Body Hair – It’s a Lose-Lose Game
In this discussion session, Kim chose to deploy a Feminist Memory Work approach to the discussion and chose the ‘banal’ but clearly evocative terrain of Hair to open up discussions of sexuality, the body and women’s self-image. Hair is revealed as a personal and political subject, redolent with associations of learning about sex, sexuality and gender for many of the discussion group participants.
If someone won’t have sex with me because of [pubic hair] then I don’t want to see them ever again … that’s the test.
Laurie: I’ve been cultivating my body hair for a while. As a young adolescent I would shave my legs and my armpits and then it was just like this is such a bore! But while I don’t mind my arm pit hair at all, I have no problem in other people seeing that; leg hair – we are so primed that a beautiful leg is a smooth, soft, hairless leg that I don’t often show my hairy legs.
It’s really hard to overcome that societal thing: this is how I would like to be but I don’t actually feel comfortable sharing that with people because people make judgements about you. And you are aware that people find it unattractive and that does affect like your body confidence, which is really important – so I don’t know how to get round my hairy legs.
Nicola: When I go to the gym and realise I haven’t shaved my legs I’m always mortified. But see if I’ve been in a long term relationship at all I’m like “pfft this guy, I’m not shaving my hair for him”, because as you say it’s a chore. Having hairy legs in public, I have been disproportionately embarrassed – you think everyone is staring at your legs, even when people make eye contact you feel they are still staring at my leg somehow!
Laurie: I feel liberated growing it but I’m not willing to share it.
Kim: I’m totally the opposite at the gym because growing up I did a lot of sport, and as a group of teenage girls we only shaved between the shorts and the socks. It became normal to talk about it because we saw each others’ bodies every day. And some of them were the cool girls, you know they were the social elite, and if they didn’t shave their legs I was like “right fuck it I’m not going to, this is clearly acceptable, this is good”. So now any time I’m at the gym it doesn’t bother me – this is my space, I am exercising, I never wear make up to the gym or anything because no, I’m not there for that.
Jay: There is only one part of my body I shave now, my left upper top lip. It feels like a moustache and it gets to a point where it’s like “oh I have to go and run a razor over it”. It’s just this one bit that I’m convinced everybody else sees as some sort of half of a Salvador Dali or something, hanging down…
Sarah: I do shave everything because I quite like the feeling of it – I feel like a dolphin on my legs afterwards and I enjoy that, which is weird… I also get three chin whiskers and I get both sides of the old tache and also a random hair – I call him Fredrick – that sprouts from the middle of my forehead, inexplicably. The first time I noticed him I was 19 and in bed with a boyfriend at the time who went to stroke some hair out of my face and realised it was attached to my forehead. It was the most horrifically embarrassing moment of my life and I was like oh my god oh my god, and then jumped up to the mirror and it was this big it was like a unicorn and I just remember the feeling of like shame at this thing on my head. I think out of all of the hair the facial hair is the thing women aren’t supposed to have and so you are really aware of that
Susannah: I don’t like the hair on legs, although I leave my legs hairy because I don’t like how it feels when it’s shaved. Even when you shave, five minutes later I can still feel it, and I don’t like my body feeling like a man’s cheek. I have been removing facial hairs with tweezers recently because I know that with age, the facial hair becomes more aggressive – I don’t like this to be a sign that I am getting older.
Nicola: There’s always that thing when you shave your legs as well you know that one patch, that you never catch. I kind of like the feel of it because it’s not like the rest of it but it’s really annoying
Kim: It’s like leaving a bit of your garden wild… for bee pollination
Claire: The thought of being caught out in a public place with my legs on show is bad enough but legs on show and hairy is a terrifying prospect. To the extent where if my kids ask to go swimming I’ll say to my husband to take them because I haven’t shaved my legs. And then I go you are an intelligent, empowered, clever woman what are you doing but… I find that really difficult to get past. It is a real visceral distaste which I have never quite got over.
Nicola: What do you think when you see other people’s say unshaven legs?
Claire: That’s the thing, it doesn’t bother me It is a real self-critical, self-loathing type thing. And it wouldn’t occur to me, if I met Laurie in the swimming pool, to be horrified at her hairy legs. So what the hell am I doing being horrified about my own?
Sarah: I live with this idea that people are too consumed with their own stuff, that they are too busy judging themselves to judge other people. But yeah it makes me sad. Why is hair so offensive? It is a natural thing that just grows there so what’s the big deal?
Laurie: It’s a construct.
Claire: A societal construct that we as individual women appear to have enormously internalised and made very personal.
Ellie: I had a friend go on this rant ‘I don’t’ mind if a woman has hair as long as it’s not on the vagina’. I was like [laughs] do you just bring it in a bag along with you? I was like where do you expect it to be? He didn’t mind if it was on the bone but he didn’t want around the vulva at all. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was like that is the most juvenile thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
Kim: As a teenager, I got a shock when I played sport for the adult team for the first time, and unlike at school, we would have a shower after the match. I had never come across the concept of doing anything about your pubic hair until then. I’m quite lucky, I don’t have a great deal, but all these older women had landing strips or nothing at all, and I was like I didn’t know this was an option, public topiary. That was the first thought, total interest – and then it was like should I have? I have been going completely natural in these showers – shit has everyone been laughing at me and thinking she is completely… unsophisticated? But I didn’t know this was something that I was supposed to be dealing with – another thing to have to sort out about your body.
Ellie: I used to stare in horror at the frozen turkey section in Asda, because I went through a phase of like completely waxing because I thought that was what I had to do. And I would just go past at Christmas time and I would just be like “holy… this is obscene” it just looked like bald vagina after bald vagina and I was like I can’t baste this, I can’t cook this
Kim: I have experimented and I was like god it’s so much work – it’s nice for two seconds and then it’s you have a stubbly fanny.
Ellie: Laminate flooring to the rug you wipe your feet on that’s the difference between three days of shaving or waxing – I just never thought it was worthwhile… and the agony.
Claire: It’s like the ironing, that’s the thing, it’s like the ironing. It’s never finished and you just have to start all over again and quite frankly I can’t be arsed, I’m too busy, I have too many things to be doing.
Jo: I think sometimes women are more critical than men. I think women should be kinder to one another about stuff like that especially because we all know what a pain it can be.
Ellie: The first time I saw a woman with like really, really hairy underarms it was a complete shock to me and I was repulsed. I feel shame looking back now because I completely inwardly judged, I didn’t say anything.
Now my friend and I send photos of our progress – look what my body is doing this is incredible! I was like look what I have done, that I have created. I felt like a goddess, like I have created some thing that is purely mine. I’ve never been so impressed at what my body is capable of.
Claire: But – not shaving because you’re too busy – is this a kind of self-neglect thing, the kind of thing you would like to be doing but you’re letting your needs come below everybody else’s in the family? I do have moments when I think maybe I would like to be doing that and I am using my liberated self to make excuses for the fact that I am not taking care of myself in a way that would feel good for me. So I don’t know.
Laurie: Is it self care or is it presenting a body that is socially acceptable.
Sarah: Yeah – do I shave because I think that is what society wants or do I actually like doing it, or have I just told my self I like doing it… I quite often have that debate in my head. Is me choosing to shave all my body hair the action of a woman who considers herself progressive and forward thinking?
Claire: I had this huge debate with myself about whether a push up bra took away from my authenticity – does the push up bra make me feel better in a way that is empowering for me to wear, or is a push bra because I feel that my boobs should look two sizes bigger?. At what point am I making decisions from an empowered place for myself, and at what point am I making decisions because I have a construct in my mind about what I should look like?
Nicola: Yes! Like if I’m in the gym I always go to the cubicles rather than the open shower area, because I’m ashamed of my body and I don’t want to be exposed in that way. Then I have this other shame – you shouldn’t be ashamed to show my body. And I get that too with body positivity – if I am talking about wanting to lose weight with my body positive friends it is almost like there is a bit of judgement there because you shouldn’t want to lose weight, you should be happy with how you look. It’s a total lose lose. If I feel bad for feeling fat then I’m letting myself down for feeling bad so then I feel bad. There is no way out of it.
Sara: I am from Egypt, where hair on women is a big deal. They shave everything and when you get married they shave everything. Hair on women is something that is very shameful. I left Egypt four years ago and you get used to it, I have stopped even thinking about – shaving is like putting colour in my hair, sometimes I do it and sometimes I don’t. Then I go to Egypt and I get lots of attention. (Fucking this is why we are not doing anything with our revolution. Lots of caution.) But it has been very liberating for me sexually. One of things I always tell my friends back in Egypt, especially the boys- the sex is so much better. I always tell them you guys really suck, you make your women so self conscious that it’s impossible to orgasm, impossible.
Kim: I had a party and two of my friends ended up getting together. So we had this huddle of me, her and another best pal, she was like ‘oh god I have not prepared for sex, I’ve not done any grooming’, so I said ‘I’ve got a razor, have a shower if you need’. And then she said ‘Wait, because I know he’s a feminist and I’m a feminist and we are all feminists and this shouldn’t be a thing’. And then again, that double think – is it to make you comfortable? And she was like well kind of but not really. And then we decided he knows he is getting sex so he won’t care. And apparently it was delightful so…
Sara: YES. If someone won’t have sex with me because of that then I don’t want to see them ever again… that’s the test.