Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Other Hobbit

And now for something a little different...

On the "References" page of K's blog, there are a few posts about feminism and body hair. It seems like a relevant thing to post about now, since it's the season of shorts, swim suits, and increased hair removal (at least in my hemisphere). If you search for "Body hair and feminism" on the internet, you come up with even more interesting posts. So while I may not be the first feminist to discuss body hair, I think it's a pretty fascinating issue, one that is under-discussed for all the time we spend trying to get rid of the hair in question.

First, let's get one thing straight-- Although seeing it on other people doesn't bother me, I've long had angst towards my own body hair. Even the words themselves give me the creeps. As a child, I was extremely upset about going through puberty. Yes, it's true that I'm not a big fan of major changes that I have no control over. But looking back, I think part of my fear had to do with being a young asexual. We're always told that puberty is our first step towards becoming full-fledged sexual beings. Being told "You're a woman now" can be frightening for the pubescent asexual, since in most people's minds, adulthood is linked with sexual rites of passage. And I was definitely pissed off that suddenly, I had to shave my legs and armpits. It was time-consuming, I often cut myself, and I was always self-conscious that I had missed spots (which in fact, I usually did). However, if I hadn't shaved, I would have been horribly ridiculed.

While my views on body hair have relaxed a lot since then (missed a spot? Who cares?), I have mixed feelings about putting down the razor. My fear isn't looking like a "natural, adult woman", but like a Hobbit. In truth, I only consistently shave when the parts in question will be visible-- and in usually-chilly Northern California where "layering" rules, that's not often. However, this proves the oft-made point that shaving isn't really my choice. I do it so people won't look at me funny, not because it makes me feel "cleaner" or "sexier". It's something I do not for myself, but for the public gaze. Obviously I don't feel pleased with this. Maybe I can put myself on a gradual plan...becoming more comfortable with stubble, perhaps, before I embark on a full quest to Middle Earth.

Here is an article about how harrowing life can be as a hairy female, complete with $10,000 electrolysis, risky medications, and bacterial infections from waxing. The conclusion of the article is basically: "Tough shit. If you don't want to be ridiculed and live a life of shame, torture yourself through hair removal". (Lest you think this is a woman-only issue, even men, who were long able to be hairy in peace, are facing increasing pressure to remove their body hair.) In the article, interviewees express hurt, shame, and fatigue. But working to change the social standards that led them there was never mentioned as a possible solution. To me, it looks like the only one that will actually empower people, rather than making them feel continually worse.

For comments, all I ask is that people don't criticize the appearance of others. I've seen it happen way too much in discussions on similar topics. (For instance: "Body hair is okay, as long as it's not dark! EWWW!" Uh...what? If we're accepting body hair, let's do away with arbitrary, Eurocentric beauty standards at the same time, shall we?) This blog is supposed to be a safe space, and body-related issues can be sensitive. Let's make it easier on each other, yes?


nekobawt said...

i stopped shaving my legs years ago, and i've got a slight unibrow that i've never bothered plucking. (not even when the stylist asked me, with a SNEER, if i wanted her to do it when she was doing my hair for my then-bf's dad's wedding. screw her. >:|)

i do shave my armpits, though. partly for aesthetic purposes and partly because, well, hair absorbs stinky armpit sweat and nobody likes that.

Ily said...

@nekobawt: A sneer? Aww, not cool :(
Yeah, no one wants to smell bad. I'm not saying "don't shave your armpits", but men sweat, and most don't shave their armpits, and yet I don't notice most men smelling bad. How do they do it?! :)

nekobawt said...

high octane deodorant "made for a man"?

it could also be that it takes A LOT of stinky for other people to notice. i've been known to go a couple days without showering, and not even my mom (who is happy to justify all my physical imperfections to my face--condoleezza rice and david letterman have spaces between their front teeth! cindy crawford has an obvious mole on her face! freda kahlo has a unibrow! that makes it ok to be who i am apparently! oy, mother, lol) will say anything. and trust me, she doesn't scruple about being "polite" and "respecting personal space" when it comes to that sort of thing. one time she completely wigged me out in public by sticking her face close to my neck and SNIFFING LOUDLY to verify that i had, in fact, washed my hair recently.

never mind that it tends to look rattier and do its own thing the more recently it's been washed. hair oil, gotta love it--it's nature's moose! :3

Lanafactrix said...

The other thing the article left out is the racial aspect of a lot of body hair policing. Mapes goes out of her way to note the ethnicity of the women going to extreme lengths, but she doesn't draw the (to me) obvious conclusion that the goal is to look as much like the archetypal blonde, white, tan-but-not-too-tan beauty as possible.

There's also a big "you shouldn't look like a man" factor at play. Most women shave their underarms and legs for aesthetic/social pressure reasons, but a woman who doesn't shave these bits doesn't get "you look like a man," she gets "you look like a hippie/feminist/tree-hugger." By contrast, women who have body hair in "unwomanly" places like the upper lip, chin, chest, back, toes, fingers are accused of looking like men or being trans* or some other nonsense.

Ily said...

@Nekobawt: I think I was in a Facebook group once called "Showering is over-rated", so yeah ;)

@Lanafactrix: Yes on both counts. In the article, there was this strange air of resigned inevitability about the Eastern European and Hispanic woman who seemed tortured by their body hair. Like, "Well, this is driving me nuts, but it's just my cross to bear" kind of thing. As opposed to their being angry that they were held to a standard they could never meet. And these are probably the exact same people who get endless compliments on their "head hair". As someone who is Italian + Eastern European, I can relate, and the whole thing makes me *flail*.

I remember seeing another article that was telling women what to do about their facial hair. It basically said that if you shave your face, you'll become a man. But you don't see men waxing their faces. They shave, I'm guessing, not just because it's traditional but because it's the easiest and least painful method.

cdrdash said...

I have never shaved a hair off my body in my life. But then I haven't received a snide comment or weird looks in all that time either. I have rarely felt any social pressure to shave nor have I felt a need to shave for physical comfort reasons. I think I have escaped rude comments because I'm not that hairy to begin with.

sara said...

I view not having to shave my legs as a bonus of being asexual. But I get that it's a freedom many sexuals (especially female) don't feel they have unless they're willing to rule out a big chuck of possible partners. Though Amanda Palmer doesn't shave her legs and she married Neil Gaiman, so clearly people are underestimating their options.

I do shave my armpits because I personally don't like armpit hair, and on rare occasions I shave my legs because I feel like it. The important thing, I think, is to know why you're doing it. There's nothing inherently problematic about having hair or not, it's just creepy when people mindlessly do it because they're "supposed to."


heidi said...

I used fuzzy legs as shallow-people-repellant and it worked out fantastically, aside from the occasional fetish issue. Arm pits used to be shaved (ok, peer pressure and stinking there), but now they're free-range pit hairs as well.

The only guy I ever shaved for, well, it was more of a dare, and he shaved first! And still shaves to this day, due to being on Stanford's cycling team. But he was worried about the social ramifications; so I told him, just to encourage him, that I'd shave if he did. So he took me up on it. First guy to ever do so. Other guys would tell me to shave and I'd tell them I'd shave if they would - and they never did. Pfff.

Fran said...

I'm genderqueer so this isn't a huge issue to me, and it's one reason I don't shave other than not seeing why I should and why it can't be my choice; but I'm perceived as a woman about 95% of the time thanks to my very feminine looks, even though I wear men's clothes, have short hair and wear a binder. As such, I get a lot of flack about my body hair!

Interestingly, even though my family is strictly heteronormative and fully expects me to find 'some nice man', all the men I've spoken to seem to actually not care about hairy female bodies. On the other hand, women are definitely the ones who are all over how disgusting it is!

My mother actually said it was 'unnatural' for me to have hairy legs. What does she think I did? Performed magical rites for them? Sacrificed my soul to Satan in return for furry shins? I'm bewildered by this apparent reasoning that it is not something female bodies naturally do. Talk about internalising patriarchal messages.

heidi said...

Fran, your comment made my day: can I pllleeease quote your last paragraph on facebook? <3