“Oi Nicola! Don’t you know what a Bic is?”
“Yeh, it’s a pen.” I yelled back.
This is the first time I remember being shamed for my body hair. I was 12. Wit this quick has eluded me ever since.
One Spring day some months later I stretched out my rounders-bat-legs in the weak sunshine. I thankfully spotted the fuzz of hairs poking through my tights before anyone else did.
And then there were the 16-year-old sometime-friends-sometime-tormentors who would serenade me with Hairy Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow after one spotted an errant pube poking out the side of my knickers when we changed for PE.
The message that body hair on girls and women is something to be ashamed of starts early. It is reinforced by societal expectations, a constant stream of TV and magazine ads for hair removal products, and by the images of smooth female bodies seen across the whole of the media, including in pornography (a problem certainly exacerbated by how easily accessible porn has been for the last decade or so).
It’s also a message that is looking increasingly out-dated as feminism rides high on a long-overdue wave of rejuvenation.
The “politicisation of hair” is not new by any stretch however. A quick Google of the term will provide a slew of articles about how the hair of black women in particular has been politicised over decades, if not centuries. Pressure to wear their natural hair in styles that adhere to Eurocentric/ White constructed beauty and professional standards is something many black women have experienced. It is something that Emma Dabiri explains far better than I ever could (or should) in her article for The New Statesman, The politics of black hair .
Hairy armpits have also long been seen as a political statement. The decision to let it grow is a rejection of expectations forced on women by society, but it is commonly dismissed as evidence of man-hate and the tendency to burn ones bra. Despite the function of armpit hair being to push sweat and odour-causing bacteria away from the skin, the reputation of hairy armpits as unhygienic also prevails.
Over the years there have been repeated attempts from different quarters to encourage young women to reject the notion that they should shave, pluck, wax, bleach or chemically burn away their body hair. In 2015 Miley Cyrus courted press after she dyed her armpit hair pink, and in 2017 Wonder Woman’s lack of armpit hair triggered feminist debate. Some commentators wondered if Hollywood had retreated to the safety of the “ideal” female aesthetic in place of the feminist values the warrior was supposed to embody:
It’s really hard to believe that Wonder Woman, who has been on an island filled with strong women her entire life, is worried about waxing and then bleaching her pits… That is a time-consuming process and she’s a little too busy training ‘10 times harder’ with the Amazons so that she can, you know, save the world.Refinery 29
The latest in this long history of debate has been provoked by a new campaign dubbed #januHAIRY that is quickly gaining pace across social media. Started originally as a fundraising campaign by charity bodygossip.org , the movement has grown in a matter of days to over 7k followers (and over 2.9k posts using the #) on Instagram, and a slot on Good Morning Britain yesterday.
When faced with this challenge to social norms, Piers Morgan reacted with his customary bluster. It’s safe to assume this archetype of British man does not shave his pits but strangely no one on the show seemed remotely concerned for his hygiene…
Meanwhile the disproportionate importance placed on women’s body hair, and the potential personal cost to women who transgress, was exemplified when guest Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace physically gagged at the sight of Kate Smurthwaite’s under-arm hair.
A quick scan of Twitter and it is clear that Morgan and Horgan-Wallace are not alone in their judgement. Body and facial hair on women is condemned as “disgusting”, “revolting”, “lazy” and one women commented “No chance. I take pride in my appearance”. This demonstrates how social conditioning still has many people convinced that a woman’s worth is linked to what she looks like.
The message is that a woman has to be smooth and hairless to be valued. It’s a narrative thick with emphasis on youth – and its associated lack of status, power or threat – as important when assessing a woman’s place in society. It’s a narrative quite startling in its brazen sexism.
Despite this Morgan argued that Reid’s admission that she wouldn’t grow her body hair was evidence of a general lack of value in the campaign, an idea reflected in Horgan-Wallace’s claim that #januHAIRY wouldn’t help in the wider fight for gender equality.
What both of them failed to realise is that their resistance to the idea of body hair on women is exactly why the campaign is so important.
The narrative of hairlessness being intrinsic to our worth as women is so engrained in us that even wide awake feminists recoil at the sight of our own armpit hair. This learned behaviour is especially damaging for people suffering from medical conditions such as PCOS which causes excessive hair growth and associated torment for many sufferers.
But an attitude of disgust for our natural state is problematic for us all when you consider the question, Who decided hairlessness was desirable in the first place, and why?
The decision whether or not to remove our body hair should only ever be a personal one. But in today’s world it is not – grooming a full leg of hair is still considered a radical act that attracts disgust, derision and condemnation from wider society. This is why this campaign is worthwhile and important. This is also why I won’t be growing my own arm pit hair.
Yes, this is lame, but it’s also evidence of how awareness of the structures of oppression is not the same as being ready to live outside them. Some of the slipperiest obstacles to overcome in the fight for gender equality are the illusions of freedom of choice that, once made, actually come at considerable personal cost. I’m grateful to anyone prepared to pick up this bill.