On a Woman’s Body Hair

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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.

 

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An Incomplete History of My Body

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Grade school, maybe grade six or seven. Sitting in a circle with my girlfriends at recess. We go around the circle in turns: “My thighs are so fat. I hate them” “Your thighs are not fat! They’re so skinny! Look at my stomach. It’s flabby.” “Your stomach isn’t flabby, look at mine!” Around and around like that. I have a brief realization that none of us are fat, that this is ridiculous. I try not to feel bad about my body.

I am twelve, maybe thirteen. I’m playing at the school yard. A boy tells me I look good. I’m wearing a bit of makeup that I got for my birthday, a hairband, a brown corduroy collared shirt and khakis. I am pleased. Aware that I am noticed. I sense power in that, but don’t understand it. Won’t understand it for many years to come.

All through my young adult life, the women around me are on and off Weight Watchers. My mother, my aunts, my sister, my friends, all struggle with their weight, with their bodies. I subscribe to YM magazine, and read articles instructing me how to dress for my body type, what bathing suit I should be wearing, how to work out. For a while, I do workouts in my bedroom, push-ups and sit-ups on my dusty-pink carpet. I notice muscles growing, and I like it. I feel strong. It doesn’t last long, though. I know that I should care more.

Any time my dad’s family gets together, we eat all day long: cookies, squares, potato chips and dip, cheese trays, veggies and dip, and then we have dinner and then we have dessert. It is normal to eat to the point of feeling ill: that’s what the Borin girls do. In preparation for holidays, we are “good”,  we save our calories for an all-day binge. One Christmas eve, I vomit when we get home from my grandma’s, because I’ve eaten so much.

Throughout my late teen years, my twenties, I continue to spend the currency that is my body. I start waitressing in a bar, and the combination of attention and cash is intoxicating. I am so powerful. A low cut shirt, a push-up bra, pants that hug my ass: it’s so easy. These guys are so easy, so dumb. It feels like power, but in retrospect, I’m not sure it is. I go with it, though. Careening just a little bit, like going downhill on a bike and you’re on the edge of losing control, the handle bars wrenching back and forth in your hands.

Twenty-seven. Pregnant and keeping it. My body swells. I am the epitome of Earth Mother. All of the cliches: glowing, fertile, goddess. I birth my baby in the backseat of the car because I didn’t understand that I’d already started pushing at the house. Afterwards, I wonder how I could be so unaware of my body. Childbirth is different, though. I was in a different head space, I was out of my body and yet so firmly in it, of course I didn’t know. It was my first time. Pushing is feet in stirrups, doctor yelling instructions at you. Pushing is not in the dark of the bathroom against a washing machine. Bearing down is maybe a better descriptor.

Through the next two pregnancies, my weight fluctuates. Just before I become pregnant with Colm, I’m at my lowest weight ever. People tell me how good I look. What have you been doing? You look great, they tell me. I’ve lost enough weight that I need new bras, new pants, new shirts. My jaw, my cheek bones, are more pronounced. What have I been doing? I’ve been anxious about food, entire food groups or tiny molecular portions of them. Sugar and gluten are suspect: I try to avoid both with spotty success. I don’t want to eat things that come from far away, and this is partly a good thing and partly concerning because eventually I’m not sure what to eat. I am obsessed with “real” food. With toxins. I fall for pseudo-science and charismatic Internet food bloggers.

During my second pregnancy, my midwife encourages me to eat more, to put on more weight, as insurance. It’s not until my third pregnancy that I do. I eat with abandon and now, two years post-partum, I continue to do so. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, and then after Paul and Aedan leave for the day, I eat the rice leftover from dinner, with hot sauce. Then I find a chocolate bar stashed somewhere and I eat that, too. The kids want a snack so I eat a half a dozen crackers with them. A few cookies when they’re not looking. I finish their toast crusts. Then we make lunch and I eat mine plus what they don’t. We go to the grocery store and I buy a big bag of potato chips and then it’s empty before I realize it. I eat more crackers while I cook dinner, and then I eat seconds at dinner, too. I pay no attention to my body as I eat, as I go through my day, and then suddenly I can’t help but pay attention to it because I think I might throw up. Shame sets in. What the fuck is wrong with me?

For five years, almost six, my breasts have been on demand. My body constantly stimulated by little hands patting, reaching, clinging, wanting to be carried. I am adept at distancing myself from this body. I look in the mirror, naked, at my lopsided breasts hanging down towards my stomach. My stomach that could pass for six months pregnant. (People ask me, occasionally, if I’m pregnant again). None of my clothes fit right. My feet have gone up a half shoe size in the last couple of years and I wish that clothes came in half-sizes, too. Everything is either a bit too loose, or a bit too tight. I want to live in leggings. I want to cut my breasts off. I am a stranger in this body. This body that has climbed mountains, has hiked fifty two kilometers on the Chilkoot Trail. This body that can dance, and run, and grow and birth and nourish new humans. This body that was once my currency and that now feels like a crumpled bill in the bottom of a pocket. My body the afterthought, my body the inconvenience.

Still, though. It’s a woman’s body. I no longer wear low cut tops to work, but just this past Sunday, a man who once threatened to kill me because I cut him off told me if he were a bit younger, he’d take me home. As if that’s a compliment. In the summer I wear a red dress because it makes me happy and a man buys me a drink, expects conversation, is disappointed when he sees my wedding ring. I try to be invisible, wear jeans and a sports bra under a loose band t-shirt, and still they notice, tell me I look good. I’d like to tell them to fuck off, but I smile, I fumble, I walk away.

This body is mine and not mine. I’d like to come to a place of acceptance. Of some measure of gratitude. A truce, even. I try. I’d like to offer you more than this disjointed collection, had intended to, but it turns out I’m not there yet.