On Choice, and Why Body Hair is a Feminist Issue

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You know that thing where a topic keeps popping up so I write a blog post about it? It is happening right now.

Be thankful I am not doing a rehash of all the things wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey. Nope, I am not touching that one with a barge pole.

Instead I am going to launch into an attempt to organise my thoughts on choice, beauty standards and armpit hair.

This is a little bit more political than a lot of the stuff I post on here, but as I gain confidence I am becoming more comfortable with sharing these ideas with my audience, rather than hiding them in my secret feminist blog.

As women, we are constantly told that the things that happen to us are a result of our choices. That we choose to date or marry abusive men. That we choose to be single mothers. That we choose to work in lower-paid jobs. That we choose to drink too much or eat too much or act in ways that make us targets for violence. This way we are left in no doubt that whatever happens to us, whatever predicament we find ourselves in, we have only ourselves to blame. The flip side of this, that nobody talks about, is that those who harm and oppress us are absolved of all responsibility.

We are told that women choose to be prostituted, that women choose to act in porn. That to take away these choices would be taking away women’s choices, and that would be bad.

The lie that we are told every day is that women choose to be oppressed, and that men are doing us a favour by oppressing us.

We are told that women don’t want the hard/dangerous/high-powered jobs because we would rather stay at home and have an easy life while our husbands earn the money. That we want to be treated as sex objects. That we want to be abused and humiliated. That when we leave abusive partners we have chosen to break up our family, deprive our children of a father and be poor and stressed with limited opportunity to improve our lot. I hear it all the time. Women don’t want to work, they want to stay at home and be treated like princesses. Women like rough sex, but they are ashamed to admit it. Women think ‘nice guys’ are boring, so they always go for the ‘bad boys’. Women have it so easy. Women are their own worst enemies.

We are told that we only dress up to compete with other women. That we can choose whether or not to wear make-up, whether or not to wear high-heels, whether or not to remove our body hair.

And sure, you can choose not to do the things that society tells us we MUST do. But what happens if you don’t?

Body hair on women is one of my pet topics. To me it is a core feminist issue. I cannot count how many times I have been told that it is a ‘first-world problem’, or that women can ‘do whatever they want’ and most just ‘choose’ to remove their body hair for no practical reason.

And then when i argue the point I get told that it is insignificant, unimportant, that being allowed an opinion on what I do to my own body has nothing to do with feminism, that I should shut up and be glad I don’t live in Afghanistan.

I have got into countless discussions on the topic and been told countless times that body hair on women is unacceptable. The words most commonly used to describe underarm or pubic hair on women are: gross, nasty, disgusting, unhygienic, dirty. Who is going to volunteer to be considered all of those things, when simply picking up a razor can prevent it?

Admit it, just reading this you are wondering why I am writing about such an icky and insignificant topic. You’re thinking ‘ew, I just had lunch, I don’t want to hear about your armpit hair’.

Ask yourself, would you grow your armpit hair? Would it be okay if your wife or girlfriend did? Why? Why not? Because it is gross or dirty? Is it really? Why?

Yes, we have a choice. But choosing to go against the majority is difficult. And it shouldn’t be.

When I chose to stop removing my armpit hair I did it for a number of reasons. I get bad razor rash, which leaves me with nasty red spots and sometimes big lumps, especially in summer. I wanted to see if not shaving would prevent this. It did. I also realised that I had been shaving the hair off since before I even started growing it. That I had never had more than a couple of millimetres growth. I had no idea what it would even look like if I let it grow.

But mainly, I wanted to see if I could. If I could really choose.

And do you know what? This tiny choice was incredibly difficult. I had to deal with worrying about what everyone thought. Would they think I was disgusting? While most people won’t come out and say it, if you ask them they will tell you that they find it a bit yuck. You certainly don’t have to travel far on the internet to find out that whether it is on Madonna or Sofia Loren or the woman next to you at the train station, 99% of people think armpit hair on women simply should not exist.

I have not personally encountered a single woman who would even entertain the idea of not removing her underarm hair. And when challenged, the women I have talked to about it all tell me that they choose to do it.

It took me months and lots of self doubt to finally be comfortable with my decision. My partner pulled faces and told me it was ‘manly’, but he has learned to live with it. Wearing singlets, raising my arms in public and letting the rest of the yoga class see it took some real guts on my part. This tiny decision, this thing I do for me and me only that anyone can do at any time? It was a real eye-opener. A real consciousness-shifter. A pivotal event in learning how to really make my own choices for myself.

Having our appearance micromanaged by society blocks us from dealing with the ‘bigger’ issues. The lipstick/body hair/skirt arguments are all manufactured by the patriarchy. None of those things should matter. But ‘choosing’ to shave your legs and ‘choosing’ to be a stay at home mother are two sides of the same coin, and go hand-in-hand with ‘choosing’ to be a prostitute. We are told we have a choice, but those choices are laden with threat and consequences. To you or me, feeling like you have to wear make-up  to fit in at work is a lesser hardship than feeling like you have to let men pay to rape you so you can pay your rent, so you just do it. But a win is a win. Oppression is oppression, and the ‘little’ oppressions are supposed to keep us obedient and teach us how to submit to the ‘bigger’ oppressions. You have to teach a horse to eat from your hand before your can teach it to carry a saddle and rider. And you have to teach women to ‘choose’ to shave their armpits before you can teach them to ‘choose’ to be owned, abused, humiliated and discarded.

By making that one tiny choice, I learned how to make an actual choice about what I do with my own body, regardless of the collective attitude and outside influences. Maybe next I will get a short haircut on my head or go out without a bra or shop for clothing somewhere other than the women’s section of a store.  You have to learn how to choose what you do with your own body, before you can choose to demand to be treated like a fully-fledged human being.

 

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4 thoughts on “On Choice, and Why Body Hair is a Feminist Issue

  1. Karen

    Jodie, I decided many, many years ago to stop shaving my armpits and my legs, so you DO know somebody after all. My partner at the time couldn’t understand why women would do such things in the first place, but he was a rarity in that attitude. That partner is long gone but I never returned to shaving or waxing. It bothers me greatly that kids such as my 9 yo grandson are growing up thinking that women (normal women) are hairless (as his mother and all of her friends are). Old Nana probably doesn’t count in the ‘normal’ category anyway. I know women in their 80s who still shave their legs! Why? As usual thanks for your great insights, so beautifully written. Karen

  2. Matt

    I am Matt, Jodie’s partner.

    When Jodie first stopped shaving her armpits, my response was pretty much like most men: “that’s gross”; “underarm hair is a masculine trait” etc.

    I’m fairly confident now that I had that response because that is how society had trained me to respond. If I stop and think “does this make Jodie less attractive to me?” well the answer is a resounding “NO!”

    Thankfully Jodie stuck to her guns and I can honestly say that now I hardly ever think about it. It certainly hasn’t affected our relationship in any negative way, and from the moment I first met Jodie I’ve encouraged her to make her own choices and stand up for what she believes in.

    My advice to any men who might find themselves reading this and thinking “there’s no way I’d let my partner get away with that” think about what that person means to you and how important it is to support them in making their own life choices.

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