When Ms. magazine asked me what I thought about #NoShaveNovember, I had never even heard of such a thing, and I couldn’t quite grasp its point. Maybe this is because I participate in something called No Shave Forever: I don’t shave my armpits and only occasionally shave my legs. So I looked up the #NoShaveNovember Twitter trend and read the first 80 or so tweets. Here are a few typical examples:
My Twitter feed was completely saturated with such choice phrases. Apparently, it’s intended to be a meme for men, and its proponents want to make very, very sure that women don’t join in. Why all the sexism and hatred towards women with body hair? For months I’ve been working on a documentary film about armpit hair, called Pitstache, to answer just that question. I am interviewing people around the country so I can get to the bottom of this hairlessness norm.
From what I’ve learned so far, the problem isn’t just the media, or sexism, or advertisements; the problem is that no one really thinks about it. Dear readers, I challenge you to ask a friend why women must shave while men don’t have to. I’ve heard men (and women) answer that hairy armpits are disgusting and a sign of bad hygiene–but only for women. I’ve heard women answer that yes, they find hairy legs on men unsightly, but men aren’t supposed to shave, so oh well. Let me be clear: I don’t find anything wrong with choosing to shave, but I’m troubled that many don’t realize when or why they made that choice. Most women I talk to say that they started at puberty when everyone else did and never really thought about it.
When I confront people with the question of “why,” they really have to think. Hairless women have been burned into the collective mind as the symbol of sexiness and femininity, to such an extent that celebrities such as Mo’Nique who challenge the image are often ridiculed. But here’s some food for thought: By nature, shouldn’t body hair be defined as womanly because it is a mark of puberty and thus of becoming a woman? Not to mention its role as a pheromone producer. Armpits are sometimes referred to as “scent traps” because their hairs help trap and exude the scents of sexuality. Pubic hair is also a handy way of knowing a woman isn’t a 10-year-old with breast implants.
So why is hairlessness considered so feminine? To start at the beginning, as early as 1915, women were shown advertisements such as this one for depilatory powder in Harper’s Bazaar (right) telling them underarm hair was “objectionable.” Since then, the campaigns for hair removal products have become ubiquitous. Another argument relates more to gender roles: Generally, men tend to have more hair on their bodies and faces than women. Hairlessness for woman can be seen as an exaggeration of that difference between men and women.
The stereotypes of women with body hair are often hippie, lesbian and feminist. I’ve been called at least two of those, not always in a nice way. Hairy-legged feminist in particular is used as an insult, often accompanied by sexless or man-hating. Being a feminist with body hair gets linked to not being sufficiently invested in performing femininity or in pleasing men.
No one should be surprised at what is trending on Twitter. No one. While body hair has been discussed from time to time in the women’s movement, it hasn’t spread to the mainstream discussion. That’s because the progress that has been made for body image in the media has for the most part been about weight and body size. While weight and body size are important issues that must be addressed, they are not the only gendered issues around body image. I’m still waiting hopefully for the Glee kids to sing about leg fuzz.
Yes, there is increasing pressure for men to wax their backs and chests. And yes, men in fashion magazines often have trimmed armpit hair. Fashion tends to dictate what we should look like, and the appearance of hairless men in magazines is no exception. One could also argue that men’s garments are often less revealing, making shaving armpits or backs a moot point. So what’s the difference between the expectation of hairless men and hairless women? I could write an essay with citations, quotes and links, but a quicker way would be to direct you to the Twitter trend of #NoShaveNovember. The sheer volume of hateful messages and warnings directed to women who might dare consider participating is just staggering. I was able to pick out perhaps two comments about why men should keep shaving. And therein lies the difference: A hairy man can be considered a burly man, while a hairy woman is usually considered at best “forgetful.”
Just ask the person next to you: Why are women expected to shave while men are not? And if they come back with, “Well men have to shave their faces,” just remind them how rugged and dashing George Clooney is considered to look with stubble.
Photos courtesy of the author.