Mary Rolfes: My body hair, my choice

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 5:33pm

College is lauded as a frontier of adolescent freedom. Leaving home for higher education is the first chance for young adults to act without constant supervision and create a personal brand. I was no exception: I became a vegetarian, started worshipping The Smiths and stopped removing my body hair. Whether because it was the most obvious or the most controversial choice I made, the last decision garnered the most attention. A lot of it was positive, but between gendered expectations for dating and for young professionals, I encountered negative reactions in the form of implicit ambivalence. 

While my body hair became a part of my identity, the negativity was still difficult to endure. A little over a year later, my decision to transfer to the University of Michigan presented the perfect opportunity for a rebranding. The razor I had previously put down was picked up again. This decision also brought negative responses, this time more internal: Was I upholding outdated patriarchal standards of womanhood? Did shaving my legs, especially for romantic purposes, make me a bad feminist?

Whether my decision was to shave or not to shave, both came with the fear of not meeting expectations. American society has strong opinions on pretty much everything women choose to do, including whether or not they remove their body hair. Letting it grow can have professional and romantic consequences; on the other hand, staying smooth may garner criticisms of conforming to sexist, unrealistic beauty standards. These contrasting opinions create a dichotomy in which it’s impossible to make the "right" choice regarding body hair and women are not free to make their own decisions. In the era of My Body, My Choice, now is the perfect time to consider all of the ways in which our bodies are legally and socially policed. This slogan has powerful potential ranging from medical procedures to the hair on our legs. Using this principle of bodily autonomy, we can create a culture where the choice to remove or not remove body hair is exactly that – a choice.

Up until recently, body hair removal for women has been all but mandatory, an expectation upheld by men, other women and mass media such as advertising. The modern practice of body hair removal began in the early 1900s with Gillette’s marketing of their women’s safety razor, but according to Rebecca Herzig, author of “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal”, bare bodies were truly established as the standard of beauty during World War II. At this point, body hair removal became the norm: By 1964, 98 percent of women regularly shaved their legs. Even now, almost every American woman will remove body hair at some point in her life, with 85 percent doing so routinely

Advertising helped begin the modern practice of hair removal and still plays a huge role in maintaining it. Typical hair removal ads of the 21st century feature images of thin, tanned women twirling around on beaches and running pink razors over already bare legs. The message is clear to me: Being beautiful and being clean-shaven are one and the same. The only way to fulfill one’s potential as a woman is to remove body hair, which is so unsightly even the advertisements for removal products won’t show it. 

This norm expands beyond the realm of beauty into standards of hygiene. As Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow describes in an article for The Guardian, a woman’s body hair is considered “inherently wrong, gross and dirty.” In fact, body hair removal is so intertwined with femininity that many men, despite being embarrassed about their body hair, won’t take part in this grooming ritual due to its “unmanly” reputation.

The past couple of years have witnessed slightly more lenient rules regarding hair removal. The proportion of women who regularly shave their underarms dropped 18 percent from 2013 to 2016 while the percentage of women who regularly shave their legs dropped by a smaller but still significant 7 percent. But for some members of the feminist community, these numbers are not enough. Even if it’s a choice, removing hair is still the oppressed choice. As Tuhus-Dubrow puts it, in some circles the only “liberated” choice, and the only one worthy of approval, is the rejection of traditional femininity. Unfortunately, this attitude is not liberating at all. Rather than abolishing an outdated norm, it simply replaces it with a new one, and women are still denied the right to absolute power over their own bodies. If you’re free, you can’t be feminine, and if you’re feminine, you can’t be free. While this all-or-nothing attitude may be well-meaning, turning an authoritative mandate into an authoritative binary still denies women the freedom of choice.

In this war on body hair, how can we place the regulatory power held by institutions into the hands of individuals? Well, since advertising got us into this mess, maybe it can help get us out. A recent example is the razor company Billie’s Project Body Hair campaign, the first to show actual female body hair, which discusses hair removal as a variety of equally valid choices (“however, whenever, if ever”) instead of as a matter of right or wrong. Whether you remove the hair on every part of your body, or just the stuff on your toes; whether shaving is a daily routine, a special occasion, or skipped altogether – it’s entirely up to you. Rather than treating shaving versus not shaving as a binary, this kind of language creates a spectrum of body hair removal, allowing a reclamation of our bodies and what we choose to do with them. Most importantly, the examples set by mass media can be carried into our personal and professional lives, so our choices are not only our own they are accepted. So wear your crop top on game day whether or not your pits are hairy. Pick out the perfect career fair look regardless of whether you’re shaving your legs. Your choice — as long as it’s your choice — is your participation in the new body hair revolution. Embrace it. Oh, and you’re allowed to shave your bodies, too.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.