To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair

2 Jan

Let’s talk about hair, Nair, and everything in between.  (An idea inspired by No-Shave November that study-abroad forced by the wayside until now.)

Not only is November the time when my mother gets obsessed with hanging weird-smelling wreaths on our front door, as well as the peak of decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, it is also that strange month glorifying the men who put down their razors and let their beards grow free.  It has become what plenty of Americans know as No-Shave November, or Movember (a portmanteau of ‘November’ and ‘mustache’).  Some men do it in the name of cancer research funding, and some do it in the name of extreme beardliness.  When I was in Spain this semester, I joked to some girls in the UVA program that I, too, was going to participate in Movember.  Their responses all had the same underlying message: that’s weird.

That left a question stewing in my brain, one that I haven’t had time to really investigate until now: why?

When I googled No-Shave November to see what the Internet at large thought about the phenomenon, I noticed that the bigger the beard was, the more words like manly, masculine, sexy, awesome, and badass were used.  However, when referring to women who tried to join in alongside their beard-growing brethren, words like lazy, ugly, and strange were more common.  I discovered that last year, a popular Will Ferrell parody account tweeted the following:


And I suppose I am late to the proverbial party, because yes, that was a year ago (and it’s January now, I KNOW), but that rubbed me the wrong way.

I am the first to admit that I’m not exactly slavish about sticking to a shaving schedule.  In the winter, I will routinely go months without letting a razor touch my calves.  The rest of the year, I shave when I have a moment here or there, meaning that I sometimes go out in the heat of summer with five days’ worth of fuzz on my legs.  I never bother with my thighs.  My boyfriend and I joke that it’s a national holiday whenever I shave both my armpits and shins on the same day.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel unfeminine when I glance at my ankles and see the hair I missed poking out of the legs of my jeans.  When I wear tank tops, I think twice before raising my hand or waving – when was the last time I shaved?  And I stay alert for any other stray growth that dares to show itself, mercilessly plucking my eyebrows every morning.  Sometimes, when I’ve nicked myself trying to eradicate the hard-to-reach hair on the backs of my knees, I think, I could be doing so many other fascinating things right now.  Like eating cheesecake.  Or sleeping.  Or singing into my hairbrush to Lorde. 

As women in a media-saturated society, we wage war on certain varieties of hair (legs, armpits, pubes, etc.) while spending hours encouraging other kinds (eyelashes, head hair) to grow.  Calliope, the narrator of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, tells us:

“Sing, Muse, of ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax! Sing how the unsightly black fuzz, like the Persian legions of Darius, sweeps over the Achaean mainland of girls barely into their teens! When I close my eyes and summon the fond smells of childhood, do I smell gingerbread baking or the pine-fresh scent of Christmas trees? Not primarily. The aroma that fills, as it were, the nostrils of my memory is the sulfurous, protein-dissolving fetor of Nair.”

We shave.  We pluck.  We wax.  We thread.  We bitch about it.  Then we get so used to it that we frown on anyone else treating ‘bad hair’ as anything other than negative.  The first time someone else cracked a joke about my shaving habits, I was fourteen and on the tennis team at my middle school.  One mid-September day, I was practicing my serve with a few other girls, soothed by the satisfying thwack of the ball connecting with the sweet spot on my racquet.  I raised my arm, another ball in hand.

“Elizabeth,” shouted the girl to my left, “when was the last time you shaved your pits?”

I stopped, mid-serve, and glanced at my armpit.  “Uh.” There was a faint shadow in the crook of skin.  “Two days ago?”

She giggled.  “You don’t shave them every day?  I do.”  By this point, all the other girls were watching.  I saw a few of them surreptitiously glance at their own armpits.

“I just, um, forgot this morning,” I said, blushing.

“Well,” she said sweetly, “hope you don’t forget again.”

Pictured here: the awesome Emer O’Toole, an Irish grad student who is gleefully proud of the fact that she doesn’t shave her pits.

In terms of the United States, shaving hasn’t been around for as long as we might think.  (In other locations, where Islam is predominant, it has been for religious reasons – but that’s another story entirely.)  Ridding the legs and armpits of hair only became widespread when hemlines rose and necklines plunged.  We can date that pretty exactly to 1915, when Harper’s Bazaar ran an ad featuring a woman with silky-smooth pits.  Now it’s hard to imagine a standard of female beauty that doesn’t involve removing some kind of hair.  In fact, it’s so ingrained in us that media outlets go crazy over it.  Mo’Nique’s legs made headlines in 2010 when she blithely told Barbara Walters that she didn’t shave.  Kristen Stewart was made fun of as a kid for not caring about shaving.  Julia Roberts showed off her luxurious pit hair at a 1999 event and people still talk about it today.  And St. Baldrick’s, an organization for which people shave their heads in the name of cancer, is getting bigger and bigger every year.  Yet women who participate always make a splash, precisely because they are not supposed to shave that hair.

So what gives?

As part of my newfound obsession with body hair, I started asking my female friends about what they did or didn’t trim, and when.  Without exception, they all shaved their legs.  A few of them said that their boyfriends wouldn’t want to touch them if they hadn’t.  One girl said that she shaved her armpits multiple times a day – just in case.  Another talked about getting her arms waxed.  Although most of the girls I talked to didn’t get bikini or Brazilian waxes, they expressed a desire to do so, if they had the courage and/or the money.  They did, for the most part, shave or trim their pubic hair.  Most of them also plucked their eyebrows, and plenty of them plucked their upper lips as well.  Many of them admitted to me that they felt ashamed, gross, or undesirable when they didn’t remove hair from certain parts of their body.

The point of writing this is not to say that shaving is bad.  The point is to say that maybe we should rethink our cultural attitude towards feminine body hair.  If men are able and even encouraged to leave their beards untrimmed, then why shouldn’t women do the same with the rest of their bodies?  In my opinion, an important step towards good cultural body image is de-fetishizing the absence of hair everywhere but up top.  If you want to wax off everything, including your eyebrows and the hair on your head, good on you.  If you want to leave your legs as hairy as a wampa ice creature’s, that should also be fine.   Bottom line: if you see someone else’s body hair and you  think it’s weird, don’t mess with it and don’t talk smack about it.  Worry about what’s growing on your own skin.

After all, as a very wise woman once told me, “You do you, girlfriend.”

Side note: I hope that the NSA, should they be watching, is amused by all my Google searches of “beautiful hairy armpits.”

Join me next week, dear readers, as I brave the salon to find out what all this brouhaha over bikini waxing is about and then – yes – write about it.  UPDATE: read it here!

Oh, and a happy (hairy?) 2014 to all!


8 Responses to “To Shave or Not to Shave: The Cultural Aesthetics of Female Body Hair”

  1. briandrush January 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    There’s actually a reason why women becoming hairier than is culturally normal is regarded negatively while men doing so is not. If nobody shaves anything, men will be, on the average, hairier than women, enough so that this is a secondary sexual characteristic: hairy guys, relatively not-so-hairy ladies. The cultural norms that call for shaven legs and pits in women are exaggerating this natural difference. (Face-shaving in men is another matter. I’m really not sure where that comes from. And, now that I can finally grow a good beard, I refuse to shave.)

    It’s also a natural difference that men are more likely to go bald on top at an earlier age than women are. Not all men do, and certainly not to the same degree, but for women to have skin instead of hair on top seems strange because usually they don’t, and when they do (without shaving) it’s usually a sign of disease.

    That said, the cultural norms themselves could do with a little reappraisal, along with our attitudes about what constitutes beauty and attractiveness overall. In regard to hair, when I was your age it was quite common on college campuses to find young women with a dusting of hair on their calves and in their armpits — non-shavers in other words. And no, that does NOT mean I was in college before 1915. Actually it was the 1970s and the women who did this were part of the counterculture. (Hippie chicks, that is. The real ones. The original ones.) I got used to it easily enough, even though the girls I’d known in high school all shaved. Women were still, for the most part, smoother and less hairy than I was, and that was enough to trigger my impulses, which were at that age pretty much constantly triggered anyway. It all comes down to what you’re used to. If women stopped scraping their skin and became only less hairy than men to the degree nature makes them, we’d all become accustomed to it.

    More serious, to my way of thinking, is a standard of beauty that insists women be rail-thin. This can do serious damage if women who don’t naturally have a thin body type try to look as if they do. Shaving conventions are less serious, but I wouldn’t lament seeing them undone by widespread refusal to cooperate.

    • elizabethballou January 2, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

      Hah! If I could grow a good beard like you, I absolutely would. Beards can give quite a solid impression of power and gravitas (examples: Abraham Lincoln for the good sort of power, or President Snow from the Hunger Games movies for the bad sort). As for the biological reasons: I knew as much about the body hair, but I didn’t really think about male-pattern baldness and women generally holding on to more of their luscious locks. Which means that that makes more sense now for me, so thank you!

      I must say that I can’t think of the last time I saw an unshaven girl at the University of Virginia (where I go). Girls who didn’t have time to shave for a day or two, maybe, but not those like the aforementioned Emer O’Toole who stopped shaving completely. And as for standards of beauty, I believe that the body hair standard can be more insidious than fat-shaming. O’Toole appeared on the show This Morning to show off her hair, and when viewers were polled about whether they approved, 80% said her choice was ‘horrifying.’ To me, that indicates that the majority of our society doesn’t have a problem with calling lady hair gross – in contrast to the ‘fat’ (and I use that term loosely, because it can mean anything from curvy to plus size to normal and lots in between) reclamation movement, which is gaining ground with figureheads like Crystal Renn and Gabi Fresh.

      Like you say, if razors suddenly disappeared from the planet, we’d all get used to hirsute women again. It’s all a matter of social constructs.

      • briandrush January 3, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

        You could always imitate Hatshepsut or Cleopatra and wear a fake beard. 🙂

  2. exteric January 3, 2014 at 2:05 am #

    Your post made me think of this:

    The linked post is a sample of the distilled quintessence of the issue, expressed quite beautifully if I can take the liberty to editorialize.

    As a additional aside in lieu of your next prospective piece, let me take the liberty of sourcing another author who has also undertaken such an adventure; the waxing proper begins on page two, and this author happens to be male, for added hilarity:

    • elizabethballou January 7, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

      You know, I actually found that Jezebel article when I was doing research for this one! Balpreet is exactly the kind of woman I want to be: someone who’s down with her body and is comfortably against any kind of criticism she receives because of it.

      Also, this Vanity Fair article is hilarious: “I had no idea it would be so excruciating. The combined effect was like being tortured for information that you do not possess, with intervals for a (incidentally very costly) sandpaper handjob.”

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. briandrush January 3, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    I feel like I should add one more thing here. Shaved legs, unless they are very recently shaved, are scratchy and prickly. Unshaved legs feel much better. Men who say they won’t touch women with unshaved legs are morons.

    • elizabethballou January 7, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

      Agreed. Maybe some people are into touching skin that feels like sandpaper, but I personally am not one of them.


  1. To Shave or Not to Shave Pt. II: A (Quite Literal) Exploration of Waxing | letters of mist - January 9, 2014

    […] promised, I’m back to continue my musings on my newfound obsession with hair.  Last week, I stuck to a general overview of all sorts of body hair, from the kind on your face and head to […]

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