When I was little, I have a distinct memory of one of my mother’s friends mentioning my underarm hair to me during puberty. No one had ever mentioned it to me before, especially considering there was practically nothing there at that point, but I began to think about it. The comment was minimal, merely suggesting I use a razor to shave what was there because it wasn’t ladylike, but the intonation and averted glance made me feel as though its soft, dark presence there was shameful.
I’d respected the man who’d mentioned it greatly and believed his comment to be a kind suggestion, a helpful hint toward social normality. I told my mother that I wanted to buy a razor and she was perplexed, never having shaven her armpits in her entire life aside from a fancy event she’d attended once or twice in her youth. She asked me why I wanted to, curious as to what sparked my sudden desire and I simply told her it was time that I began.
Even though this man’s comment sparked what felt like my own liberating decision, I can’t help but think back on the shocking discomfort I felt both mentally and physically upon first hearing his words. His choice in glancing down and away from my eyes when he shared his thoughts made me feel like I was being punished- as though perhaps he shouldn’t have had to tell me that having hair under my arms was fundamentally inappropriate. My reaction was so accepting of the wrong that I seemed to be doing that the concept of feeling angry or insulted didn’t even register in my consciousness. From this occurrence up until the very past few weeks of my life, hair has inextricably been tied into my understanding of gender and my identification as a woman.
Body hair has always made me feel uncomfortable, whether it was on my own body or someone else’s who was a part of my life. However, my anxiety greatly changed depending on if the hair was on the body of a female or a male. A male’s armpit hair made me uncomfortable mainly because I associated it with smelling bad or being excessively dirty, and I rarely thought twice about a male’s leg hair. However, when a female in my life had leg or armpit hair, I felt immediately awkward and mildly offended. Whether it was someone’s mother, a mentor, or a friend- if they had armpit or leg hair then somehow I felt as though they were less significant individuals than myself or another woman who was choosing to shave. This feeling of superiority was the feeling that accompanied my own personal squeamishness, the uneasiness that I couldn’t understand. Creating this self-authorized power allowed me to stop questioning why I felt awkward and why the presence of hair should even matter to me. Instead, I went through high school identifying with the “popular crowd” and followed the social norms I came to love and respect. My legs were always perfectly smooth and I shaved my armpits every other day. Some of my best friends and I even began using bleach to lighten the slight mustaches on our upper lips to get rid of any possible masculinity we may have harbored there.
It seemed very natural to me to maintain my body in this way. I would never have thought to expect a man to shave his body the way I shaved mine and if he had I would have considered it to be peculiar or effeminate. This mentality has shaped who I am today and it began without my awareness or my consent. It could be said that the man who made this comment is at fault, and perhaps he is because he never thought to question his own social constructions of reality, but in fact I blame society as a whole and not his misguided advice.
The belief that female body hair is gross or downright unacceptable only began to change when I went to college. Upon arriving at a small environmental liberal arts school in Vermont, I was suddenly surrounded by men and women who all began shattering my cultural beliefs of what was right and wrong. Very few women shaved their body hair and yet they were still acknowledged as “popular” or powerful people by everyone in the community. They still wore dresses, they still had love-interests, and they still painted their nails and took showers. In this new place, it didn’t mean you were smelly or unclean if you had body hair, in fact, it didn’t mean anything at all.
I began realizing how much of my life had been oriented around the acceptance of hair. I began noticing how many of my personal relationships with people depended on how they chose to maintain their hair. Most importantly, I began feeling stupid and overwhelmed by how much of my own self-worth I’d allowed society to determine while I was growing up. Since then, my life has become far more open to what is and isn’t acceptable. A few weeks ago, I realized I’ve still never fully grown out my armpit hair and so I began doing just that. Now, when I go into the bathroom to take a shower, I still look twice in the mirror upon seeing it. I still can’t say I’m completely comfortable with its presence there- but by consciously letting it stay I can firmly say that I am fighting those feelings and the societal belief that claims it shouldn’t be there.