By Freya Turner
What do we think about when we think of women and their hair? Do we think about scalp hair only? A lot of us probably would. It makes sense. We’ve been socialised into thinking that hair anywhere other than women’s heads is avoidable, dirty, and ultimately ‘other’. For as much as women are, still to a certain extent, heralded in the 21st century as fulfilling their ‘natural’ duty of being child-bearers, we are berating those same women for their inevitably natural strands of keratin on their legs, underarms, faces, and so forth. As a lot of us are aware already, the work of the feminist movement is about challenging the ironies and meaningless structures that are so engrained in us. So it is worth talking about hair; every tiny strand is political, because the ‘natural’ is a construct.
Shaving only became mainstream for women around the period of World War One. At this time, razor companies were losing profits for obvious reasons; their target consumers (at that time, men) were rapidly diminishing due to war. The industry had to react quickly, so considered approaching a large demographic they had previously ignored; women. With some manipulative advertising that quickly invented a ‘problem’ for women (unsightly hair), women were pressured to shave for the sake of femininity. The rest is history. Fast forward to one-hundred years later, and most of us have internalised the argument in this advertising as some sort of natural law. We’re so removed from the origin of mass female shaving that not one person in my university’s feminism seminar could pinpoint it.
My own story with my hair is that from puberty to the age of 21, I shaved everything because if I didn’t, I felt disgusting, lazy, and a failure. When I found out that the cause of our anxiety towards hair essentially resulted from war, I was appalled. Feeling like a very naïve version of an anarchic rebel, I tested out what it would be like to not shave altogether. It was weird, because it felt like such a small act but it also felt pretty ground breaking to me. This in itself was, ironically, annoying because I felt like I was spending even more time dwelling on something completely and utterly frivolous; a sort of bodily contesting that is stereotypically a woman’s experience.
When the hair started growing it was weird seeing it, particularly the hair in my armpits. And I think it’s important to stop here. It was w-e-i-r-d seeing my own hair grow. Utterly weird. How bizarre is that? I felt like I was becoming ‘un-woman’ when I looked at my underarm and leg hair. And when I realised this thought, the hair growth felt like some sort of emotional bootcamp. It was as if the longer I let my hair grow, the more I’d feel comfortable with myself. I really didn’t want to be the person who didn’t shave because of political reasons but then is disgusted at the sight of hair. In reality, it is really hard to undo the thought that if you identify as a woman and don’t have the similar look of a baby, you’re not OK.
Growing my body hair was a weird process, and still is. I don’t want this to be a self-indulgent dessert of an article but sometimes we need to go the personal to talk political. This started roughly in May, and since then, I’ve shaved because of a job interview from hearing of the boss’ viewpoint on the respectable presentation of women, I’ve had that same boss stare at my legs when I got the job and grew my leg hair, and I’ve had friends not know how to react to it. On a positive note, the cherry on top of not-giving-a-shit-about-hair happened when I crossed the stage at my graduation with long and lustrous leg hair. Ta-ra, repressed youth-hood! I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that a year before.
And yet, underneath that, part of me wants to trawl the internet to find information about other women with body hair to feel less alone and weird for having it. What I have found from doing so is that a lot of women don’t shave because they feel most beautiful in their rawest, most natural form. Some may like the actual aesthetic of the hair, and some may just feel most beautiful knowing that the hair is their authentic self. I don’t think my body hair is the nicest, which is the point. I don’t look at my leg hair and think phwoar. What has instead developed from what I guess is politically oriented behaviour has been a drive to be fully in ‘myself’, which applies not only to my hair. The best way to describe having the hair is essentially like having a neutral ownership of my hair. It’s not ugly but it certainly ain’t pretty. It’s just there. I’m sure a lot of those who identify as men hold this same perspective.
That neutral realisation that my hair is ‘just there’ made it quite frighteningly obvious to me the extent to which women are denied a neutral perspective of themselves. There is nothing really in society that says that women can be comfortable. When I was first growing my hair, a little voice in me felt like I had to love it, or had to hate it. No middle ground. This stems from men being the baseline of normal or neutral and women being the ‘other’, which renders right down to the body where both sexes have the hair but only one can, stereotypically speaking, be ‘alright’ with it. The other is made to feel like some sort of wild activist or entirely disgusting for having it.
All women are hairy. Not just because we have the capacity to grow hair, but because unless you’ve had electrolysis, the root of the hair is physically there underneath the skin even if you’re freshly shaved. I don’t want to love this hair, I just want to feel like a grown person. And I hope that in the future we won’t have to write blog posts about female body hair. So let’s just get on the sofa of self comfortability (a new self-love?) and embrace the keratin.
About the author
Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minoritarian, feminist, and urban writing. She has worked in arts and charity organisations, and she is passionate about singing, comedy, writing in different genres, and body positivity. She is currently based in north Essex in the UK.