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.
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.