Since I wrote that post about my body, I’ve tried to be aware of how I think of myself. Try to catch myself in negative self-talk when I look in the mirror. If I can’t replace it with something positive (why is that so difficult to do?) I at least try to let the thoughts go, rather than chase them down. These things have been simmering in the back of my mind, mostly, until yesterday.
There was an article in my Twitter feed about how 1 in 4 young women have stopped shaving their armpits. Later, I read an interview on Bustle with a beauty blogger who stopped shaving. This caused me to reflect on my own history of body hair. It’s something I’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about over the years, but such is the life of a person inhabiting a woman’s body, I suppose.
I must have been 18 or 19 when I first stopped shaving, both my legs and my armpits. I think I may have been prompted by reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth; it was around that time that I also started using cloth pads and a menstrual cup. Deciding not to shave was absolutely a political statement, and it was absolutely a hard thing to do. In the beginning, I’d get comments about how it was “time to shave.” I was told that it was unsanitary, to which I’d challenge: “what is less clean about my body hair compared to a man’s?”
Having dark hair on my legs and long, curling hair peeking from my pits wasn’t (isn’t) an easy way to walk through life. I often wonder why I was imposing this on myself. Why bother making myself uncomfortable every time I wear a tank top, or shorts, or a bathing suit? I suppose the answer is that my discomfort is a result of others’ discomfort. I’m uncomfortable because other people might be uncomfortable with my body hair. And that’s bullshit. I didn’t quite articulate it like that in the beginning of not shaving. I think in the beginning it was a pretty simple “fuck your beauty standards.”
That being said, I must acknowledge my many privileges. I’m white, of average size, and I present fairly feminine in general. I don’t have much facial hair (though my eyebrows have been called caterpillars, and I’ve had more than one hair stylist come at them with scissors and a wax strip).
There’s also something to be said for living where I do, in a bit of a “hippy” haven. There are a lot of women in my small town who don’t shave their legs or armpits. Living in the Yukon was the first time I went out in shorts or a tank top and didn’t even think twice about my body hair. Back in “the city” is another story. In fact, I started shaving again during the year we lived in Ontario. I stopped again when Charlotte was born, because someone has to show her that there are myriad ways to be in this world.
As I get older, I find dark hairs sprouting at random on my neck. More than once, people have tried to brush them away as though they are stray hairs from my head. I try not to feel any shame when I tell them that actually, that hair is growing from my neck. It’s not my issue that they squirm at the realization. It’s hard, though. It’s hard not to apologize for my body at every turn. I’m sorry my eyebrows are unruly. I’m sorry I have hairs on my neck, between my breasts, on my belly.
But on reading that article on Bustle yesterday, something struck me. The woman being interviewed, Dana Suchow, says:
“But I have decided I will not go back to shaving until I am comfortable with my unshaven body. I have to be comfortable being intimate with another person. And I have to be comfortable wearing shorts in the summer.”
It made me realize that I am STILL not fully comfortable with my unshaven body, after something like 15 years. For most of my adult life, I have been unshaven more than shaven. And while I may feel okay about it here in Dawson, as soon as we go to Ontario in summer, I am aware of the dark hair on my legs. I wonder if it offends. I change from pants to shorts and back again. When I do shave, I tell myself it’s my choosing. But is it really? Sure, no one is telling me, explicitly, to shave. But just feeling the pressure to do so, implied by media, movies, friends, family, all being smooth and hairless, is enough to remove my agency. I’m shaving because I don’t want to rock the boat.
Body hair should be neutral. Neither masculine nor feminine. It grows on us because we are mammals. We should all, no matter our gender, be fully free to choose if, when, and how to remove it. It bothers me that making that choice, as a woman, is still a radical act.
I wanted to close with a favourite poem of mine, by the late Al Purdy. I love it for its intimacy and its low-key celebration of body hair. Maybe I’ll go write an ode to my leg hair.
Winter at Roblin Lake
Seeing the sky darken and the fields
turn brown & the lake lead-grey
as some enormous scrap of sheet metal
& wind grabs the world around the equator
I am most thankful then for knowing about
the little gold hairs on your belly.