my hairy body: an exploration of personal and cultural conceptions surrounding women's body hair

Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women

This summer I decided to take on a "project."  I called it a project because I didn't really know what else to call it.  An experiment?  I'm not sure.  What I was sure about was wanting to see my body in its natural state.  I thought to myself how weird it would be to go my entire life never seeing my body in an un-hairless state.  In an untouched state.  I'd talked about body hair on the blog before, but I'd never jumped into the deep end and stopped removing hair altogether.  I had always been an au-natural gal when it came to "below the belt," if you will, but letting my legs and armpits run wild was something I'd never considered for myself.  Shaving seemed to be, well, just something I did.  Just... because.  But "just because" seems like a really odd reason to do something for your entire life without thinking about it.  I started to feel strange about the patriarchal pressures on women and how they've influenced us in ways that we don't even think about any more.  I wanted to see if I could feel beautiful and love my body as it was naturally.  

Could I?  The answer turned out to be way more complex than I anticipated.  I went into the "project" with feminist spirits high, feeling pretty gung-ho and "fuck the patriarchy, yeah!!"  As my little hairs grew I'd continue going to the gym in tank tops, rocking my baby pit hairs with (a bit of) confidence.  But as it went on, I started feeling less and less confident.  It's not something that is subtle, especially for a lady with thick, dark hair.  Perhaps it has something to do with my introversion, but I got to the point where I just didn't want to risk having a stranger bring it up and have to talk about it.  

Another side affect was that I became hyper aware of other women's shaved legs.  I did this over the Summer, which might seem like ridiculous timing, and it probably was, but it really starkly highlighted how different I was, or at least felt.  I'd see girls with short shorts and tank tops and envision their body with hair and how that'd look.  I knew I didn't like the way it looked, the hair.  And my conflicting emotions about it all were frustrating.  I hated that I'd been brainwashed to see my body and the bodies of other women as unattractive when sporting their natural body hair.  I thought about how ridiculous it was that women were "gross" for going unshaven, but men were "normal."  I felt ragey, sad, annoyed, self-conscious.

Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women
Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women

Early on in the project I'd sought out psychological studies on women's body hair in our culture.  I was feeling such strong emotions about it I couldn't imagine there hadn't been studies on this phenomenon, especially because I knew there were incredibly strong reactions to women's body hair by both men and women.  I ended up finding a study that was recently conducted which actually paralleled my own project.  

The first part of the study just collected responses from a diverse cross-section of women regarding body hair.  By and large their impression was that removing body hair was a choice that women had, but that they'd almost always choose to do it and the consensus among the women was that it was undesirable, un-hygienic, or even disgusting to not shave.  

The second part of the study was experiential.  Women in an upper level women's study course were offered an extra credit assignment–– don't shave for 10 weeks.  They were to journal about it, record their own reactions and others' reactions.  One of the big impressions the participants noticed was that shaving felt very compulsory.  While in theory it is a "choice," the reality felt very different.  Not shaving was much harder in practice than many of them anticipated.  Quite a few received extremely negative reactions from loved ones and significant others communicating undesirability, inability to find or keep a mate, and social pressures.  

I was very thankful for Dan's positive reaction to the project.  He was all for it, which I was not anticipating.  I figured he'd be intrigued by it and think it was interesting but prefer my shaved self. Instead, he constantly expressed unwavering love and physical attraction, regardless of the presence of hair.  I didn't have much conversation with my parents about it, though my mom did express that it was important for my husband to find me physically attractive and that if not shaving was unattractive, then I should maybe just shave to please him for the health of our relationship.  My women friends are all radical chicks so they were stoked on it.  Dusty had no notable opinion.

One situation I found myself torn in was my professional life.  I was photographing a wedding on a hot day and normally I would've worn a sleeveless, knee-length black dress, but I realized that my clients and/or their guests might think that I didn't care enough about the event because I hadn't even bothered shaving.  Or just that body hair was unprofessional and unsightly.  It reminded me a lot of the conversation surrounding ethnic women's natural curly hair in the workplace and how it's often seen as unprofessional, messy, and unruly.  I've never worked somewhere that gave me that impression for my curly hair, but I definitely felt that pressure with my body hair.  I was worried my clients would see it as rude or unprofessional.  I wore tights and a blazer with my dress.  Is my work the right time and place to fight the patriarchy?  Do I risk bad reviews or unhappy clients over this?  More questions.  

Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women
Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women

I didn't go into the project with an end date in mind.  After reading the study, 10 weeks seemed like a good period of time, but I didn't keep track, though I think it ended up being about that long.  Maybe a little less.  I didn't go into the project planning on doing it forever, though I thought it could be a possibility.  It felt like caving to the patriarchy, to our weird over-sexualized culture, to shave.  I knew I wasn't a "failure" because there was neither winning or losing, I'd just wanted to experience my body in its natural state, but I still felt like I was crawling back to the abusive master in a way.  I want to (someday) raise kids who see natural women and don't think of them as abnormal, weird, or gross.  Does that mean having body hair myself?  How can I tell them one thing and live another?  Ugh.

It was weird to shave again, but also felt kind of relieving.  Back to being "normal."  Back to the routine.  Back to not having to think about my body hair every day.  Aside from social pressures, there were some other reasons I wanted to shave again.  For one, my armpits stank real bad.  I work out pretty hard 5-6 days a week for 1 hour a day and it was incredible how much more my body smelled.  I've heard that Americans are just not used to smelling their own body scent and that when you're surrounded by it constantly it goes unnoticed. This makes sense to me.  I used to ride horses and I was so acclimated to the smell of the barn that I didn't even notice it, but after I came from the barn people could smell the horse on me like whoa because they weren't used to it.  

Strike two: my legs were so. itchy.  Also: in the summer walking around outside I just felt like I had bugs on my legs  c o n s t a n t l y.  I was on high alert for spiders all the time.  I missed smooth legs and putting lotion on and having soft skin.  I actually felt more self conscious of my leg hair than my armpit hair which seemed opposite of most things I'd read.  

And lastly, Burlesque.  I'll be honest, I really want to do a hairy-girl-political-statement-act.  And I think someday I still will.  But it's definitely a statement and I'm doing an act for a show on Halloween and I didn't want it to be about the body hair.  It's frustrating to me that having hair makes everything about the hair.  Like, why can't it just be?  Why does it have to be a political statement.  Can't it just be normal?  But it's not.  Not here, not yet.  "Well, you should be part of shifting the norm by rocking the hair."  Yeah, I know.  I'm not sure if I'm there yet.  

Does shaving mean I hate my body?  That I'm supporting an oppressive, anti-woman, patriarchal, over-sexualized culture?  Do I feel like I'm a bad feminist for choosing to shave?  Part of me feels like the answer is sort of, "yes."  I don't know if I'm able to overcome the programming that makes me want to shave, feel compelled to shave.  Maybe it's just going to be a matter of raising girls and boys who don't feel compelled to shave, who aren't programmed to feel like female body hair is anything other than normal and regular.  Who knows.  I think I raised more questions within myself than answers in the past few months.

I did a couple photo shoots over the months I was growing my hair.  I think some times we need to work shit out through our art and photography helped a bit.  This is the last self portrait shoot I did with my hair grown out.  Looking at these photos is so odd to me because I'm not all that bothered seeing it in photos.  I feel very separated from it, in a way.  Some people may think it's disgusting, some people may think it's amazing.  I'm still working on figuring out how I feel about it all, but in a way I'm happy to free up the brain space I spent brooding over my hairy feminist badge of honor for other creative thoughts and ideas.  Huge props to you ladies who rock it.  I'm still working on getting to that point, but I have a whole new respect for women who let their body hair flag fly.  Lately there are more and more conversations surrounding women's bodies, and issues like how women's natural bodies are seen as undesirable, and I feel a subtle shift.  Women taking back ownership of their bodies, challenging the status quo.  While, for the time being, I'm back to being back in my mostly-shaven body, I hope that the conversation continues and we keep pushing back against patriarchal systems and social structures that marginalize women.

Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women
Female Body Hair: Love it or Leave it?, Arm Pit Hair on Women