This was a question of great controversy in my high school years. But first let it be known that I am a white female with mostly blond hair, which means the insecurities of body hair didn’t affect me nearly as much as some of the girls I grew up with.
That being said, I still worried in pre school that having too much hair in any particular area (other than my head) would compromise my femininity. At age 12 I found my first reason to shave- One day during music class, the boy beside me began to joke about how long my arm hair was. So that night I went home and took my dad’s razor to it, the entire time afraid that It would grow back darker than it had been before (all the girls in my grade warned me that would happen).
It was that paranoia, not personal choice- that each time it would grow back even darker, which prevented me from ever shaving my arms again. Of course the same logic applied to my legs and I still forced myself to shave those. It seemed that in order to be a woman, which I so desperately wanted to be, I had no choice but to remove my leg hair.
Though I enjoyed the confidence that my bare legs provided, I can’t say that I was doing it for myself. Looking back at those years now, it’s the urgency that gives it away: rapidly scraping a razor over skin in the car ride to school with nothing but water from a plastic bottle to wet it. My mom warned me while driving that such a practice would result in cuts but I kept going and in the end, went to class with small blood spots scattering my legs.
And that’s just the lower half. Can you imagine the pressure to shave one’s armpits? The boys were proud of their pit hair in elementary- what I assume was then an indication of manhood. But a girl was meant to be ashamed by it. To forget to shave it and go to school in a loose shirt or tank top was an unbearable embarrassment, one which I undertook numerous times. It meant spending the day keeping my arms down and refusing to answer a teacher’s question even If I knew the answer before anyone else. I was sure my class mates would think I was gross if they saw what was growing underneath my arm, and I was reminded of this many times by my best friend in high school. Nearly the same time that I was made aware of bikini lines.
Photo by Claire McCulloch. Illustration my own.
Yes, the exact same person who spent high school lecturing me about my arm hair advised that I ‘clean up’ my pubic area too. Girls in high school were expected to go to the beach with their friends and post pictures in bikinis (not one pieces, unless one were taking lessons at the public pool). But my mother was a believer in the natural and encouraged me to leave my hairy region alone as a form of comfort, even for ventures to the beach. So in my first two years of high school I went to the beach with my full bush, tiny curly hairs peeping out the sides of my striped ralph Lauren bikini bottoms.
Photo by Claire McCulloch. Illustration my own.
My friends must have thought it was some form of awful, at least if I wanted to be as attractive and popular as I had so often wished to be. I could only take so many looks before I heeded their advice and booked a (Brazilian) bikini wax at our local mall- evidently my best option if I wanted to remove all the hair at once. And let me tell you, it was absolutely terrifying.
For one, I had always been more comfortable with my top half then my bottom and had nightmares about being caught without pants (and underwear) at school. For two, I had never been fully naked below the waist in front of a person who wasn’t my mother or sister. The wax lady told me to remove my pants and underwear while she left the room and returned to find me half naked on her table. She spread my legs and used strips to take off rows of my hair at a time. Hot wax to get the hairs closer to my vagina. And then I left. Pink skinned and $50 shorter.
I’ve realized since that day that I can maintain my shaved region with a razor, and therefore never have to book another wax appointment. My skin itches when the hair starts to grow out, but I prefer to keep it bare. For myself? I’m not entirely sure I can say that. I asked my mother her thoughts on the decision to shave, but she hasn’t gone a day in her life without a full bush of hair. And my grandmother neither, however she attests that decision to the habits of her generation rather than her personal preference.
What we concluded, my mother, grandmother and I, is that too often young women place their power of control in others. We give our power to the boys we want to attract and the girls we want to impress rather than keeping it within ourselves. *I say ‘boys’ not to invalidate same sex relationships but to rather acknowledge a patriarchal expectation that is placed on women, one which doesn’t exist to the same degree in queer communities.
The day I shaved my arms, I had given my power to the boy sitting beside me. And the day I booked my wax, I gave my power to my best friend. Within society women are often pressured to assume the appearance that men idolize. And it’s not always possible, so we envy those who can attain it. The ones with perfect bikini lines and bare legs. It is these societal expectations that I need to let go of- as well as the need to be accepted by those who don’t accept me back. So I have to ask myself, who am I handing my power off to?
Quote from my hair baring grandmother: If you accept your body, you can accept the bodies of others. If you can love yourself, you are capable of loving other people.