I remember, when I was younger, mentioning to a man I knew that I like girls. His response was:
“As long as you’re the good kind of lesbian. Not the kind who shaves her head but not her armpits.”
That was the first time I remember being aware of the feeling some men have, that they are entitled to control what women look like.
He felt he was allowed to dictate and make a value judgement based on what hair women have on their bodies. Not even women who were trying to attract him as a potential suitor (which would have been scary in itself). All women. By existing, they were open to his criticism of their appearance. This reeks of a culture where women are believed to exist first and foremost for male enjoyment. He felt it was perfectly reasonable to demand that all women be visually pleasing to him.
I worried at the time that there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t see why a lesbian’s armpit hair was anything to do with him. I worried that because I wouldn’t mind dating a woman with hairy armpits, I was liking girls incorrectly. He, as a straight man, was my yardstick for what is normal in the arena of liking girls. He was very outspoken on the subject of women’s bodies, and seemed to echo what felt like it was probably the status quo.
A lot of questions sprung to mind. Why did he get to tell me how to wear my hair? What’s wrong with hairy armpits? What did any of this have to do with liking women? He liked women and had hairy armpits, what was different about me that meant I could not also enjoy this combination? And what was meant by “as long as”? As long I continued to appear feminine, I would be… inoffensive? Allowed to continue existing? Tolerated despite liking women? I felt as if, by being confused about why a woman’s body hair should conform to his standard, I was missing the point. And I guess I sort of was. I didn’t really understand at the time how the media has shaped public perceptions of what is an acceptable woman’s body, in what circumstances it is acceptable for queer women to be visible, what body hair women can have, and who gets to pass judgement on it. I would wager that he didn’t understand it either, he just accepted it into his worldview unquestioningly.
The beauty industry profits from telling everyone how to look and convincing us that anything else is wrong. Women didn’t shave their armpits until the hair removal industry told them to in 1915. Look at Playboy in the 1970s all the way through to the early 1990s, and you’ll see that pubic hair wasn’t always considered a bad thing. However, for some reason it is now a topic of debate whether women should get to decide for themselves how to maintain their body hair and head hair.
Women must have long, luscious hair on their heads and nowhere else. Anything else is unfeminine, wrong, disgusting, or even a sign of mental health problems. Please, ignore the fact that hair naturally occurs all over women’s bodies. Hairy women are newsworthy. Armpit hair is a statement. By choosing not to spend their time and money removing the hair that naturally occurs on their bodies, they are the bad kind of woman.
The patriarchy controlling women’s bodies is old. What the beauty industry is doing is making women police themselves and each other. Many young women first learn shame over their naturally developing body hair from other women. We have internalised the shame taught to us by those who seek to profit from it. I remember being a young teenager, told by other girls that female body hair is disgusting. They would laugh about girls who had visible body hair, up to and including dark hair on their forearms. They spread rumours about how hairy other girls were. They whispered in fear about how some women have hairy nipples. They criticised my eyebrows for months before I eventually let one pluck them at a sleepover. Discussion of hair removal was commonplace. It was treated as exciting, or as a hated necessity, but always a necessity. Body hair on women was unanimously considered disgusting. The girls policed each other before we even knew any boys. They had absorbed and internalised this shame from somewhere.
Images of normal women who have natural body hair are so rare that you could be forgiven for believing that women are naturally hairless, leading to huge issues when young women start to grow body hair themselves and have no frame of reference to reassure them that they are normal. If a woman has body hair it is played as a joke, or she is meant to be considered unattractive. Considering how many images there are in today’s media of women’s bodies, it is ridiculous that women with body hair are so under represented. Even in historical or fantasy settings, women will be depicted as hairless. Morrigan, a character from Dragon Age: Origins, is a young woman who was raised in the woods and does not seem to understand how clothes work, yet her armpits are completely hairless. Perhaps you could argue that Merrill in Dragon Age: II, a character also raised in the wilderness, is an elf and thus doesn’t grow body hair, which seems like a fairly odd choice to make about a race in your fantasy setting that would also speak volumes in its own way. When we see men in survival situations, fighting off hoardes of zombies or camping on deserted islands, growing big, fluffy beards, we never see the scene where the women find a razor and swear a pact with each other to hide it from the men, so that the secret of their hairy bodies is never discovered. When do women fighting battles have time for body hair removal?
How are we going to move forward? How are we going to reach a point where women have full autonomy and reproductive rights when the world can’t even get over women having freedom of choice over their own body hair? How will we eradicate transphobia if we are still so prescriptive over how femininity has to look? How are women going to be treated as equals if their appearance is constantly policed? When will people shut up and listen to what women actually have to say, rather than interrupting them to tell them off about their body hair?
There are some online spaces where women with body hair aren’t vilified. There are even some spaces where they aren’t overtly objectified either. This is a start. But really, what we need is an entire planet where women are free to look however they want.
Please be aware; I have tried to avoid accidentally implying that women who remove their body hair are bad people or traitors to feminism or anything. Everyone should just do what makes them happy with their own body without fear of being judged for it. The above song, however, does stray from its pro-body-hair message and have a brief anti-hair-removal moment or two, which I don’t agree with. We shouldn’t be trying to lift one group up by pushing their opposite down. There should be enough room to lift everyone up.