November is a wonderful month. Depending on where you are, the leaves are changing, the weather is cold enough to start wearing layers, and spiced hot wine becomes available in my grocery stores (look up glühwein and then drink it every day). I always liked the idea of participating in Movember as well. A lot of my guy friends do it, and I wanted to participate somehow, which led me to this topic.
I stopped shaving my legs about two years ago. At the time I was living in France as an au pair and I didn’t have anyone I wanted to impress. The decision was in part due to my laziness, but it was also the realization that I don’t have much by way of leg hair to begin with, so why bother?
When Movember rolled around this year, I panicked a little. Of course no one had a gun to my head that said I had to stop shaving something, but I felt like I wanted to. Long story short, I decided to stop shaving my armpits. I wanted to write about it because it really made a huge impact on me. I let my natural body hair grow out for literally the first time in my life since I hit puberty. So what did I learn?
First of all, I realized that I feel self-conscious as hell about it. Since I started, I haven’t worn any sleeveless tops or anything that would show during the day. I have several cute tank dresses, but I’ve thrown a (sometimes unnecessary) sweater over them every single time this month. Why? Well, because it’s been ingrained in my head since I was a little girl that women should be soft and smooth and hairless. The collective association that many Americans have is only “European” women don’t shave their armpits. After living in Europe for over 2 years, I can tell you that I’ve never seen a European woman who doesn’t shave her armpits. Granted, I don’t ask every woman I meet to let me see, so there’s that.
This experiment made me realize how completely I’ve adhered to this standard of feminine beauty without ever really thinking about it. Why are women “supposed” to be hairless? Is it because it’s more pleasing to a man’s touch? If that’s the reason, why do women of all sexual identities also shave? It it more aesthetically pleasing? Probably, but wouldn’t that also be due to our ubiquitous exposure to this one beauty standard? Is it “cleaner” or “healthier?” Well, no, we have body hair for a number of reasons, including protecting sensitive areas of our bodies from exposure to pathogens and better regulating our body temperature.
Once I asked myself these questions, I got angry. I had been doing something for 13 years that was completely unnecessary, serves no practical purpose, and was also very often painful, uncomfortable, and annoying (see waxing, razor burn, having to shave every day, etc.). I think the part that made me the most angry, however, was the realization that I still feel like I’m doing something wrong. In German, pubic hair is called “Schamhaar,” which literally translates to “shame hair.” This word perfectly describes my troubled relationship with my body hair. I look at my partner, who is about as hairy a man as you can imagine, and he looks great. I think every new person I’ve ever introduced him to compliments him on his beard. Why do men get to have their hair celebrated and ours is scrutinized? It’s not fair.
So here’s the deal. Ladies, I’m not advocating that you stop shaving and be a hairy feminist like me. All I’m saying is stop and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is it because you like it better, or is it because you feel like everybody else will look at you funny if you don’t? In my personal experience, it was the latter. The only way to change a social norm is to challenge it, and to think critically about how we pass along the message to our daughters.
I saw a great episode of Bob’s Burgers (if you’ve never seen it, hop on Netflix and binge-watch the first two seasons) where the oldest daughter, Tina, realizes she has leg hairs and doesn’t want her classmates to make fun of her. Her dad takes her to go wax her legs, where he gets it done too out of solidarity. When someone later refers to body hair as “your little friends,” Tina has this epic daymare (day nightmare? does that work?) and regrets her decision:
At the end of the episode, the message is that everyone gives into peer pressure sometimes, but the most important thing you can do is learn from it and decide for yourself what makes you happy.
For me, for now, not shaving feels liberating. It feels natural and rebellious. I still have to confront my own reservations and I still cringe a bit when I think about what other people might think if they knew or saw. It may be a little thing, but breaking down this barrier for myself has made me feel bold and brave – and that’s a great way for all women to feel.
Amelia Shroyer is a native Texan who moved abroad in a fit of fearlessness in 2011 and works in online marketing and translation. She is into writing, painting, playing classic adventure rpgs, and revolutionary art. She writes regularly for her blog Pay My Rant. She also sings in a band called Fort Knightly. She has a background in political science and French, and lives in Berlin with her partner and her cat Dakeeti.
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