admiration, arm pit hair, bodies, body hair, capitalism, choice, connection, control, disgust, fascination, female body hair, female objectification, feminism, fetish, fetishisation, gilette, gross, hair removal, hirsutism, instagram, intimacy, male gaze, manufacturing needs, normative behaviour, norms, objectification, patriarchy, photography, razors, selfie, selfie culture, shame, social media, taboo, vulnerability, womanhood, women, womens issues, womens rights
On 22nd March 2015 my dear and inspirational friend Anais Charles published a piece on her blog about Shame and Women’s Body Hair. You may wonder why I begin my first blog post here with a link elsewhere, but Anais’ blog post was influential for me – both in beginning my first (public) blog, and in beginning to accept my own body in its natural form.
I was one of her muses, a word I don’t mind using in this context, even though I have found it problematic before (a model, a muse…something to be gazed at). I participated in her photoshoot. I showed my body hair, I WORE my body hair, proudly, whilst she photographed me. It was an intimate experience. It was at times an uncomfortable experience – I don’t like to see myself in photographs unless I have full control. It was, however, ultimately an incredibly empowering experience, to work creatively with someone whom I trust so much to represent me in this way.
The other reason I begin my first blog post by directing you elsewhere, is to provide context for what I wish to write now. If you have followed the link, you have read Anais’ words and viewed Anais’ photographs. You have seen some of my body hair on show, and understood the vulnerability that comes with doing this. I pushed myself: not only with Anais, but with the whole wonderful web. I posted the three final photographs of myself from the blog on my Instagram account. What happened next astounded me.
Whilst Anais was counting up the stats on her blog, racing into the hundreds, then the thousands within hours and from more countries as I could name off the top of my head, I was racking up likes and new followers over on Instagram. I should feel happy, you’re probably thinking. I should be revelling in the growing number people who like images of me, because that’s how this narcissistic ‘selfie culture’ works…isn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong, I did want people to see: I wanted more blog exposure for Anais, and I also wanted to share my pride in myself for exposing myself in a culture that finds body hair “gross”, “disgusting”, “dirty” and “ewwwww” (just some of the comments we received). In line with what is becoming the norm with most social media, I attached hashtags to my images: #bodyhair, #feminism, #fuckthepatriarchy and #screwcapitalism (in line with the capitalist ‘manufacture of needs’ which companies invested in us removing hair so kindly do for us).
I didn’t have many followers on that Sunday morning. Those I did have were friends and acquaintances. Now, it’s an entirely different story. My ‘follower list’ has over doubled, and it’s still going. Ping. Ping. Ping. New notifications; new likes; new comments; new followers. It is incessant. What’s bothering me about this, you may ask? What’s bothering me is that about nine of out of every ten of my new followers are male.
How did they come to my account? Are they especially interested in feminism? In screwing capitalism, or fucking over the patriarchy? (In her book ‘The Last Taboo’, Karín Lesnik-Oberstein asserts that “such taboos as body hair may disrupt some of the silence, invisibility and closure of collusion (even, or especially if, unintended) with capitalist patriarchy” (2006:6)). Or are they fetishizing over female body hair? I fear, and actually do feel, that it is the latter. Of course, I will never know for sure, but the trend of them going through my account and liking every photograph with me in it, and every photograph of me showing my body hair, is surely a strong indication to any critical eye that they are particularly interested in looking at me. They want to look at me! They want to look at me? Oh. They want to look at me. That’s weird, I think, and I want to move on, but I can’t.
I put my image out there, and yet I now feel objectified. And I feel that my body, or specifically my body hair, has been fetishized, because the likelihood of them finding my account through the ‘bodyhair’ hashtag is high. Maybe I am being a cynic; too sceptical, too negative and down on men. Maybe I’m turning into one of ‘those’ feminists (groan) for whom ‘men can’t do right for doing wrong’. Or maybe, just maybe, I remain objectified. My body is mine, and the choice not to remove my hair is mine, and the choice to put the images online was mine, but the control over how they are viewed, how my body is viewed, is no longer mine. Somehow I feel like I am making myself into a victim, a victim of my own ‘fun feminism’, a victim of my own ‘rebellion’. How can this be? Shouldn’t I be glad that my hair isn’t being pathologized as “hirsutism”, or defined as ‘disgusting’? Maybe it is. One of my concerns is of course that the followers are morbidly fascinated, to the point of grossed out hysteria over my hair. That thought has not escaped me. It just doesn’t tally with the comments about how beautiful I apparently am. I’m getting stuck in a perpetual cycle of image determining my worth, and my worth determining my image. So I remain trapped: trapped by the patriarchal norms I hoped to challenge; trapped by my choices – for I can’t do right for doing wrong. Do I have free choice? Or will my choices always be confined within a tense conflict between admiration and taboo?
I’m not sure that I will ever know the answer to that, from others’ perspectives. I should of course turn to myself and decide how I feel about my body hair and what I perceive to be a choice informed by desire and not commercialism and capitalism. It is up to me to challenge the embarrassment and fear of judgement I feel when I am hairy, if, of course, I decide I want to be hairy. Sometimes I feel comfortable with my hair. Sometimes I don’t. Most of the time, I walk a line between comfort with some hair and internalised disgust at other hair.
I pay to have my eyebrows and chin threaded. I sit in the chair in the window of my local Superdrug store, knowing full well I am in full view of every single member of the public passing through what is a very busy shopping arcade. The beautician barely speaks to me, except to utter sharp demands to hold and pull here or stretch the skin there. She uses the cotton to carefully pluck out each unwanted hair one by one. It hurts. Pain filled tears roll down my face, and yet I am okay with this. I consent. What I am absolutely not okay with are her comments about the rest of my facial hair, now sadly predictable because they come every time. ‘Don’t you want me to thread your upper lip?’ she asks. She looks shocked every time I politely bite my lip and say ‘no, but thank you’. THANK YOU?! I can’t help but ask myself why I am thanking her for her judgment on a few dark hairs which line my upper lip, when really she should back right off. It is not her place to judge, let alone imply with her indignation at my refusal that I am ugly and should really take her suggestion more seriously. Fuck you, with your capitalist-driven beauty standards. Fuck you.
I like my legs to be hair-free. I like the feeling when I move from the bath into my bed. Fresh sheets and smooth skin. Bliss. Pubic hair, though? Now that is another issue entirely. Some writers online suggest that pubic hair is the final taboo for a woman’s body. I have no problem with pubic hair, but others do. Yes, I have encountered partners who find it weird or shocking. It comes across as disappointment that I didn’t shave/wax for them. FOR THEM. Since when was intimacy solely about pleasing another, especially when you don’t feel pleasing yourself? Fortunately I have also had partners who have had no issue with my hair, and not just because they actually love it necessarily, but because they respect me enough to allow me to be me and for me to own my body in a way I wish to own it. I wish those incidences had been more common, for maybe I wouldn’t still be facing the dilemma each time. To remove hair, not to remove hair? What will think if I don’t? Why do I have to consider this?
Some women remove it, some or all of it. Some of those women do so for comfort, for personal aesthetic taste, or for any other number of reasons that have nothing to do with sexual partners or feminism or expectations or demands of culture or society or indeed anything at all. I do not make assumptions about how societal norms may have infiltrated what are implicitly deemed to be women’s uncritical minds. It is never my place to do that. Equally, I do hold that societal influences play a large part in all of our lives, and whilst we can be critical, I do not believe it is possible to be immune. It is no bad thing, in my opinion, to be critical. It brings into debate all the conundrums surrounding ‘choice’ and ‘feminism’ – around hair, and as an extension of this discussion, around make-up, tattoos, piercings, high heels, and so on. Whilst I feel it would be nice not to need to have that conversation – instead, accepting hair (or a lack thereof) without question – the fact of the matter is that it is in dialogue and sits within a paradigm that we ought to be aware of. As feminists we have choices, simple to make or not.
I could easily go down the route of blaming the porn industry for complicating such choices, for their excessive obsession with hair free skin, but that would be too reductionist because, as I have touched upon, there is a market for fetishists. If I am to ask what hairy skin means, I could propose a few suggestions. Most pertinent to this piece, what it means when skin is hairy is womanhood. It means a woman has moved through puberty and out of childhood. Why is the taboo focussed on the woman? Why not on the men who desire, who sometimes demand, that women remove their body hair to a point where they look like a child? Why do we never talk about this? Isn’t this the final taboo? Let’s take the emphasis away from women, and place it where it actually should lie.
Men are increasingly grappling with the conundrum of their own body hair, as capitalism manufactures needs that affect them too, but let’s not take the emphasis away from it being predominantly a women’s issue. It is women and their body hair which becomes the centre of the conversation, the pivotal focus of the paradigm. Ideally, there would be no conversation. Ideally, there would be no eyelids batted at the sight of hair or no hair. Ideally women would be seen for who they are, rather than existing for how they are seen.