"If I were [x] I wouldn't do that!" [Loving Our Bodies, Part 3]

It’s summer again in Japan, which means torrential downpours, blisteringly hot days, and enough humidity to make you feel like you need to shower again right after you step out of the house. It is not weather that is conducive to pants and sleeves, but rather one that lends itself better to shorts, skirts, and tank tops.

And this is where we begin this part of the Loving Our Bodies series, because it is where I am confronted with the consequences of my choice not to shave every single time I walk out of the house. But, first, a brief interlude to refresh what brought up this subject, and discuss the pressures that hinder a free choice for a woman when it comes to shaving.

I. Shaving is a gendered rite of passage

Mr T and I got into a kind of unusual argument the other day. He was arguing that he doesn’t understand why I bother with traditional hair removal (I shave my underarms, legs, and pluck my eyebrows). While I agree with him that it’s not fair that women are expected to remove all of that hair while men are not expected to. Whatever way you look at it, is unnecessary and well just not fair. Why is it gross on a woman but not a man?

[From Me=Bad by kristy]

Why is it gross on a woman but not a man? That’s actually part of the beauty myth that I have no experience in, so I can’t really comment. But I do know that a lot of mythology has sprung up about why we should shave, mostly regarding hygiene issues (that, contrary to common sense, only seem to apply to women, as most people do not use the same mythology to argue for why men should shave*).

Shaving, for me, was a mandatory rite of passage whose reasons weren’t explained to me at the time. I saw other women shaving and I wanted to be “grown up” like them. When I was at camp one day, my sister gave me a razor and taught me how to shave my legs. Not that my legs had been visibly all that hairy, mind you, but rather that in her mind I had reached an age where I needed to be taught how to shave (she was only two years older than me, and I don’t think that she had any more of an understanding of the custom than I did). So I started shaving because that’s What Women Did.

* Barring some arguments regarding long beards, but the social pressures regarding beards are only superficially analogous to those regarding women, which is a whole other series of posts in itself.

II. The pressure is not equal

Mr T said ‘if he was a female he simply wouldn’t remove the hair’ to which I was quite annoyed with because it is simply unfair for him to make that remark as a man. […] It’s very easy to sit there from another side and argue ‘if….’ but let’s face it you really don’t know what it’s like til you have experienced it and dominant culture is quite powerful.

[From Me=Bad by kristy]

When I grew up and was at an age where “It’s traditional!” didn’t hold water for me anymore, I adopted the pretty fiction that “hair is just gross… on everybody!” It was easier to believe that it all came down to personal preference than it was to question the practice and transgress it. Even at that point in my life, I was aware of the social ostracization that would occur if I decided not to shave my legs.

And, despite my “I don’t care what other people think of me” attitude, transgressing such a huge part of what it means to be a woman in Western society wasn’t easy. And, really, even though I’m no longer living in the West, it continues to not be easy because all I see around me are adverts with women who have smooth legs, not to mention real women in mini-skirts sporting smooth legs, and, frankly, it’s intimidating.

While men are held to their own standards of beauty, that does not include having a smooth body, devoid of any “improper” hair. Men have never had to hear their families comment on how random men walking down the street should wax their legs because the stubble is already showing, or had family members tell them that they couldn’t go outside in shorts because their leg hair was embarassing. They don’t have to deal with the pressure to be “beautiful” that includes having smooth legs, hairless armpits, and a perfect bikini line.

In short, until a man is faced with that kind of pressure every day of his life without end, he is not in a place to judge what he would or would not do in regards to shaving. It takes a lot of fucking courage to transgress that boundary and what is the reward? It’s practically nothing; just some personal pride from not bowing to others’ expectations and one less hassle to take care of every week (or month, if you wax). Compared to the hassle that a woman faces — both from external sources, but more importantly from her own internalized version of the beauty myth — it is nothing.

III. Conclusion

So, back to my story. It’s summer, it’s hot and muggy, and I’ll be damned if I let my own insecurities keep me in long pants and shirts with sleeves. So I slap on my shorts, don a halter-top vest, and go on my merry way.

“Maybe I should have trimmed my pits,” I think to myself nervously. It’s not so bad until I encounter people who I find attractive.”Are they looking at my leg hair and thinking about how nasty I am?”

I want to shout, “It’s not gross! There’s nothing wrong with a woman’s natural body!!!” But, of course, no one has suggested that there is. There is no one telling me these things except for myself, at least not today.

“Oh, Andrea, you look so sexy today!” one of my friends tells me. I let out a breath that I didn’t know I was holding and the pressure I’ve been feeling pulls back… slightly. I go through the rest of the day alternating between being defiant, being despondent, and being too occupied with other things to think about it.

I go home and think to myself, “Maybe I should trim my pits.” I decide I’m too lazy, so I go to bed. I get up the next day, dress for class, and prepare for the cycle to begin again.

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This entry was posted in Gender Caste, Loving Our Bodies, Series, The Beauty Myth. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to "If I were [x] I wouldn't do that!" [Loving Our Bodies, Part 3]

  1. Betty says:

    What is the reward? It’s practically nothing; just some personal pride from not bowing to others’ expectations and one less hassle to take care of every week (or month, if you wax).

    I think it’s somewhat easier for me to make this choice because when I shaved? I had to shave every single day. That’s a lot of hassle.

  2. Jo says:

    I’m going natural these days. I ‘won’ a small battle today — there was a repair technician (presumably — and actually — a man) coming out to the house today, and I suppressed the urge to change out of the tank top I was wearing into a T-shirt that hid my growing pit hair.

    I haven’t shaved either pits or legs (or trimmed anywhere) for a couple of weeks now (a month already?) and I keep looking at myself and saying “This is natural. This is how women are supposed to look.” I still have to say it, so I’m not cured yet.

    Of course, I don’t really wear shorts (because of a deep-seated long-standing desire to avoid the male gaze as much as possible), but it’s getting to be summer, and the nephew will be visiting — which means the pool. I’m thinking about what I will do.

    In any case: I concur on all counts, as usual. I’ve gotten the “but men shave too!” bit from Da Spouse (a while back) and I got really angry that he didn’t get how it was different. We live in a pretty liberal, progressive town, so we both know lots of women who don’t shave. He seemed to think that made a difference.

    It does, but it doesn’t prevent the pervading culture elsewhere (i.e., where I grew up and was indoctrinated with the Beauty Myth) from being condemning of our hairy hippie friends. (ALSO: hairy women getting the designation “hippie”, which does happen here, isn’t necessarily better than “ugly”. It’s still Othering.)

    Okay, done now. Thanks (as ever) for the thinking material.

  3. Canaduck says:

    Very nice. As a woman who stopped shaving her legs a few years ago, in part as a result of preference and in part because it was causing me to develop infections as a result of the extreme sensitivity of my skin as the hairs grew back, I really enjoyed this article. I shaved my legs for over ten years prior to that, though, because I could handle having painful (and unattractive) inflammations and wounds more easily than I could handle the horror of having hairy legs. How indicative of social pressures is that?! (And I’ve always, always considered myself independent and a feminist!) I also tried to stop shaving my underarms but found it extremely uncomfortable besides a little unappealing, but that’s something I’m considering as a possibility in the future.

  4. Sara says:

    I’m a summer-weather shaver personally. In winter it’s too much of a hassle to bother with, because hey, nobody can see it. In summer … well, I’m a lot more lax about my legs, but I tidy up my armpits if I’m going to go to the beach. Which is odd, considering that I go to a nude beach and there’s all kinds of relative states of hairiness there — but it just makes me more comfortable, knowing that nobody is staring at my armpits and jumping to conclusions (neither of which would be incorrect, incidentally, if they jump to “feminist” or “dyke,” but still).

    That’s not to say the pressure’s not still there, though. Beau and I talk about it from time to time, and when asked whether he’d be embarrassed to be seen in public with an unshaven girlfriend (meaning legs and armpits), he said “probably,” although he was quick to add that his discomfort didn’t mean that I had to kowtow to it. And I can still remember, vividly, my father patting my sixth-grade on a hairy little thigh and suggesting that I shave before my best friend’s pool party, because I was never going to attract my crush’s attention with hairy legs. I was mortified, because my dad was practically suggesting that I was unattractive, and annoyed: I was determined to put off shaving as long as possible, fully buying into the “fact” that the sooner you started, the quicker and thicker the hair grew back.

    It’s just one of those social standards that doesn’t really go away, no matter how much you ignore it. And yeah, it’s a bit ignorant of a guy to just loudly declare, “Well, I wouldn’t if I were you” — because you know what? You’re not me. You haven’t had to put up with this kind of social pressure. So just … stuff it, and be supportive of my choices instead of trying to take ownership of them.

  5. Awesome, awesome post. I haven’t shaved anything for about 6 years, and those little questions still are popping in my head. It always makes me feel so much better to know I’m not alone.

    It’s damn hard to transgress against social norms, especially when it comes to feeling attractive.

    It’s also become more difficult to me now that I’m in a corporate environment. Where I work women are able to get away with not wearing nylons in the summer because they have perfectly tanned and perfectly shaved legs. I have neither, so I’m stuck with the pantyhose. It’s been quite tempting to just shave it off so that I won’t have to wear the dreaded nylons, but I can’t give up after so many years of being stubborn.

  6. Katie says:

    Hmmmm, I’ve been thinking about this too.

    I recently stopped shaving again, after going back and forth with it for a few years. It has taken lots of talking to friends who had gone natural, lots of soul-searching, lots of general thinking and agonizing to get to the point where I can feel generally ok with going out of the house knowing that leg or armpit hair is showing.

    I’m going to Korea within the next year, and I’m afraid of having to deal with an entirely new set of body norms for women. I’m a biracial Korean-White, so I’m kind of already outside many people’s comfort zones there, and since I inherited my dad’s hair genes, it’s REALLY obvious that I don’t shave (unlike my mom, who I swear doesn’t. grow. armpit. hair.)

    Anyhow, it’s what I’m thinking about right now…

  7. Me3 says:

    Indeed, there is nothing wrong with walking around naturally, without shaving. That’s individual choice, clearly. But at the same time, we live in places and in an age where considerable armpit hair on women is indeed generally considered unattractive and often as a sign of neglecting one’s hygiene and/or appearance. That your having unshaven armpit hair affects your self-image to the point that you become threatened and defensive upon even SEEING attractive pit-shaven women evidences this. (And like you said, it is not just females that bear this type of pressure either–for example, in many places, men who shave their legs are likewise open to ridicule. It’s everyone’s problem.)

    It seems to me that you’re wasting a lot more energy worrying about this all of the time than it would take to just shave your armpits and feel better about yourself and be able to relax some everyday. If you don’t shave, sure, you’re transgressing the boundary and whatnot, but it’s not as if anyone’s going to see unshaven pits as a badge of honor of a brave and independent woman. Whether right or wrong, most folks will just consciously or subconsciously think that you need to take better care of your appearance (or some variant of this).

    This clearly bothers you to an alarming extent, and it seems to me that you probably think that shaven pits are more attractive anyway, so my personal recommendation is just to shave and not worry about making a point that no one really cares about.

  8. Me3 says:

    I noticed that my comment was not posted for some reason. I apologize for not leaving a valid e-mail address before for you to contact me at in case you attempted to inform me why this was so. Whatever the case, I hope that you at least read my comment, as it was intended only to help.

  9. tekanji says:

    Me3: Your comment was borderline, it was behind held for moderation, and I don’t live to moderate this board. So, if you choose to comment again, chill out. I’ve had comments sit for weeks in moderation before approving them; sometimes because I was busy, sometimes because I needed time to consult with the other bloggers.

    As for intending to “help”, what exactly in that condescending piece did you think I would find helpful? Where you presumed my being “threatened” by other women? Where you tell me that I should just suck it up and shave, without even considering (or asking) my reasons for choosing not to shave in the first place? Where you dismiss my point and say that it’s a point that “no one really cares about” despite the evidence in the comments?

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and believe that you were well intentioned. So take this advice: do not presume to tell women how to deal with our hardships, and do not presume to tell us what points are worth making. Because, no matter what your intentions, doing so is condescending, misogynist, and just plain rude.

  10. Denise says:

    I shave my armpits but not my legs. I do allow my pit hair to grow for about a week or two before shaving it off, but most of the reason for shaving it is the more intense odor from sweat. That said, I don’t know that I would stop shaving my pits if I did not develop odor that makes me uncomfortable. I play cool about my leg hair, but I feel a bit nervous wearing shorts or above-the-knee skirts. Fortunately for my ego and anxiety, I wear mostly long pants or below-the-knee skirts which minimize advertisement of my hairy-leggedness.

    Spending 5 minutes a week on my pits and 10 minutes once a month with a trimmer to keep my legs and bikini area from looking too scraggly sure beats the 20 minutes twice a week I used to spend shaving. Still, I know I am transgressing an important part the prescribed gender performance by not shaving — one that makes others far more uncomfortable than my having a boyish haircut and occasionally wearing more mannish clothes. One that makes many people more uncomfortable than knowing I’m gay or an avowed feminist. As a semi-socialized woman, I feel a certain amount of shame for causing others that discomfort, alongside the feeling of ugliness that is engendered by body hair in the media and in (my) family norms.

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