Why body hair is on the frontline of feminist action

Aisha Mirza

Screen shot 2012 07 06 at 16.26 300x296 Why body hair is on the frontline of feminist actionBody hair is everywhere! At least it will be soon. In the two years since I stopped shaving, we have seen a feminist movement build and, frankly, mock the idea that it isn’t needed any more. Women today are told to be afraid of our legs and feel guilty for eating on the way to work, to hate our vaginas and our skin colour at the same time, and are even made to deal with anti-abortion protests outside of clinics because the men with power choose to regulate women’s bodies instead of the climate or, erm, the banks. We have voices. We have bodies too, and body hair is fast becoming our war paint.

A few days ago I was invited to the facebook group, “Women Against Non-Essential Grooming”. After some initial confusion as to the meaning of “grooming” in this context, I saw it was a forum for women to discuss and support each other in the trials and tribulations of growing their hair. Last week, Dr Emily Gibson made the headlines with her plea for women to leave their pubic hair alone. This sort of chat is no longer a product of my entrenchment in feminist circles. This is becoming a Thing. A Thing that’s no longer confined to postgraduate reading groups or homophobic/European stereotypes. It’s breaking out of the exuberant feminism that is emerging – onto talk shows and into parks, bars and public transport.

This month has seen the Armpits4August campaign encourage women to get sponsored to grow their underarm hair to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), symptoms of which can include obesity, acne and excessive hair growth. But this campaign is not a charity gimmick. The aim to challenge beauty norms is stated unapologetically – not whispered, or inferred:

“Armpits4August believe that we should be deeply concerned that we live in society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealised image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion…”

The sponsorship aspect is not being used to equate the act of growing body hair to a unicycle ride to Bournemouth dressed as one of the power puff girls. It is being used as a hook, to build a safe and supportive space for women who may not have ever considered letting their hair grow, or considered themselves feminists, to experiment. This campaign, unlike much of the feminism before us, acknowledges the differences between women, and works against the activist trap of preaching to the converted. It understands that the experience of body hair for a white, blonde woman in an office is a very different one from that of a Middle-Eastern woman on a university campus. We are individuals, but we can be united in this joint experiment – the blessing of social media.

More and more women are seeing what it feels like to save that money, pain and time. And that’s not just the time it takes to remove hair, but the time spent thinking about it. Planning it so you’re freshly hairless for your date on Tuesday, but that it has grown back enough to be waxed before your holiday the following week.

This stuff is so deeply internalised, that for many women, feminism and activism begin alone, looking in your bathroom mirror. It comes in that moment when you gasp – you realise how weird, how completely nuts it is that every single woman you know scrapes and pulls out her body hair, unquestioningly and forever. Like robots. Like sexy little fembots; the greatest marketing success in history.

Direct action is not just the forte of groups like UK Uncut. When a woman stops completing the routine that all of the women she sees and knows have been completing diligently since puberty, it is direct action. A private rewiring of her brain, or a public protest, a declaration to everyone who is watching (and at rush hour on the Central Line, that’s quite a few people, trust me) that so many of women’s choices have been buried by heavy expectation and societal norms. This is Everyday Feminism. This is the personal becoming political. This action has a ripple effect. It’s a war cry for a critical eye. And that eye is contagious, as we have seen from the consistent gender critique of the Olympics, and the incredulous coverage of waxing kits for under fifteen-year-olds being described as natural and ‘PLEASANT’.

This is not about condemning other women. We must be kind to each other and easy on ourselves as we draw our battle lines. When I say I’m having a bad hair day, I’m usually referring to my moustache and on the way to remove it, with some sort of cream that burns and smells like eggs or threading, that pulls it out in little clumps. That’s my personal limit and that’s OK.

As the government cuts come into full swing, it looks like more women will leave work to look after their children and girls will be deterred from pursuing higher education and enjoying the privilege that the creators of Armpits4August and I have had. But as our choices continue to be limited by the Government, we will find choices we never even knew we had. Body hair begins to cut through the privilege that has caged feminism. It is simple. We all have it. It says: you have the freedom to make a choice. And what’s feminism if not that?

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  • silkie_sea

    Not sure links work, so google ‘Ariel Levy thongs guardian’ and you’ll find an extract from her book (Female Chauvinist Pigs) printed in The Guardian.

    It’s been a while since I read the book, but the rise of the thong, the stripper entering the mainstream, the evolution of porn culture online popularising the aesthetic of the ‘hairless bubble-gum pink vagina + tiny labia’ – all these elements played a substantial part in the pressure for women to shave today.

    Also related- the ‘cum on her face’ convention that’s in vogue at the moment is another product of online porn culture. I recall a study done in the UK which found that young men were ejaculating on their partner’s face without asking, assuming it was the norm because it’s so widespread in the porn they’d watched – for most of them, their sole source for understanding how sex works and what the female body looks like.

  • bensouthwood

    Largely because women have lower skills (due to taking more time off for pregnancy and raising children), choose lower paid careers (socialisation?), and represent a risk for employers due to pregnancy-related leave. It’s largely not a labour market issue, but a much deeper-rooted problem.

  • chokobo

    @fairgo hit the nail on the head. Rabiitlug, I also loved your story. No, I don’t think you’re a chauvinist pig, but I do think that you’re fairly unpleasant to debate with.

  • rabbitlug

    I can live with that. I just get annoyed when people give off the impression that they are an authority on a subject simply because they have an opinion.

    I cannot stand the victim mentality either, it hold a person back and makes them appear pathetic. I have personally heard all of the following:

    “I don’t know, I am just a woman!” From a 20 something who had broken down in rush hour traffic and who I stopped to help. I’d asked when she last put air in the tyres.

    Worse still, the “I am too stupid” response to anything.

    Feminism raises serious issues and I am utterly and totally committed to equality. What irked me about this article is that the action of the writer is derisable, it cheapens the whole movement. It could be argued that, by stimulating debate, the writer has cleverly achieved her aim and brought feminism to the forefront again, but so would sh*tting on someone’s desk whilst dressed as a chicken.

    With regard to some commenters, I feel not need to be polite.when what they write is contemptuous drivel. However, if someone is polite to me, then I will always reciprocate, particularly if they make any deep and meaningful points.

  • oatc

    You aren’t my teacher; you are just under the deluded impression that you are.

    I’m not bustling in to tell women; I’m a woman defending my own personal dislike of hair on my own body against people who seem intent upon seizing and once again misusing the name of feminism to attempt to police our bodies. Which is not feminism at all.

    Unfortunately the physical causes of hirsuitism also cause aggression.

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