I distinctly remember when I began shaving my body hair regularly. It was summer and thus posters, billboards and tv ads were rife with bikini clad women with smooth, tan bodies and sun kissed faces with a smatter of freckles across their delicate noses. I was 13 years old and had just started working at McDonalds and earning money for the first time. It was shit money, but for a 13 year old it felt like a lot. I went shopping for a new bikini and bought one in my favourite colour: yellow. It was the first one I had picked out and bought myself and I was thrilled. There was just one small problem: hair. I already had quite a dark patch of pubic hair which could be slightly seen through the pastel yellow bikini. No big deal, I thought, I’ll just shave it off. And so began a 15 year battle to shave, pluck, wax and shoot laser beams into my skin in an attempt to look like the women in those summertime ads. I tried anything and everything to get rid of my hair, which is thick and dark. Even if I have shaved my armpits you can see the shadow of the hair under the skin, so I would spend huge amounts of time and money applying full body makeup before burlesque performances, just so the audience could be spared that dark shadow. I worked, for a time, at a strip club and of course body hair was carefully curated. I kept the traditional ‘landing strip’ but the rest of my pubic hair had to go. There was one dancer at the club who had a full muff. All the other dancers talked about her behind her back and laughed at her, but I was envious. “I wish I could keep my hair” I thought to myself. It never occurred to me that I could.
I dabbled here and there with not shaving, but I always had burlesque gigs or nights at the club so out came the razor again. It was such a chore and I revelled in the occasional couple of weeks off where I could go au naturel and no one except my husband would know, and he didn’t care. I would always wear a sleeved top though so it was just between us. I only lasted for a year at the strip club (I was really quite terrible at it) and I started to wind down the burlesque gigs I was performing in so these hairy holidays came around more often. The real turning point for me was when I became pregnant. I was so tired during my pregnancy that I could only just find the energy to lean against the wall in the shower, let alone go through the contortions required to shave (although, I will confess, I shaved my legs about 3 days before I gave birth. I have no idea what possessed me to do such a thing! It was very difficult with my huge belly and it seems ridiculous looking back on). After giving birth my care factor around my body hair was absolutely zero, and it really hasn’t changed since then. I do still sometimes shave my legs because they sometimes itch with long hair, plus smooth legs feel wonderful in clean sheets, but my armpits are a forest of soft dark hair and my pubic hair could rival that of a 70s porn star. I don’t care about anyone seeing it these days and quite happily sport tank tops with my hair out and proud. I dread to think of the amount of time and money I have spent over the years on hair removal. Waxing and laser appointments, razors, eyebrow threading, and body makeup as well as treatments for ingrown hairs. The pain. So much pain.
Women and men have been modifying their body hair for various reasons like religion and hygiene (such as avoiding lice infestations) for time immemorial. However it wasn’t commonplace in western society until the beginning of the 20th century, when razor companies began to take advantage of the newest fashions which exposed more skin to sell more razors to a whole new demographic: women. Body hair is an ‘embarrassing personal problem’, and ‘a feature of good dressing and good grooming is to keep the underarm white and smooth’ according to one of the earliest adverts for a women’s razor in 1915. Women’s magazines, which previously had been only about fashion, began incorporating beauty sections into their pages and running hair removal adverts, further spreading the message that a tuft hair was a horror to be avoided at all costs. By the time 1950s came around it was common for women to remove all of their armpit and leg hair, and once the thong or g-string became commonplace the bikini wax also became an essential part of a woman’s routine. Now it’s a given that a woman should be hairless down there: a recent survey of 3300 women in the US found that 84% of them shaved their pubic hair. Movies, tv shows and ads tell us it is ludicrous to think you can go on a date with even a smidge of hair in unwanted places and if you do, you’d better not invite them back to your place. The horror! Lately there has been some reclaiming of body hair, such as photos of women dyeing their armpit hair going viral, but such women are seen as outliers rather than the norm.
I firmly believe in women making their own choices and I’m not saying women should or shouldn’t remove their body hair. If removing it makes you feel good: go for it! It’s your choice. But it’s important to remember that our choices are not made in a vacuum. They are informed by the messages we are sent relentlessly on a day to day basis. If societal forces continue to tell us that body hair is bad, then daring to grow it is seen as an act of defiance. Being defiant can be scary, and hard, and this is not always the easiest choice to make. When I stopped shaving I didn’t mean it as a statement, or an act of defiance, but after living in happy cohabitation with my hair I resent shaving it off purely because it is expected that I do so. It is part of my identity now and I feel nothing but affection for my hair. I gleefully sport sleeveless tops and, yes, my husband still likes to have sex with me. I love lying on the couch in my underwear, headphones in as I listen to a podcast, one arm thrown above my head showing off my thicket of underarm hair, and with the other absentmindedly curling my pubic hair around my fingers.