Last week I shaved my legs for the first time in 9 months. Why? I wanted to see if it made me feel like more or less of a woman.
It began last summer (duh), during a bikini/beach/beer holiday with a gorgeous blonde and a beautiful Asian – the two women I lived with at the time. Our week in Croatia brought back a recurring issue for me. The pale hairy legs of the winter had to come out and face the summer sun. I have long felt required to shave/wax/epilate waaaaaaaay up to the top of my thighs because my hair grows thick and dark. (Look at that “because” – where does it place the blame? On the hair.) Ever since I have felt the presence of this obligation, I have felt uncomfortable with everything it stands for.
When I was 12 I was bullied for not shaving my legs. Every other girls’ mother, it seemed, had bought them razors and given them lessons in leg-shaving. This seemed like not only a rite of passage in what seemed like an instant shift from girl to woman, but also a mother-daughter bonding exercise that my mother seemed loathe to opt into. She disliked the entire concept of shaving and didn’t use razors. I was so insistent though, that she promised I could have my legs waxed for my year 7 summer disco – the end of primary education, the beginning of grown-up-hood. (I had emerged from the same disco two years earlier flanked by my two best friends who eagerly betrayed my under-cover-of-darkness disco activities to my waiting mother by spelling out: “Catherine snogged, S-N-O-G-G-E-D A BOY!”)
I would spend that summer on a beach in Brittany reading Life of Pi, contemplating the size of my thighs and worrying about whether people at high school would think I was fat. The previous summer I had “borrowed” an older girl’s razor at camp and cut myself on my first attempt to shave my legs in the shower, then lied about it to my generously gullible (or so I thought) mother, telling her they had forced me to do it. The real impetus came from the bullying I got from the two sisters I shared a room with; it was all in their disgust at my downy 11-year-old legs. The summer after the Brittany beach I spent hours plucking my eyebrows in a tiny mirror and the half-light inside my tent. I returned to high school with chavvy, barely visible and too far apart eyebrows.
My life since puberty (perhaps before) has seemed like a constant battle between my mother’s and other girls’ (and thus their mothers’) opinions. The navigation of types of bras, deodorants, eyebrow plucking, underarm shaving, make-up wearing… everything was a contentious issue and I was stuck in no-man’s land. Short-term, other girls’ opinions (heavily dictated by advertising and celebrity culture) won out. My mother would love me whatever I did, so her opinion mattered less than the high school girls who would judge and exclude me for not following the crowd… But long-term, my mother’s talent for challenging the status quo has reigned supreme in me, and there are few opinions I value as much as hers.
These events are not simply part of the past and therefore to be brushed aside; they are cumulative experiences that affect my relationship with my body, and thus my bodily negotiation with the social, cultural and political world around me. They are part of my embodied knowledge of both my self and the other; that which governs me from within and which surrounds me from without.
In the midst of the fourth wave of feminism, women are reclaiming the female body in all kinds of ways. Australian actress Caitlin Stasey’s web project Herself, a space in which participating women’s bodies and words are openly displayed as they choose, is one inspiring model. Stasey states:
“Herself is a gesture to women for women by women; a chance to witness the female form in all its honesty without the burden of the male gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.”
Your body is all you’ve got (the mind/spirit/body division is redundant – its not as though the mind is some separate entity controlling the body from a remote location):
“One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors”, states Judith Butler (521)
Whether we like it or not, the body is the only vehicle through which we experience the political, social and cultural framework we are intrinsically a part of, and this inherently affected by. As Butler states, everything we do is governed somehow by our surroundings: “the body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical convention.” (521)
This is particularly potent when we think about gender. Butler points out that there is a “tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders” (522). We take it as a given that there are defining lines between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and that these are clear and immutable. These “polar and discrete genders” divide along the biological lines of sex (male and female), and unite us within those two groups. If we think about the gendered body, ‘woman’ is expected to be significantly less hairy than ‘man’, regardless of genetic differences that actually affect the volume of hair that grows on the female body. (Where did this idea originate? It’s not as though women and men of the same racial background evolved with vastly different volumes of body hair.)
Butler asks her reader to “reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts” (523). Practices we consider normal, like what we do with the hair that grows on our bodies, accumulate over time to create our identity and thus our gendered identity. We begin by copying others and later reproduce these collective practices in order to create and sustain our gender. Women (particularly western women) are socialised to believe that the correct performance of their gender involves removal of visible hair all over the body.
The choice to stop shaving my legs after that Croatia trip was my way of reclaiming my body. I drew inspiration from my two wonderful companions who, sexy ladies that they are, did not feel the need to shave above the knee. Neither did they feel they were defying social requirements. Had they never felt the heat of disapproving eyes on their hairy legs because people hadn’t noticed? Had they never received comments about it because they’d got finer, lighter, less visible hair or because this was not a body issue that played on their minds? Were they so unconcerned about hair removal because nobody had ever told them they should do it or because they’d always had the confidence to tell those people to back off?
For me, advertising and peer pressure had been equally vicious and haunting influences upon my body image. I’d had hairy legs before (usually for the few weeks between boyfriend visits), but never shown them off in shorts or a bikini. Being hairy was (and still is) an issue I have a complex and uncomfortable relationship with. This time though, I let it grow and wore my hairy legs proudly. I spent the summer running a mile a day through busy streets wearing tiny shorts and in a bikini by the pool with my family. My initial weeks in China were unbearably hot, so shorts were the only comfortable option. The only comments I received were declarations of admiration and support.
Over the winter, my legs inevitably got paler and the hair just kept growing. For the first time I noticed how the hair grew – where it was thicker, where finer and the places where it just didn’t grow. It began to really know my body in a way I hadn’t previously. Looking down at my muscly thighs covered in fine dark hair I was reminded of my physical strength (perhaps I enjoyed the ‘masculine’ element of it?) and took courage. It felt like the real me.
The brilliant thing is that it required zero effort. My skin took care of itself underneath the hair (whereas shaved skin gets much drier and needs a lot more attention). It felt 100% natural for me to let my body be. I stopped performing my gender (in this one small aspect), and could relax.
The problems began when I wanted to have sex. In the run up to dates that could potentially go further, I interrogated myself continually. Should I shave my legs, just in case the evening went in that direction…? Or should I not allow the evening to end in sex (even if it were on the cards) so as to avoid the awkward disgust my hair might bring? I decided that any guy worth my time would simply accept me as I am, hair and all. Unfortunately, acceptance doesn’t necessarily counteract disgust.
It’s only happened a few times, but I have actually been told that my choice of personal grooming renders me physically less sexy or completely unattractive to the guy I’m attempting some kind of physical relationship with (once while actually still naked in his bed). Many people are too kind to comment, but will nonetheless expect women to have virtually zero body hair. But different men are bothered by hair on different body parts, so perhaps there are no universal expectations as such?
The existing expectations emerge through socialisation; the more we see hairless women (in real life, on tv, in magazines, in porn) the more we understand this to be the normal, natural thing for a woman to be. Butler states: “[t]he authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels ones belief in its necessity and naturalness.” (522) By shaving their legs, individual women are perpetuating the idea that women as a gender have hairless legs, and are thereby reducing wider social acceptance of hairy legs.
What is more natural than NOT changing your body? Unfortunately, this line of argument seems to have been lost in some twist of logic, and thus the ‘natural’ way for a woman to look/feel/be is hairless in all the right places.
Do women actually feel / look more female when they shave their legs? Does hairlessness make a female more of a woman? I wanted to try it out for myself. So I shaved my legs for the first time since last June.
I enjoyed the process because it brought change. Difference is always a positive thing, newness is fun while it lasts. But ultimately it brought me little joy and no permanent feeling of difference. I keep thinking, “I bet [insert inspirational woman’s name] doesn’t bother to shave her legs everyday.” What effect should a woman’s personal grooming habits have upon her public image? It doesn’t affect her personality; it only marginally changes her appearance… So why does it have such an impact on identity?
I’d like to extend my little experiment to women around the world. Cultural, racial and generational differences taken into account, do women feel they ought to remove their body hair and why? How does hair removal correlate to the correct performance of a woman’s gender?
Please let me know your thoughts!
Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.’ Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531.
Herself.com (Caitlin Stasey)
To Shave or Not to Shave; Why is that the question? (Catherine and the Lion, 2014)