Tag Archives: beauty

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!


In Defense of Makeup

6 Aug

I am an unapologetic makeup addict. In my bathroom are cheap Target containers overflowing with enough beauty products to choke an elephant: gem-colored eyeshadows, a sunset’s array of lip glosses, and eyeliners darker than Sharpie ink. The pearlized containers are embossed with the kind of names that you can suck the marrow from, rolling them around in your mouth until you’ve absorbed the fluidity of the words. Guerlain. Nyx. Estee Lauder. Revlon. Tarte. And we haven’t even gotten to the shade names yet. Lipsticks with sobriquets like Russian Red or Bombay seem to contain a thrilling seed of the places from which they take their names. The shocking green of a Graffiti eyeliner or the iridescent white shimmer of Polyester Bride delight me. In my spare time, I surf beauty blogs like Christine’s Temptalia or Karen’s Makeup and Beauty Blog to figure out how to apply the latest trends in beauty.

But what I truly love about makeup is its power to transform. In fifteen minutes I can go from my normal appearance to a 1950s pin-up vixen with a flick of liquid liner and some matte lipstick. Or I can draw a line of electric blue on my lower lid and revel in the satisfaction that such a pure, forceful blue gives me. Each day, with a tap of the brush, I am someone different. Each day, lips painted incarnadine or fuchsia or simply left bare, I am playing a new part. For me, makeup doesn’t shackle me to any standards of beauty we may have. Instead, it frees me.

The Story of Makeup

I’m not the only one to feel so enthralled by beauty products. Cosmetics have been in use for at least 4000 years, so I can’t be the first to fall under their sway. Jezebel, that harlot queen whose name I’ve always found gorgeous, painted her face in 2 Kings, a book of the Old Testament. Egyptians lined their eyes with breathtaking blues and greens the color of the Nile River Delta in springtime. Chinese royalty stained their nails silver or gold from as early as 3000 B.C. European women plucked, waxed, and redrew their eyebrows and their hairlines as thin as the blade of a knife.

In the early 1900s, as the film industry took off, so did makeup. Stars as diverse as Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, and Katy Perry wouldn’t be able to achieve their iconic looks without its aid. Now makeup is, in my opinion, omnipresent – women or men can use it or not, and expect little judgment either way.

The Significance of Cosmetics

A Rainbow of Eye Shadows

A Rainbow of Eye Shadows (Photo credit: cybertoad)

I don’t seem to be the only one who holds these views, though, and I am constantly surprised at the rancor of those who think differently. In Target, a gaggle of college boys once stopped me to tell me that my red lipstick and dramatic purple eyeshadow was “slutty” and that they “wouldn’t pay five dollars for me.” Lilac lip gloss, according to one of my classmates, was “ridiculous.” Flared eyeliner, said some of my friends, made it look like I was “kind of whorish.”

Perhaps I’m behind the times, but in this modern age, when did wearing vibrant makeup become directly correlated with one’s sexual promiscuity?

I’ve seen countless sites and beauty counters that promise to match you with your ‘perfect eyeshadow shades’ or your ‘Holy Grail lipstick.’ But I don’t believe them. Just because I happen to have cool-toned skin doesn’t mean I’m going to wear all cool-toned products. Just because I have green eyes doesn’t mean that I’ll only wear earth-toned shadow. If I did, I’d only wear spiritless pink lipsticks and a sprinkle of bronze on my lids. Don’t you think I know that bright orange lip gloss perhaps doesn’t suit me the best? But on the days when I wake up to see the incandescent sun rising over sharply outlined trees, and I think that I want to take a little of that radiance with me, I will.

So when I wear my cerise-colored lipstick with a swipe of tar-black liner, I’m not asking for someone’s approval. I’m not particularly concerned if I’ve ‘overdone it.’ With every shade I add to my face, I act a new part. I delight in wearing hues like Aquadisiac and Girl About Town. And I enjoy the liberty it allows me.

I’ve decided that on Mondays, instead of posting poetry or fiction, I’ll talk about my personal thoughts instead (although all three of those things essentially come from the same place.)  If you like this sort of writing, check back on future Mondays to see what else I’ll manage to come up with!

Also, if you have any opinions on makeup, I’d love to hear your comments!

A Nose to Found a Dynasty On

30 Jul

I have something to confess: I have an impertinent nose.

The rest of my face is what some might call winsome. I have large green eyes, high cheekbones, and a mass of wavy blonde hair. But my nose dominates my features. It’s not terrible, by any means. Though it’s too long to be a fashionable button nose and too wide to be queenly, it gives my profile a kind of charm. In fact, it sometimes reminds me of Saleem Sinai, a character from the superb book Midnight’s Children.  Saleem has a wondrous and massive nose, and it is the source of his magical talents. As one character tells his grandfather, who possesses the same nose, “Mughal Emperors would have given their right hands for noses like that one. There are dynasties waiting inside it.” Mine is not nearly as large or extraordinary as Saleem’s.  But I wonder if perhaps one morning I will wake up able to sniff out that old iPod I lost two years ago, or the library card that must be under my bed somewhere. In fact, I endowed one of my own characters with such an ability – the pensive Letty of Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts can catch a whiff of anything, from gardenia and patchouli to melancholia and joy.

The nose in question. © John Herzog Photography.

But I don’t always believe that my prodigious proboscis is a blessing. Multiple people have called it a ‘Jew schnoz’ (…yeah, I know). On days when my forehead is breaking out and I feel like my thighs are more deserving of the title ‘Great White Whale’ than Moby Dick, my nose seems like an intruder. I could be truly beautiful, I’ll think to myself, if I could just straighten out that damn nose.

Sometimes I even think that one day, when I’m rolling in piles of money, I’ll alter it. I’ll look just like Emma Stone in all her peaches-and-cream, snub-nosed glory.

I can’t let myself do that, though. Because I made a promise.

When I was in eighth grade, my mother, sister, and I visited New York City for the first time. Like proverbial country mice, we scuttled through the streets with our heads down, terrified that we would be mugged or shot. Our rolling suitcases thumping behind us, we navigated the city as quickly as first-time tourists can.

And then we were stopped. A man loomed out of the shadows of a parking garage. He was missing several teeth and wore a dirty skullcap. “You all from Virginia?” he asked.

Inexplicably, my mother stopped. “Y-yes. How did you know?”

He nodded at our suitcases. “Says on your flight tags.” The man ambled closer. I tensed, preparing to drop my bag and flee. “You wanna know something? That’s where my hero’s from.”

“Your hero?” said my mother.

“Yes ma’am. Robert E. Lee.” He smashed the words together, making them sound like ‘Roberty Lee.’ “What a man. What a man. Tell you what. When you go back to Virginia for me, I want you to put a red rose on his esophagus.”

“Do you mean sarcophagus?” I asked.

He rounded on me. “I most certainly do not! I want you to put a red rose on his eeeeee-sophagus, you hear me?”

I nodded, eyes wide.

The man fell silent, scrutinizing me. Then he jabbed his finger at me. “Young lady, I wanna tell you something. Your nose makes you damn special. Like Roberty Lee. Never change it, you hear?”

“I won’t,” I muttered, and fled.

I think we can all agree that Roberty, as I have come to call him, was a tad strange. (I never did put that rose on Lee’s sarcophagus. Or esophagus.) But you know something? He was also right. My nose is what makes me different than any other cookie-cutter blonde. So on the kinds of days I was talking about before, I remember Roberty’s words. Your nose makes you damn special.

It does.

And you know what Pascal said about Cleopatra’s nose, anyhow:

Marmorbüste Kleopatra VII. von Ägypten, entsta...

“Had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

Edit: I just found my library card.  Under my bed, as I suspected.  Clearly, it’s a sign from beyond.  My nose is magical after all.

Is there an aspect of your appearance that makes you unique?  Enormous eyes?  Thick brows?  Magnificent ears?  Tell me about it in the comments section!