a month). In the winter, I shave them about 1-2x per week.
    (2) Legs: wax ’em (full leg) about 2-3x during warm weather; keep up with it with electric epilator* in between, usually a few minutes a day after the first week post-waxing. This keeps me smooth enough that on any given day I can put on a dress, skirt, or shorts and not give a thought about my legs/leg hair. In the pants-tights-only months, I shave rarely.
    (3) Bikini: razor and scissors as needed. I’ve done wax, and it hurts. Only very rarely.
    (4) Eyebrows: tweezers 99 times out of 100, wax 1 out of 100 times.

    *I won’t epilate underarms or bikini. Too risky. Legs don’t hurt much if you keep up with them. At some point, I “lose the battle” and go back for a waxing.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Oh, eyebrows! I don’t think I ever had SUPER crazy eyebrows, but, in high school, I started tweezing in-between my brows. Then, for some reason, I decided that I needed to get my eyebrows waxed before a dance (homecoming or prom or some-such). I’ve more or less maintained the shape from that single waxing in high school for all these years by tweezing. Hunting down stray eyebrow hairs is part of my nightly ritual that I find strangely relaxing. In this case, I don’t feel like I’m doing it to conform, it’s just something that I enjoy!

      I’m curious about the cost, per year, of your waxing routine, and how often you need to replace your electric epilator (or it’s blades or whatnot).

      1. EcoCatLady says:

        Ha! I’ve always considered my incredibly light colored eyebrows to be a curse of sorts… like people look at me and think “Was she just born without eyebrows?” But perhaps there is a blessing of sorts mixed in there as well!

  3. Jill says:

    I am the total opposite. I am an obsessive hair remover and think men should be, too. I have always viewed body hair as unclean and have been completely grossed out by it for as long as I can remember. My logic is that since men sweat more than women and body hair traps sweat, men should be even more expected to remove body hair. I actually don’t shave for the benefit of anyone but myself; it is because I personally find it repulsive that I shave. Ideally I would like to see a guy shirtless before I even agree to a date because I can’t handle even the tiniest amount of chest hair; it actually makes me gag and I absolutely refuse to touch it. Ultimately I think people should do whatever makes them comfortable and as long as it isn’t affecting me personally I don’t care at all what people do in this regard. I just don’t want it on me or my significant other. Mayim Bialik has actually written some about this and she has never shaved. It’s actually why she never wears sleeveless dresses to awards shows.

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