There is one chapter in particular that really had me asking questions of myself: Oh Hair Lair Dahling! – a whole chapter devoted to body hair. O’Toole discusses the triggers that led her to stop shaving all together, and society’s idea of a hairless female body as feminine.
‘Hair became a symbol of all the crap about gender, femininity and what’s normal that we just accept as common sense when it’s clearly misogynistic. Body hair became a symbol of the extent to which the pressure on us to modify our bodies – merely to be considered appropriately feminine – was getting so much more extreme.’ (p138)I finished this chapter full of questions. Shaving had become a beauty ritual that, until this point, I didn’t really think about. It was automatic: hair grew, I shaved, and so on it went. But O’Toole now had me questioning my personal grooming. Why did I shave? Who was I shaving for? At the time, I was shaving every day; shaving my legs, my underarms, my pubic area every day. I used to shave every three days, but shaving felt like such a chore every time, so when I saw someone say on a TV show that they shaved every day so they were always smooth, I thought I’d give it a go. And shaving became much quicker! You don’t have to be so careful when you’re shaving every day. Any hair you might accidentally miss will be taken care of tomorrow. Shaving every day was just easier. But why did I shave in the first place?
I decided I would conduct an experiment; I would change my shaving habits once it got cooler (because no-one wants to deal with the itch of regrowth in the height of summer), and really think about why I shaved. Although the removal of female body hair has happened for centuries, it only became what it is today fairly recently; check out this article by Renae Regehr on Everyday Feminism about the history of pubic hair removal. Not only does this article talk about the removal of pubic hair over time, but it also has some fascinating and shocking (at least to me) statistics about the number of women shaving today, and their reasons why – some of which, looking back on my own my own shaving history, used to be my own.
Once I hit puberty, I started shaving my legs and my underarms because that’s just what you did. Women didn’t have hairy legs or hairy armpits. I knew this because my mum shaved, and adverts for shaving and waxing products were all over the TV. Women had “silky smooth” legs. It was the done thing. When I bought my first razor, I felt like such a grown up! It was part of the rite of passage; I had started my period, my boobs were growing, and I now had a razor and was shaving – I was becoming a woman!
It was a little while before I started shaving my bikini line, and that only started once I noticed hair start poking out the side of my underwear. I was about 14 then, and this coincided with me reading my friends’ women’s magazines, which kept mentioning the landing strip. They were all talking about that style, and so, to my mind, it was “normal” to having a landing strip. It was sexy, it was feminine. I wanted to be normal, and so I complied. Really, women’s magazines have a lot to answer for.
I started shaving too soon, though, because I soon started believing that shaving caused more hair to grow; rather than just having a triangle of hair over my pubic bone that grew once I hit puberty, hair had now started to grow underneath, and what the hell?! No, no, no. I had never heard of any woman having hair underneath. I didn’t ask about it, I just got rid of it. It shouldn’t be there, it needs to go, now. This, of course, is completely ridiculous, but I was so ashamed and embarrassed of having hair grow in the “wrong” places, it just had to go.
Skip several years to my late teens when I a guy I was completely infatuated with mentioned that he liked the bare, completely shaved look. Now, at the time I knew there was no-way he would be getting any where near my naked body any time soon, so there was no way he’d know whether I had pubic hair or not. But knowing that he liked women to have bare pubic areas, and the thought that if he was to see my pubic area he might be turned off... well. I guess I don’t really need to tell you that off it came. Let’s just take a second to really let that sink in.
I changed my body to be more attractive to a guy.
Are you as appalled as I am? Because... wow.
That guy ended up being not such a nice guy. He hurt me, and I was so angry. And it hit me that, for all intents and purposes, I had starting shaving off my pubic hair for a guy. Not for me, but for a guy. It was so bloody ridiculous! I was so angry with myself! I decided I wasn’t going to shave my pubic area to suit some guy (who, to be honest, didn’t even know about it; he never got that far) again. Back came the landing strip.
Only this time round, I found I wasn’t very good at keeping it tidy. I almost felt like I wanted a ruler to keep the lines straight. I was always trying to perfect the edges; I missed a bit there, but while trying to correct it, I shaved off more than necessary, so now there was a weird patch, so I need to straighten it out again and... it just got thinner and thinner. I had this wispy little line that wasn’t really worth so much agro, so in frustration, I shaved it all off again.
And this was the point I was at when I read Girls Will Be Girls. Completely bald and shaving every day. Once it started to get cooler in August, my experiment began. Baby steps at first, I decided to stop shaving my thighs, and tried to grow back my landing strip. My thinking was, it was winter and no-one is going to see my thighs; even if I wore a dress, I’d be wearing tights, so no-one would notice, like they might do my calves. That way, I could privately work out what exactly I thought of my leg hair once it grew, just for myself. Before my landing strip really grew too much of anything, I stopped and asked myself why a landing strip? If this experiment was about seeing what I thought of my body hair and why I shaved it off, surely there should be a fair amount of it there to base my opinions on. And so, aside from keeping a tidy bikini line, I grew it all back. I decided not to stop shaving my underarms, because I know I have ever liked the look of. Soon after starting this experiment, I read an article by YA author Louise O’Neill in which she talks body hair, and how a teenage girl she knew was insulted by a guy for having pubic hair. It had me so raging, and even more determined to go through with my experiment.
I am now over four months into my new shaving regime. I say “regime”, but it’s not, really. Although I’ve only stopped shaving my thighs, I can go several days to well over a week without shaving my calves without worrying about it. And what do I think of my body hair now? The hair on my thighs is nothing. It’s no worse than the hair on my arms. In fact, it’s better; my leg hair is almost colourless, so it’s only really noticeable if you’re looking for it, and it’s also softer than the hair on my arms – which I have never had a problem with. If my leg hair wasn’t practically colourless would my views be different? Maybe, but I couldn’t say as I’m ginger and have never had really dark leg hair. As things stand, it’s just there, and I’m completely indifferent to it. At the moment, I’m undecided as to whether or not I would stop shaving my calves altogether; on the one hand, I don’t think it would bother me to let it grow, but on the other, I actually like the feel of having soft, smooth, hairless calves. As I said, I don’t worry about shaving my calves all that regularly anyway, so it might be something I stop altogether at some point.
As for my pubic hair, I’ve kind of fallen in love with it – and this is mostly down to the fact that in the last few years I’ve come to really like my pale-skin-and-ginger-hair colouring. I’m liking this shock of colour below the expanse of my pale stomach. (Before you ask, no, it doesn’t look like copper wire. I had enough of those remarks at school, thank you.) In regards to the hair itself, I don’t dislike it. I have started shaving underneath again because I simply don’t like it there, but that’s my personal preference, it’s not for anyone else or for society. But the hair on my pubic bone, now it’s passed the itchy phase, doesn’t bother me. I don’t find it unsightly; on the contrary, I think it’s sexy.
It’s like choosing to let go of the crap society bashes us over the head with about how a woman should look, and giving up trying to conform to that, has lifted a weight off my shoulders, and coming to accept my body’s natural way of being (with a few adjustments for personal preference) has made me love my body more. I have my neat and tidy little lady garden, and I feel sexier and more womanly. Society might say it’s more feminine to be hairless, but I feel more so for embracing my body, as is.
No longer will I let society dictate to me how I should look, and I have Emer O’Toole to thank for that.
I asked a few ladies to join the discussion and share with us their shaving habits and their reasons.
"I only really shave when that area of the body is going to be visible. So I shave my armpits fairly regularly because I wear sleeveless dresses at work, but I really don’t shave my legs through the winter very often. If I’m going swimming though I will shave my bikini line so nothing peeks out from my swimsuit - I don’t really care about strangers seeing leg hair but I’m much more embarrassed about pubic hair showing - I think because it’s quite intimate, in a way? However in the summer if I’m on holiday somewhere with an outdoor pool where I might be sunbathing, rather than swimming for exercise, I will shave my legs, and I know I’m definitely doing that to ‘fit in’.
I do feel like I should [shave] for certain situations (like sunbathing by the pool) because that’s our cultural norm, for women to have shaved legs, no visible body hair. If I’m in a relationship then I shave my legs more often, and I do groom my bikini line back a lot more than if I’m just trying to keep everything covered by a swimsuit. That’s something that’s changed as I’ve got older - I had my first intimate relationship when I was 18 and I don’t think I ever ‘tidied up’ then."
"I only started shaving because it makes me itch. That's it really. I can go a couple of months without shaving my legs. Armpits and pubic hair, not as long because of the itchiness. There's no time limit for me as such, I just do it when I feel it's necessary for me. But, at the end of the day, my body = my rules!"
"I shave because I much prefer how it looks and feels, personally, but I don't do it nearly as often as previously because I have a partner who values every single hair on my body and, because he's not bothered, I force myself to allow the growth to be a bit more natural.Thank you to the women who contributed their own thoughts about their body hair and shaving habits. How about you? Why do you shave/wax? Would you ever try giving up the razor?
I would absolutely give [shaving] up completely tomorrow if I had a young daughter. I would be worried about her sense of self in society and would want, through example, to make it perfectly clear that it's entirely unnecessary to shave/remove hair from any part of one's body. It should only be internal desire that influences hair removal choices and, should my daughter express such desires, I would be sure to discuss the matter at length to explore why she felt the need, the subconscious societal pressure from the media and peers in an effort to educate her about her own choices and healthy body image."
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