Tag Archives: feminism

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!


La Maddalena: Cantos III and IV

12 Oct



in vain you have bent your body to the sun

for twenty years, knees growing rough

as ash bark,

your palms upturned, two blinded doves.


the gilt is gone from your skin

men no longer kneel at the fortress of your feet

or press their fingers to the stony walls of your body.


you look for meaning

in the shifting of sand dunes –

the slaughter of the fatted calf,

the brush of lips to cheek

in starless gardens –

but you will not find it there.


each sunset finds you unchanged

eyes shuttered, ribs stark and slotted

against the clothing of your feral hair,

mouth moving with the taste of a name

you do not recognize

nor have ever known.




we are not so different, you and I.

the wood-carved desert stretches before us.


we have come so far

and still we do not know where we are going.


Like this poem?  Then check out the others in the series:
La Maddalena: Canto 1

La Maddalena: Canto 2

I’m always interested to see how other people interpret the story of Mary Magdalene, so if your opinions differ from or even match mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

La Maddalena: Canto II

3 Oct

…you know when I said I’d get back to a regular posting schedule?  Well, that was a terrible, terrible lie.  However, from this point onwards, I’m hoping to post at least weekly.  But any of you who have been to college can probably attest that there’s just so much going on all the time.  And I am easily distracted.

But I am nattering on, and that’s not what you want to read about.  Here’s some poetry.

All rights to *MartaSyrko of www.deviantart.com


you spent your time writing

sapphic odes to spiderwebs and salt air.

you slept on the streetcorners of jerusalem

and collected the tears of men

in lead-stoppered bottles.


you were

a king among women,

a red-lipped wild thing:


wise as solomon, smooth-faced as david.

when you cast your hands into the air

you caught fistfuls of moon hues and metaphor,

a net dredging fish from ocean silt


until the man with ground-glass skin

and baling-wire eyes shaded your doorway,

two rough-skinned figs in his hands, offerings

which you took without hesitation.

in the torpid warmth of june he cleansed you

of seven demons, unhurriedly


while a transistor radio played on the windowsill

and grape shot peppered the alleys with broken glass.


by day your lover preached to vicious-eyed masses

while you took pine pitch

and adorned your body with it,

a stroke for every parable:

the fleshly geography of bridegrooms and mustard seeds


here a coil of black lines around the arms

there a river delta of contours

in the hollows of the spine

(for this they would call you

a painted woman).


by evening you drank sparrow-colored wine

with twelve barefoot men

and scythed your hair off root-deep

to wash the feet of the thirteenth.


then the night of the skull:

broken bread and bones,

the clamor of pharisees.

at last the rifle shot.

the earth ruptured like so many



three days tautened, rope-tight,

to months

but there was no stone to roll away.


this time you spent weeping on the steps

of the grand cathedral

waiting for your hair to grow long again.


Like this poem?  Then check out the others in the series:
Canto I

Cantos III and IV

I’m always interested to see how other people interpret the story of Mary Magdalene, so if your opinions differ from or even match mine, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

21 Jul

Part 2 of the Pilgrims Flash Fiction Series

Okay, so maybe I killed them.

And maybe it wasn’t an accident.

But I don’t regret what I did, and don’t you think for one moment I ever would.

Look, I know I’m not beautiful. Me, with my mousy hair and thin face and spotty skin? Who are we kidding? Other people can be beautiful, sure. But not me. Not Sally Leanne Beauchesne, U.S. Army Private First Class, Fourth Infantry Division.

That doesn’t mean Mike had to say what he said, though.

Let me back up here. I entered the army fresh out of high school. Thought it would be good for people like me – you know, not pretty, not brainy, just brawny. And it was – until I got placed in the Twelfth Infantry Regiment for deployment to Afghanistan. Up until then, I had been the only girl. Not that it mattered much, since I don’t have any curves to speak of. Nothing to mark me out as different from the rest. Mike, Sam, Manuel, Benjamin – they all saw me as one of the guys.

But Abigail, she was beautiful. Perfectly placed highlights, bee-stung lips. At least a D-cup. She was like an unholy cross between G.I. Jane and Mila Kunis. And Christ, could she shoot. Not as well as me, of course, but she was competition. And she rubbed me the wrong way. Her breathy little giggles and her Christie Brinkley highlights made me clench my fists every time she walked by during training. The way the men followed her every footstep like lapdogs pissed me off.

You probably think I’m jealous of Abigail. But let me make it clear: that’s not it at all. Who would want to be a red-lipped slut like her? No way. This is the army, sweetie, not high school, I wanted to say. What I felt was anger. How dare she walk into the training compound with hips swinging like she had clockwork springs in those bones? Where was her dignity?

I’m a feminist, see, and I don’t bother to hide it. My Gramma Louise taught me well. The daughter of a West Virginian coal miner, she was. She always said living on top of those mines gave her a fiery soul. Said the fire would creep into her veins while she slept. So short she had to sit on a phone book when she drove, but she made up for that in temperament. And she never got anything from a man that she could do herself, which was most everything. Got a job, raised my mother. Then raised me. Women are sacred creatures, she would say. Adam was the prototype, but Eve was the finished product.

So you can see what I mean, right? Abigail was abusing what it meant to be a woman. But I wasn’t planning on shooting her. It wasn’t until Mike said Jesus, Sal, go back to West Virginia and screw your cousin for us, you ugly cunt, you make me want to pry my eyes out with my fingernails that I lost it. See, I knew he wouldn’t have said those things if Abigail hadn’t been there. I was yin, she was yang. I was the moon, she was the sun. Yaddayaddayadda.

She was right, my gramma. That coal-fire in her blood passed through my own mamma to live in me too, and in that moment it burned me clean through. So can you really blame me when I crept over to Abigail’s bunk and put a clean shot through her forehead? And then felt the fire licking at my heart, scorching it away, until I did the same to Mike?

No. You really can’t.

Gramma Louise would’ve approved, after all.

Shotgun Sally was one of those characters that seemed to spring, fully-formed, from my head, christened and all.  While writing my novella, I often found that I had to rein her back because she wanted to run her mouth during every scene (and if she wasn’t in the scene, she’d holler at me until I inserted her).  She’s the kind of girl who demands attention.

Other stories in the series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

Babes in the Wood

© 2012, Elizabeth Ballou