When I quickly pitched writing a piece about body hair for FGFS, I was really surprised and pleased that someone wanted to write it with me. Finding a format that best fit this type of article was a tough one, but Fiorella and myself wanted it to be as straight forward as possible. Below is our interview style take on growing up, and growing into, having body hair.
Fiorella: When I began to show leg hair as an impressionable tween, no one around me said much. I was still in that in-between space, straddling eighth grade and being a Teen Girl. I liked this place, since most people cared little about what I looked like. I freely wore the same overalls everyday to school. As part of what I felt was my transition into bona fide girlhood, I entered high school believing I had to “get serious” about my body.
And the people in my life seemed to reinforce that notion. I was fourteen. My mom enthusiastically bought me razors and offered to schedule ongoing waxing appointments. Girls at school with facial hair were laughed at or talked about in secret. My girlfriends would complain about missing a night of shaving, grossed out by the stubble left on their shins, sometimes avoiding showing us at all in sheer embarrassment.
Before I began thinking seriously about choice, I couldn’t help but think about how the removal of body hair for women seemed to be a rite of passage in my life. I felt the weight of needing to be hairless to be acceptable, to be adult, from my well-meaning parents and my girlfriends, from entitled dudes, from disempowering media. Similarly, I shaved in high school because I wanted to be feminine, and because the women in my life were doing the same.
Okay, I thought, this is what women do to be women. I’m convinced that somewhere lingering just beneath the surface of these feelings, however, were deeply burning questions: How might women who let their hair grow understand femininity differently? Why do both men and women seem invested in women’s decisions about their body hair? Who decides what womanhood actually looks like?
Alex: I began noticing that hair was beginning to grow on my body sometime in elementary school; maybe the second or third grade. Thick, and very dark, it spread across my entire body, until I was completely covered (at least it seemed that way to me). I was super confused as to why I had sprouted the stuff overnight while all my friends were still hair free. This wasn’t immediately a “problem”— I hid my body hair underneath layers of clothing where no one would know it existed but me, and that worked for a little bit of time. Unfortunately all good things come to an end.
I was bullied in elementary school before I had even started developing body hair. I was the tallest person in all of my classes so I had to wear “adult” sized clothing; I had cut my hair super short so I “resembled a boy”, and I seemed to be the only kid whose parents had divorced in the entire school — those were the reasons I was picked on (of course I can’t forget that I was also the “fat kid.”) It was wrong, I know that now, but it happened. I tried to not let it bother me, I had to be that tough grown up person when I was only a child, but it all became too much when someone said, “Ew, you’re SO hairy.”
The world crumples so quickly around you when that tipping point happens.
I immediately wanted to remove all of my hair, and until that happened I wouldn’t feel good about myself, and I definitely wouldn’t be happy. My mom helped me to achieve that, and before I had even reached middle school I was being waxed. Legs, and eyebrows were done first; I chickened out when it came to everywhere else.
The weirdest feeling was rubbing my freshly waxed (bright pink and aching) legs together, noticing how they felt weirdly smooth, or looking in the mirror and noticing I no longer had a unibrow; just two angry looking perfectly shaped brows. In that moment I began to question what I had done, but only in the barest amounts, because to me I looked more like a woman… more like a societal expectation as to what a young woman should look like, which I didn’t understand at all. It felt wrong, but who was I to really challenge that “ideal” just yet.
Letting It Grow
F: Until I came to feminism, I didn’t realize that not shaving was one of many potential choices. That there was room to seriously wonder about what it might mean to be hairy as a woman. When I thought about what would happen if I suddenly stopped shaving — how others might read me as “extreme,” to quote my dad — I felt afraid. It’s been interesting to try and pinpoint where that fear came from.
It began as an experiment, receiving super-strong reactions given the fact it is hair. Like when my mom tried to explain her disapproval, proclaiming “But you aren’t a man!” Seriously? I knew I was being defiant because I had grown up within a family and society equating hairlessness with authentic womanhood. And given our society’s obsession with binaries, the logical interpretation of what I was doing was that I preferred to be masculine. Actually, I longed to feel like a woman.
I didn’t have a lot of self-awareness then, so growing my hair really just started as an attempt to see what my body could do, to explore honouring different things about myself. What made my initially half-hearted decision particularly troubling for most of the people in my life is that it broke convention, challenging the version of femininity they had been taught to believe was universal.
The decision was radical because I had been told it was radical, but I later redefined “radical” for myself. In this new definition, I had stopped viewing myself from the outside in. I acknowledged how the special pleasure of failing — to adhere to gendered beauty norms, to have hair in socially taboo places and not feel ugly — gave me strength to feel my womanhood on my own terms.
What I didn’t know was how letting my hair grow could be felt and inhabited as resistance. My body hair makes me feel good. It’s a small way to fail, but it reflects a larger decision I’ve made to stay curious and keep asking questions of myself, to apply pressure to the logic sustained by white patriarchy. It’s a strange space: I have strong feelings about my hair for personal reasons, but I’m met with strong feelings from people I both know and don’t know who feel qualified to police me. Since I’ve often had to protect my decision not to shave, much of the experience has been politicizing.
A: When I was in grade eight I began really thinking about the reasons why society believed that woman should dress, be, and act a certain way. I applied to arts high schools and was accepted to the place I wanted to go. There was no way in hell I wanted to spend any more of my years around the people I had gone to school with since grade one, and knowing I was getting out of there made me unbelievably happy. Around this time we finally got a computer, and I was spending a lot of my time on the web reading anything I could get my hands on that interested me. While most of that was probably spent reading about myths and legends, or going on websites like Neopets, I specifically remember coming across the word Feminism and wondering (probably out loud) what the heck was that.
A lot of people didn’t want to give me an explanation, like the word was horrible and shouldn’t be spoken out loud. I didn’t get it at all! How could this one word be so awful? Coming into high school I got a lot of mixed opinions on that one word. The first I heard on the subject was that feminists were women who “burned their bras and hated men,” and I just knew that that couldn’t be the only definition. It just didn’t sound right rolling off my tongue when before I had really liked the term in the most basic kind of way.
Around the time that Tumblr came to be, is when I really started to think about feminism, and being a feminist critically with great thought. I identified with the term and definition, and would talk about it with my friends. I was comfortable with being a feminist when I entered university, and I enjoyed that more people were using the term as well. I still shaved, and I still waxed my body hair into submission. It felt wrong, but I wasn’t strong enough yet to realize that body hair didn’t make me less (or more) of a woman.
My second year of university I slipped on ice and hit the back of my head against the curb outside of my house during the winter; it took me a long time to recover, and during that time I wasn’t able to do much of anything; let alone shave or wax. In a way it was one of the best and worst things to happen to me because my hair grew, and I couldn’t do much of anything about it. It was a wake up call when I could finally move and look at myself. I didn’t care that my body hair was there because I could move, and I actually liked it because I just looked like myself. I looked like a woman still, which I didn’t think was completely possible before because of my body hair.
It was an amazing feeling and every day that I don’t shave, simply because I don’t want to, because it makes me happy — I thank that truly horrible, wonderful, moment.
Hairy Women Who Rock
A: Immediately I think of Frida Kahlo painting countless breathtaking self portraits, and the many women on websites like Tumblr who I don’t know personally, that choose not to shave, or to even dye their underarm hair a different colour. These people don’t allow themselves to be bogged down by societal norms and stereotypes; they seem to know that being feminine doesn’t mean they have to be one way or the other, and that’s super important to me.
I wish I had known about these outlets when I was younger because I’m sure it would have boosted my self-confidence. If I had seen and read about feminism in elementary school, the way I do now, I probably wouldn’t have ever shaved or waxed my body hair away (though ultimately I’d probably be very confused.) I don’t want to turn back time and tell my younger self to never try something (or anything) once. I just know I should always question something produced by mass media, and explain that to younger people as well.
Never let someone else dictate how you should have a body.
F: Since I’ve grown out my hair, I’ve felt more intuitive. That’s how I imagine Frida Kahlo must have felt as she painted countless self-portraits. Or how Patti Smith must have felt yelling poems into a microphone. For Frida and Patti, intuition is primary. I love that they fought to know themselves deeply in an unaccommodating culture.
Growing out my unibrow, for instance, came from a place I didn’t quite understand yet, though I knew I could get behind that gut sensation. I don’t often feel my gut working, so when that rare moment happens, I try and react. Owning my body hair is my attempt to stretch those rare moments wide.
Whether it was under Patti’s arms or in the hair connecting Frida’s eyebrows, these hairy babes were all about carving self-definitions that were authentic, even culturally displeasing, and their efforts have stayed with me. Their desire to move beyond the acceptable — to undermine its value — is importantly subversive. Plus, have you seen Frida’s moustache?
Though I consider both Patti and Frida to be feminists, neither shaving nor being hairy is inherently feminist. Don’t get bogged down by feeling like you need to practice Good Feminism, whatever that means. Both women were unconcerned with that and more into answering to feelings, which today gives me indescribable momentum. How you take care of your body should be up to you.
A: Two years ago I stretched up, revealing my gloriously long, thick, armpit hair, and my best friend said something along the lines of “going a little Parisian there huh?” A year ago for Mother’s day I shaved my underarms to make my mom happy because I know she doesn’t like underarm hair. What gets me through days like that, the days when the world gets me down, is when I remember that my hair is going to grow back. In a week at most, I’ll have underarm hair again soon if I want.
To feel confident in a world of people who police gender roles, I constantly remember that it’s just hair. The hair on my head that grows absolutely wild and free is exactly the same as the hair on my body; so if I can grow head hair, I can grow body hair. Feeling confident doesn’t mean that you’re always 100% the most confident human being. It means that some days are good, and some days are bad.
Confidence in your own body, or in your own body hair, also doesn’t mean that you have to constantly show off what’s there. You can hide it if you want to because it’s your choice. If some days feel low, talk to those who can support you, or to those who feel the same way. More often than not, just being around another person with the same body positive outlook as I do makes me feel much better than I did before.
Discussing this piece with Fiorella, taking pictures of each other’s body hair, was an incredibly uplifting feeling. It really reinforced to me that smiling about my pit hair, or laughing about which of us had the darker leg hair (I did), was something completely normal. In that hour of just talking about our experiences I felt so incredibly feminine, and feminist, that I left feeling like no matter what, nothing could get me down. The best advice I’ve ever gotten about being body (and body hair) confident: there will always be someone to put you down, but that doesn’t mean that they’re right and you’re wrong.
F: At a pool hang out years back, my best friend asked if she could see my pits. I laughed uncomfortably, not wanting to show her. That I could be shy about such a seemingly bold act as to purposefully grow my hair out baffled her. At this point, it was early on in my decision and I was feeling insecure.
It showed me that, in addition to the ways people police gender roles, there are expectations people have of you, too, around what acts of defiance should look like. It can feel stressful to honour your feelings about your body hair when there are so many expectations (latent or manifest) to encounter. It’s helped me so much to make them visible; identifying them loosens their grip.
To feel confident about my hair, I try and locate my feelings — the comfort of fuzzy underarms, the sexiness of furry calves, the pleasure of failure — and prioritize them. I pay attention to the ways my hair has taught me to be playful, to self-define, to appreciate people’s choices.
Feeling confident does not mean you are consistently willing to parade your hair in public, or that you aren’t hurt when someone close to you criticizes you. It originates from somewhere deeper. My confidence means I have bad days, but that I also fully acknowledge all of the other wonderful feelings my hair contributes to.
Have fun with yourself! Sometimes our body hair is linked with the feminism we engage with, and sometimes it isn’t. But when it is, the confidence you feel about your body is also rooted in purpose. The best advice I’ve gotten: Whatever your reasons may be, they are always valid.body hair, body positivity, Feminism, Growing Up, real talk, self acceptance