As an 11-year-old girl, I sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of my primary school classroom, donned in t-shirt and shorts on a summer day. Surrounded by my fellow students, I became suddenly aware of the hair on my legs in a way I hadn’t been before. A feeling of self-consciousness washed over me, a sense of paranoia, a desire to conceal myself. I wondered if the boy sitting next to me noticed it.
The hairs that grow on our bodies are saturated with social meaning during girlhood. The message that body hair must be hidden is so ingrained within us that even as children we feel ashamed of its inevitable growth. We all have it, yet rarely in films, TV shows and mainstream media is a woman depicted with hair on her body. They feed us a narrative that female body hair is abnormal, gross, and fundamentally at odds with being a woman.
Over time, we are exposed to a continuous stream of new hair removal products, marketed as a cheaper, quicker or more effective means by which to vanish those little, stubborn hairs: razors, wax-strips, creams, epilators. And, more recently, laser-hair-removal- indeed, we are taught to loathe our body hair so deeply that many of us invest in expensive, technological procedures to permanently slow its growth. Companies selling hair-removal products and treatments profit from our insecurities. Our self-hatred is a lucrative force.
Meanwhile, men are largely exempt from this form of social policing. Hair on the male body is present in the public eye, through media depictions and everyday life. We are taught that hair on the male body is ordinary, natural, masculine. Male hair removal is viewed as a personal preference, a practice largely undisturbed by strict social conventions.
Growing up in today’s day and age, it’s quite easy to imagine that total hairlessness, bar that on a woman’s head, has always been considered the norm and inseparable from rigid, societal ideals of feminine beauty. This is not the case. Attitudes towards women’s body hair have shifted throughout history.
While it is true that hair removal is not a modern conception, the removal of underarm and leg hair was not a common practice in Western cultures until the first-half of the twentieth century. The change occurred when white women’s fashion trends shifted towards exposing more areas of the skin. After years of uncontroversial existence on women’s bodies, magazines grasped the economic opportunity to propagate the importance of taming these hairy areas, which they suddenly deemed an essential procedure.
Since then, only around 100 years ago, the popularity of body hair removal has increased steadily all over the globe. In other words, as more parts of women’s bodies became visible to the public, only then were they compelled to remove it. Before exposure to society’s critical eyes, body hair is unproblematic.
So, although as women we may feel a very personal, distinct, and deep-set detestation of our body hair, we must recognise that this self-hatred is not necessarily organic. It stems from sexist advertisements and media representations, trespassing over the borders of our minds for decades, until we are convinced these infiltrations are our own thoughts. Far from being intrinsic within each of us, it is a socially-constructed attitude. It is internalised misogyny.
There has also been resistance throughout history. Many women of the 1970s second-wave feminist movement publicly embraced their body hair, defying narrow perceptions of female beauty in their society. Today, many activists on social media are also embracing their body hair, sharing images of their hair to reclaim it and shatter the stigma.
When our minds are purposefully sculpted to despise a natural part of ourselves, the lines between free choice and coercion are blurred. But ultimately, choice remains the most important factor in this slice of a woman’s experience. Whether we remove our body hair or not, what matters is feeling comfortable and in control of the decisions we make about our own bodies. Women deserve this choice without the burden of social pressure.
In my own journey, imbued with this knowledge, a wrestle with my thinking still persists. I feel like I’m waging a war against myself: my skin is the battle-ground, the tiny hairs sprouting from it are recurring casualties, the cuts and rashes form unwanted debris. The ashamed, 11-year-old girl lives on within me, afraid of social judgement. The girl who desperately wishes to hide parts of herself.
In truth, our bodies are extraordinary. They are unique, entwined with our identities, the homes within which we experience the vibrancy of life. Our bodies have so much more worth and value than their appearance, are intended for so much more than a destructive, futile quest to meet unattainable standards of beauty.
Unlearning the attitudes we’ve been conditioned to adopt is no easy feat, but understanding where they come from is a good place to start on the complex, revolutionary path to self-acceptance.
Check out Januhairy and Get Hairy February – online movements that are normalising body hair and empowering us to make our own choice.
Georgia is a final-year Bachelor of Arts student. In addition to gender equality, she is passionate about her Greek heritage. On her days off, she can be found scouting Melbourne for the city’s best brunch spots.