I stopped shaving. Legs, pits, bits – I ceased cultivation and let them revert to a state of nature. I watched as a forest sprang up, thick and threatening, warning all travellers who wouldst venture therein – Here There Be Witches. I imaginatively called my experiment in body hair ‘the experiment,’ and planned to remain in my new wild-woman incarnation for a year to see what I could learn about, well, having body hair. Now, a year and a half has waned unwaxed, and yet the underarm kittens remain. The official reason for this is that I’m still learning stuff about having body hair, and the unofficial reason is that, to my own sincere surprise, I actually really like it.
I stopped shaving because there’s way too much pressure on people to conform to stupid arbitrary gendered bullshit. It had gotten to the point where, rather than just evoking mild theoretical disapproval, that pressure had begun to piss me off on a day to day basis. And body hair became a symbol of it. I read about salons waxing 11 and 12 year old girls in the belief that ripping out their ‘virgin hair’ would lead to the requisite smooth legs and bikini lines of female adulthood. All around me, friends were spending hefty chunks of their hard-earned wages on fanny waxes and laser hair removal and trying to convince me to do the same. I just thought – fuck this. I asked myself why I’d begun to shave in the first place and why I continued to do so.
I had some kind of half-formed idea that I chose to shave. But when I started to sound out that idea logically, it rang hollow. If shaving was a choice, how come I didn’t know a single post-pubescent female who didn’t conform to it? How come I had never seen a woman’s hairy leg on TV in any context other than as a hilarious joke? How come every time female body hair was even mentioned by anyone I knew, it was accompanied by ‘eeewww,’ ‘gross’ and other such Americanised expressions of hip disapproval? It isn’t a choice. When you’re 13 and ripping your wee ankles to shreds with an inexpertly wielded ladyblade, no one says: ‘You don’t have to do that – you can choose to shave or you can choose not to.’ In fact, if I remember rightly, the advice that my own adoréd Mammy gave me was: ‘put off shaving for as long as possible, because when you start doing it, you’ve to keep doing it.’ (Little did she know that she’d breed a feminist beastie.)
Women weren’t expected to shave when my mother was growing up in rural Hibernia in the 60s. Her generation started making the choice to do so, just like we’re making the choice to have Brazillians and sun-beds and boob jobs. What if for our children these things aren’t choices?
But enough proselytising. I do hereby jump down off the soap box, and will spend the rest of this article answering, in an approximate order of the frequency they are asked, the questions people commonly proffer when they see my prodigious manes of untamed womanhood.
Q1. Don’t men find you physically repulsive and refuse to engage in sexual and/or romantic relations with you?
At first this was a problem. But then I starved myself to a skeletal size, had lumps of silicon surgically implanted into my chest and permanently tattooed black lines around my eyes, so now I am able to attract some, some, less shallow men, who will consent to use me as a receptacle for their lust in darkened rooms whilst wearing gloves to protect their hands from the sickening sensation of touching my unshaven skin.
Thems just jokes. The man I was going out with when the experiment began was a little apprehensive when I unveiled my innovative grooming plans, but when I actually grew the hair out he was really proud of me. One evening, friends of ours asked him a variation of Q1 above, and he said ‘if I was a girl, I wouldn’t shave my legs.’ Because he is awesome. Then, in a completely un-hair-related twist, we broke up. Which was sad. So I did what single girls in London do, and had ALL the boyfriends. None of them minded (some of them liked it). And then one of the boyfriends turned out to be completely amazing so I made him the only boyfriend. He is also proud of me. In my experience, men like women who challenge social norms and ask them to do the same. But then, I have pretty excellent taste in men (*smug*).
Q2. Don’t you smell like poo now. Like smelly smelly poo?
I smell exactly the same as I did before. Which is bit like soap after showering, and a bit like Christmas cake first thing in the morning.
Q3. Aren’t your friends embarrassed to be seen in public with you and your pit-pubes? Do you have to sit alone in your room staring at your furry man-calves feeling righteous, yes, but also sad and lonely?
People can surprise you with their open-mindedness, and sometimes, unfortunately, with their lack thereof. One good friend is a mum of two (including my bright button of a god-babby), an über-femme hairdresser, and a beauty who is always immaculately groomed - gel nail things, eyebrows of Euclidean symmetry and skin permanently a-glitter. When I told her why I’d stopped shaving she said ‘that’s really cool. I think there is too much pressure on women to look a certain way.’ Not the reaction I was expecting. She now calls me ‘the hairy godmother’ and likes pictures of me with my pits out on facebook.
Another good friend has a degree in anthropology and art history from an Ivy League university. She’s well-travelled, well-read and cultured. She shrieks ‘ew, keep it away from me’ when she sees my body hair. Again, not what I would have expected.
While a few people reacted badly to my whack gender transgression at first, almost everyone is supportive now. The ‘you’re making life a whole lot harder for yourself’ faction have realised that you don’t get exiled from civilized society for having hairy pits and the ‘ew, gross’ faction don’t even seem to notice any more. A few friends have said that, because of me, they get defensive if they hear someone having a go at woolly women. Result. When I think about it, many of my friends had never actually seen a female leg covered in full-grown hair before, so of course there were some less than super-cool reactions. But it’s all gravy under the bridge now.
Q4. Don’t people point and laugh at you in public as if it is the nineteenth century and they have paid a ha’penny to attend a freak-show? Don’t they say ‘Ha ha ha ha. Look at the hairy lady – just like Julia Roberts that time she went mental’?
Yes. Sometimes they do. Note to tube users – if you whisper and giggle behind your hand while staring straight at a fellow passenger, she will probably know that you are talking about her. For a hand is not a massive opaque screen. It is a hand.
Randomers point and laugh at my hirsute legs and armpits in public sometimes. But the problem isn’t my legs or armpits.
Q5. Do you actually go out in string tops and shorts with the unsightly keratin-based proof that you have gone through puberty on show for all humanity to see?
This is a tricky one. Short answer – no. Cause it’s hard, y’know? It’s not so much the pointing and the laughing. It’s the fact that I’ve been socialised since birth to think that my body hair is unclean and unfeminine and, even though I believe in what I’m doing, when I go out in public something else takes over and I think ‘oh my God look at your legs woman, what is wrong with you?’ I AM THE CAGE.
But I am getting better at public displays of fuzz. I’m no longer embarrassed by armpits and am thus increasingly happy to soirée without sleeves. I’m working on legs. I’ve gone out with the pins bare a few times, but I still find it quite difficult. It takes time to get comfortable with yourself. There’s a life-time of conditioning to break down, after all.
The experiment is about learning stuff and I am still learning. One of the first lessons the hair taught me is that my clothing puts me on display: bare arms and shoulders, fitted busts and waists, and short skirts with sheer tights - even in winter. I seriously re-examined my wardrobe. Not only did most of my habitual attire display a significant amount of skin, but the body parts on show needed to be ‘feminized’ before they were acceptable for display in women’s clothing at all. There’s a critique of the objectification and commercialisation of the female body under capitalism to be made here, probably, but the editors of Vagenda have asked me not to write like a total dryballs, so if you want to hear it, you’ll have to take me for a pint.
In short, I have changed the way I dress a little. There are times when it has felt like a bit of a sacrifice – like most people, I want to look attractive. There’s a deadly red dress I love that I haven’t worn since embracing bodily afforestation. But I’ll get there. So if you see a woman with legs like Mrs. Doubtfire strutting down the South Bank in a bright red mini-dress, please refrain from throwing tubes of Veet at her.
Q6. But I have seen you wearing make-up! Are you not a big hairy hypocrite?
I like a smidge o’ mascara on a night out, me. I choose to wear make-up. I know this, because I choose not to wear make-up the vast majority of the time. When I leave the house without make-up people don’t point and laugh at me. No-one handed me a Mac lippy the second I hit puberty and told me I had to wear it or everyone would think I was disgusting. I can choose to wear make-up or not wear it. I’m comfortable with that.
I’m not waging a war against all things normatively feminine in our society. I like dresses, but I wouldn’t like it if dress-wearing were tacitly compulsory for all vagina-bearers. I would like dresses even better if the men who wanted to wear them could do so in public without fear of ridicule or violence. Fuck body policing! Smash the stupid arbitrary gendered bullshit! Do it wearing whatever the hell you want! Yeah!
Q7. At the swimming pool, do they make you wear a massive swimming cap over your entire body for fear you would contaminate others?
I go swimming in the Brixton Rec now and then. I was nervous the first few times, lest other swimmers would try to drown me. This did not happen however. Now the inhabitants of Brixton are used to a hairy woman in a swimsuit. Next stop – St. Tropez.
Q8. Do small children not run when they see you approach, fearing that you will lure them to your gingerbread house only to eat them?
A Scene From My Life
Small child: Why do you have hair under your arms?
Me: Because when girls and boys grow up into women and men they grow hair under their arms
Small child: My Mum doesn’t have hair under her arms.
Me: She shaves it off.
Small child: She doesn’t
Me: She does. Ask her.
Small child: Mum, do you?
Mother of small child: Yes
Small child: Why?
Exactly, small child. Exactly.
Q9. If you start shaving again, do you lose feminism?
Naw. I’m aiming to have a relationship with shaving like the relationship I have with make-up – where I do it if the whim seizes me, not because I feel I have to.
Q10. I am considering ditching my Gillette Multi-Blade Princess Goddess Sexy Miracle Razor with Aloe Vera and added Moisturizers. What do you say to me?
It’s a cool little experiential journey. If you, like I, had never seen your own body hair in full before it can be pretty mind-blowing to look down at your legs or into the mirror at naked you. It’s just really – I don’t know – surprising and sensuous. And a bit trippy: are these my legs? Are these my legs?
It itches when it’s growing out. Boo. But then it stops. Yay.
Be patient with yourself. It can be a challenge – you’re probably not going to be brave enough to grow out your hair and immediately hit the discotheque in a boob-tube. You will in all likelihood not want to throw your hands up in the air, nor wave ‘em around like you just don’t care. Invest in a few light sleevey things and leggings that you can throw on when you’re not feeling comfortable enough to get yer short and curlies out for the lads. There’ll come a time when you won’t need them.
Communicate with the people in your life. If they get a bit aggro with you, ask them to question their own understanding of why women are required to shave and men are not. If nothing else, the answers you get can be good for a laugh (‘Boys are just a bit gross’ and ‘Because women don’t have hair’ are two of my personal favourites).
Remember that you are doing the necessary and totes important work of challenging the stupid arbitrary gendered bullshit, and when you get to feminist heaven Judith Butler (who will probably be dead before you) and Simone de Beauvoir will be waiting to receive you with bubbly wine, narcotics of your choice, a corn-fed organic roast chicken, Bikini Kill and the entire cast of Monty Python. You don’t want to miss that party.