The Symbolic Nature of Feminine Body Hair
I remember when I was just a little girl and saw my sister’s roommate’s armpits. Being the free spirit that she was they were hairy and I remember the chaos this caused in my family. It was SO taboo… Now as I grow older and learn more about myself I find her unabashed feminine beauty exhilarating, sexy and admirable…
- Cathy, USA (from Internet: http://www.yoni.com/loverf/armpits.shtml)
It is common practice for women in American society to pluck, shave, wax, or otherwise remove body hair from various parts of their bodies. This paper seeks to investigate why women go through these rituals, how they feel about them, and why they would stop removing body hair from their bodies when it violates the definition of gender that society has written for females. How much does the woman who does not participate in body hair removal practices change her gender-role identity? “Gender-role identity refers to how much a person approves of and participates in feelings and behaviors which are seen as ‘appropriate’ for his/her gender” (Kessler, 10).
Informants were informally interviewed for approximately 20 minutes or via email. Some interviews lasted considerably longer, while a few were very short. Informants ranged in age from 20 to 46 years of age. All consider themselves, and are considered by society to be female. No specific set of questions was asked, but topics covered included age of first shave, what body hair is removed, and why body hair is or is not removed.
Information, such as advertisements, was taken from various sources, including the internet and popular magazines.
I did not discuss my body hair removal practices prior to interviewing the informants, although at least one knew of them. I personally let both my leg and armpit hair grow, and quite prefer it to shaving on at least a bi-weekly basis.
Adolescence and Body Hair
Whether you’re at a party with that “skimpy little black number” that shows off your legs, on the beach in a reveal-all bikini, or face-to-face with that special someone, you’ll want smooth, sexy skin without any ugly unwanted hair.
Ad for ‘Showgirl Sugar’ (Internet: http://www.sugarit.com/info1.htm
Several informants began shaving at the age of 12 or 13. All started at least in part because “everyone else” was doing it. One said that among seventh grade girls shaving was a “hot topic” and she wanted to have “grown-up legs.” Another, who currently takes a lassez-faire attitude toward shaving, said that when she began shaving she shaved it “all off.” If you didn’t shave it was “bad . . . unattractive.” When questioned about where she got the idea that body hair was unacceptable, she replied “from society as a whole . . . there are no sexy models with hairy legs.” Another informant began because people made fun of her, saying “damn, girl, you gotta shave your legs.”
Two informants even fought for the right to shave their legs. One “snuck behind her mother’s back” to begin shaving, and another had to convince her mother, and then was only permitted to shave using electric razors. A third informant approached her mother, saying “I want to shave.” Not a single informant reported parental pressure to begin shaving.
Adolescents tend to suffer from a desire to fit in and be like everyone else. They are particularly susceptible to pressure put on them by their peers and by the media. They “find it difficult to resist or even question the dominant cultural messages perpetuated and reinforced by the media” (Rothenberg, 348). In ads for razors or other shaving products, models are often shown from a perspective that lengthens their legs, creating an image of impossibly long silken legs. The omnipresent smooth long legged model has a great influence on the way young women visualize their perfect self. Leg, armpit, or facial hair does not fit into this image. (See figure 1.) “The body-image . . . is the result of the internalization of the body-image of others . . .. Overall, what is significant about this body-image is that it is neither practical nor cultural . . . it is a threshold term occupying both positions” (Moore, 22).
Young women are further socialized to see their body hair as unattractive to males. (Of course, in the dominant culture, especially as practiced by teen magazines and adolescents, there is no leeway made for those women who are not attracted to men. All women are considered to be either heterosexual or deviant.) YM, a popular teen girl’s magazine, reflects this view that males dislike body hair on females. “80% of the boys we polled would run and hide from hairy legs. Even more have a freakfest over armpit hair: a whopping 89%” (See figure 2).
Feelings of Attractiveness and Cleanliness
A young marketing executive with the Wilkinson Sword Company, who also made razor blades for men, designed a campaign to convince the women of North America that: a. Underarm hair was unhygienic and b. unfeminine.
In two years the sales of razor blades doubled as our grandmothers and great grandmothers made themselves conform to this socially constructed gender stereotype.
- Why Women Shave Their Legs (Internet: http://reseau.chebucto.ns.ca/CommunitySupport/Men4Change/shavelegs.html)
Q: How do you feel when you can not remove your body hair for a period of time? (Because of sickness, etc.)
A: “I feel like a hairy monger. I don’t feel as good about myself . . . dirty, skanky.”
A: “I wear pajama [pants] to bed. I hate for my legs to rub together. I don’t let [my husband] touch my legs.”
A:”I stopped for a while and didn’t like it . . . I felt unfeminine, messy . . . like I didn’t take care of myself . . . embarrassed. (only in front of guys) . . . [Now] I feel dirty when I can’t shave. Grungy. It’s just like ugh yuck. Kind of dirty. Especially with pale legs and dark hair, gross. If only I had blond leg hair.”
“Long, short, thin or chunky, love your legs . . . your shave will be close and your skin soft. So whatever shape your legs are, they’re perfect.” (Philips ad, figure 3)
The message that filters through into adulthood is that women who are clean-shaven are just that: clean, as well as attractive. This is primarily a North-American phenomenon, regarded as a cultural truth to those who practice body-hair removal. However, males rarely remove body hair and are not considered unclean because of this. It is a culturally constructed uncleanliness, rather than a concept grounded in reality.
There is a substantial cultural denigration of those women who do not prefer to be shaven. “People have very different ways of treating those whom they regard as physically attractive and those whom they consider physically unattractive” (Snyder, 325). Body hair, particularly armpit hair, is seen as dirty, messy, and bad. The woman with armpit hair is considered to be “not as feminine, well-kept or groomed” in the words of one informant.
In a thesis study conducted by a psychology major at Lafayette in 1995 it was found that “people perceived the woman with body hair as less sexually attractive, sociable, intelligent, positive, and happy than the woman without body hair. At the same time, they saw the woman with body hair as more active, stronger, and more aggressive. These are typically masculine traits that are generally viewed as positive in this culture. They are not viewed as particularly feminine, however, and thus take on negative connotations here. This creates a conflict for women — femininity or culturally valued traits of strength and activity?” (Internet: http://www.lafayette.edu/~paper/spring96/march29/feature1.htm). This certainly points to the effect that other people have on the decision to remove body hair. One informant called it a “pain in the neck,” and no informant, even when specifically questioned about it, professed enjoying the actual ritual of removal. So if a practice is not pleasant, can result in cuts, scratches, and painful bumps, why is it so widespread?
Hair is seen as a culturally male cue. Not removing leg and armpit hair can seem to disrupt the process that results in a decision about a person’s gender. “There is an ongoing process, certain procedures to follow . . . which result in a decision about a person’s gender” (Kessler, viii). While not shaving does not in itself bring about a decision of ‘male,’ it creates an uncomfortable confusion in the decider’s mind which reflects back onto the person being considered.
Sexuality and Body Hair
I prefer to be clean shaven . . . I also know that during those times when I don’t shave, I retain a lot more body odor/scent, regardless of soap and deodorant. That in itself may be another cultural/religious thing… being an Irish-Catholic, the message was to keep the body clean in ALL ways – celibacy included. Can’t go ’round give off all sorts of scents without facing the consequences!
Mary, USA (Internet: http://www.yoni.com/loverf/armpits.shtml
Q: How would you feel differently about your sexuality if you could no longer shave your legs?
A: I wouldn’t wear skirts . . . short skirts . . . I’d feel less sexual. Women have nice smooth legs, if you don’t you’re not attractive.
A: It would weird [my boyfriend] out. It’s a gender-identified thing. It’s sexy when it’s smooth and stuff.
American women identify strongly with their bodies. A body that is unattractive (as a hairy female body is seen) is not a sexy body. A woman without a sexy body has a hard time considering herself sexy. A sexy woman does not have leg or armpit hair (See figure 4).
I fell in love with an older man during college who told me he would be much more attracted to me if I would stop. I did, and the effects were numerous. Instead of being insecure about my ‘hairyness,’ it made me more confident sexually. Jeanne, USA (Internet: http://www.yoni.com/loverf/armpits.shtml
In fact, several informants said that male partners did not care whether they removed body hair. “Boys don’t care,” said one informant, who removes her body hair infrequently during the winter. One informant, a bisexual woman, said that she personally did not care whether her female partners were “hairy or not.” Another informant, who had briefly experimented with not shaving her leg hair, related an incident in which a male she was dating saw her unshaven legs. She apologized for the hairiness of her legs, blaming it on the influence of her roommate. He said “It’s okay.” In embarrassment, she shaved her legs the following day. Clearly, the force that motivates body hair removal is not always the disapproval of male partners.
Letting hair grow can be an enjoyable experience. One informant considers her armpit hair to be “kind of cute,” though she does shave it before wearing clothing that would expose her armpits. Another informant, who had not shaved for quite a long while, resumed removing her body hair “because [she] was tired of being an unshaven undergrad and explaining to everyone why,” not because of any feelings of uncleanliness or perceived loss of femininity.
Body hair removal is a widespread phenomenon among American women. It is considered feminine, hygienic, and attractive, where non-removal of body hair is considered masculine, unclean, and ugly. These socially constructed truths are pushed on adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to influence. This ideal of a hairless woman continues in women’s minds through adulthood, where the ritual of body hair is continued, although it is unpleasant, and many intimate partners do not have a strong dislike for body hair. The culturally constructed definition of gender is hard to overcome, or even question, for most women. “Gender is, in the first place, a social fact” (Kessler), and it is a social fact that influences every aspect of women’s lives in American society. A woman who does not remove her body hair can be construed as being part of the unacceptable model discussed by Cheung. “The unacceptable model is unacceptable because he cannot be controlled by whites. The acceptable model is acceptable because he is tractable. There is racist hate and racist love” (236). A woman who does not present herself as tractable and cooperative to the norms of patriarchal society is refusing to bow to a definition of femininity that she does not agree with. She is refusing sexist love.