Being 12, for me, was the year of entering womanhood. There were the less exciting parts of growing up, of course, ranging from periods to shopping for bras to being catcalled. There were also the aspects, such as shaving, that felt like rites of passage. It was something every woman in my life just did, so it felt like the important and right thing to do.
The brand of feminism my peers and I grew up with is far different from what our parents grew up with. My parents grew up in the ’80s, at a time when feminists were treated as the butt of the joke. We grew up with a sort of pop culture feminism; commercials preaching “girl power” echoed through our living rooms and we could buy shirts and anything of the sort to announce our allegiance.
Feminism has become commercialized, individualized and liberalized from its more radical roots. Female empowerment is now often a marketing ploy and much of the political movement has lost traction in favor of a more agreeable feminism often called “choice feminism.”
On the surface, it appears difficult to argue against choice feminism. It encourages women to recognize the breadth of choices afforded to us by more than a century of political movement. Choice feminism states that seizing these decisions puts empowerment in the hands of women, as they are now able to make these decisions for themselves. Perhaps most importantly, this ideology brought a larger coalition to the movement. For women who were wary of the radical aspects of feminism, choice feminism provided them with both empowerment and the ability to make decisions that would have been viewed under a more critical eye in the past. Stay-at-home mothers, for instance, may be included in this grouping. Where homemakers might have felt cast aside or looked down upon by previous feminist movements, they now have an alliance accepting of their choices.
The issue with choice feminism is that binary options are often framed as equal. While two options may have their own separate pros and cons, a choice made by a feminist — or a woman — is not itself inherently feminist. Being granted the opportunity to decide your future or aspects of your identity is not an example of agency, but oftentimes reinforces the patriarchy and fails to recognize external factors of importance. The choice between working or homemaking, while one and the same for some, is not so equal for families facing economic disadvantages.
This inequality of choice is true of grooming practices, too. As Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner’s 2016 study demonstrates, there’s greater benefits to be found (namely, a higher income) for a woman who grooms to a standard of attractiveness compared to one who does not.
Choice feminism also seems to disregard social factors and their influence when it comes to making these sorts of decisions. While shaving one’s legs, for example, may not always be done with the intent to impress, this is an aesthetic shaped by the past century. Amid changing post-war fashion, clean-shaven legs and armpits became the new and long-lasting norm. Choices don’t happen in a vacuum; rather, they are born of some varying mix of our own free will as well as our circumstances.
Since the time I first started shaving, about seven years ago, my attitude toward my body hair has varied widely. I went from almost obsessively shaving my legs in middle school to vowing I would never shave again in the middle of high school to now only shaving when I feel like it.
There’s a lot of benefits to infrequent shaving. I save a decent amount of money and time, for one, and a bit of extra leg hair is always a bit helpful when trekking between classes in a bitter Michigan winter. It also wards off people who probably aren’t worth my time; if anyone’s so put off by something as natural as body hair, I don’t think we’d really get along.
At the same time, I still feel the occasional pressure to shave. When I know I’ll be wearing a skirt or a dress, I want my legs to look “nice”; it’s difficult to discern whether that urge is due to a societal ideal of what a woman should look like or whether it’s a result of my own aesthetic preferences.
I must also acknowledge the greater ease with which I can still be perceived as feminine while disregarding shaving. As someone white, thin and cisgender, I easily fit into Western standards of beauty. Sure, my leg hair might raise a few brows, but other aspects of myself, from my body itself to the clothes I wear, demonstrate a more “acceptable” womanhood. Other groups, from women of Color to butch women, face far more questioning than I do.
Choice feminism, in assuming that we have already done all the work of liberation, concludes that all choices made are equal — that these choices are an option everyone has, and not a means of survival or a way of obtaining some level of respect.
Even when taking the feminist aspect out of the equation, bodily autonomy is a vital right. The decision to shave or to do whatever women want with their body is their decision and their decision alone. Even for someone who is a feminist, they need not bear the weight of an entire movement on their shoulders every time they make these decisions.
But with all that being said, it’s also important to judge the implications of the decisions we make. This does not mean being judgmental of the choices others make, but rather using a critical lens to investigate why we ourselves make such decisions. Some may not shave for aesthetics at all, and instead for sensory reasons or for sports. Rejecting choice feminism and opting for a more political form of feminism simply means examining what our choices and their consequences — good, bad and neutral — may mean for a political movement aiming toward liberation for all.
On my own end, I’m still investigating what each of these decisions mean to me. I don’t see myself picking up shaving with the same voracity I had as a preteen, but I know I’ll still be dealing with the dilemma as long as it’s the norm. If there ever comes a time when I end up shaving regularly — or maybe even waxing — and it truly is hurting more than it helps, I hope the time, money and annoyance when I find I’ve missed another spot once again is punishment enough. At the end of the day, being a feminist means more than just making decisions for yourself — it also means making the personal political, even when it comes to the small, everyday decisions.
Audra M. Woehle is an Opinion Columnist who writes about gender and sexuality in popular culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.