The Hairless ideal

Tigger is going through puberty. This is making me think about all sorts of issues in new ways. Or at least in more immediate, practical ways. I figure that many of us ponder some of these same issues and that maybe that makes them good material for blogging. Which is to say that I suspect this will be the start of a series.

Body hair is not an urgent problem for us right now. I’ve been thinking about it largely because Andrea posted something a few weeks ago (with a link to another post that I read and recommend to you). This post is mostly my reflections on body hair and femininity, in response to the issues Andrea raised, with some thoughts on what that might mean for how we talk about these things amongst ourselves and with our daughters.

To begin with, I don’t shave or otherwise remove the hair on any part of my body (except for those little dark hairs that appear on my chin, which I pluck). Tigger routinely sees hairy legs and armpits and thus might not think them as odd as some other kids do. Also, not being in school presumably insulates her from some of the discussions about hair removal that probably happen among girls her age (or maybe a bit older). Certainly I recall seeing shaving my legs as something I looked forward to when I was a pre-teen.The main reason I stopped shaving is feminism. Not in the sense that some feminist police told me I had to or I couldn’t join the club (feminism isn’t really like that) but in the sense that reading feminist critiques of ideals of feminine beauty made me think differently about lots of things — how I dress, whether I shave or wear makeup, what kind of shoes I wear, etc. There was a period when I was acutely aware of my difference from the cultural norm in the place where I live but as the years have gone by I have become very comfortable with my body hair.

Despite being more critical of the hairless ideal of feminine beauty than the average woman, I was still shocked at some of the things that Andrea and Shelley pointed out. I have been vaguely aware of more businesses offering hair removal services — waxing, lasers, electrolysis — but was stunned at the extent to which hair is considered “gross” on many parts of the body. While I can understand a girl going through puberty having difficulty coming to terms with the changes that entails, I would have assumed that most of us tried to help girls accept their adult bodies.

But these extremes of hair removal only confirm for me an analysis that I was already developing. Our culture has sexualized childhood. What I mean by this is that cultural norms of sexually attractive femininity are increasingly childlike. The hairless ideal is but one of the ways in which this plays out. Only children are relatively hairless. If we, collectively, think that hair on the body — underarms, legs, pubic area — is sexually unattractive, are we not saying that it is the hairless bodies of children that are sexually attractive? I’m hoping that everyone who reads this blog finds that idea as distasteful as I do.

And yet the cultural pressure to think so is pervasive. Some might blame “the media”. But I think the situation is more complex. For example, even the norm of shaving our legs and armpits is historically relatively recent and rather culturally specific. In North America it started in about the 1920s when Gillette started marketing razors to women. Now it has become the norm. In my own life, it is my mother who is the most vocal defender of that norm. And she argues hygiene not beauty. I think hygiene is a cover-up though because she isn’t on the male body hair removal bandwagon and I find it hard to believe that she thinks all men (barring a few swimmers) are dangerously unclean.

The marketing thing is probably the key though. Someone is making money out of the myriad hair removal products and services now available. And pushing the hairless ideal to men will make someone even more money. Since sex sells, linking hairlessness to sexual attractiveness also makes sense. That this means, in effect, promoting children as sexually attractive is probably an unintended consequence, though that does not diminish its importance.

The question becomes how do we counter this cultural pressure? How do we help our children become adults who are comfortable in their own adult bodies and who find the bodies of other adults sexually attractive? How do we give them the tools to resist the powerful discourses that tell them that hair is “unwanted” unless it is on your head.

One approach would be to counsel moderation. Stick with the ideal we were raised with and a limited range of hair removal methods that we are personally comfortable with. The newsletter Daughters, published by the folks who bring our daughters New Moon, seems to take this approach in their article on the issue. (I’ve only read that abstract, so I might be wrong.) But that seems to sidestep the issue. I can understand how individual women and girls might decide that they disagree with a current cultural norm but that they aren’t strong enough to resist it completely right now. But I can’t see how we could sensibly argue that it is right and proper to shave your legs but not to remove pubic hair.

I think we need to take seriously the continuum from hair on (lower) legs and armpits to hair on other parts of the body. In my opinion, the frightening popularity of “Brazilian” waxes only illuminates something that was already problematic. While it may seem that “those ’70s feminists” were trying to look ugly so as not to be attractive to men, on closer reading many of them actually had a serious critique of what counted as “attractive” and what sexual relations with men on those terms meant for women’s self-determination.

I’m not looking for, nor suggesting, a set of rules for how we “should” live. In fact, I am very bad at living by rules. Rather I am trying to open up debate about principles. And to have a better critical understanding of what is going on around us so that I can help my daughter work out how to live in this society in a self-affirming way. As such I welcome discussion that opens up that critique, even if it makes some of us think we should be doing things differently but that we can’t right now.

I suspect that there are implications for how we talk to our sons about body hair, too, but I don’t have any sons. Steph had a post once about how the hairless ideal is increasingly invading the dominant masculine ideal but I can’t find it right now. I also suspect the attitude somebody’s son has to body hair might have an impact on my daughter (or one of your daughters). So if you want to chime in on that side of the issue, that’s fine.

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5 thoughts on “The Hairless ideal

  1. Very interesting thoughts! I confess I have not even considered my views on this for my own girls. I stopped shaving my legs sometime around age 20 — I had spent a long time shaving (and slicing) my legs for a date that stood me up, and it made me think — why bother with this thing that I am obviously doing for someone else?

    I do think we can’t try to apply logic to standards of beauty or gender. I don’t think it’s possible to strip away all the “cultural” stuff and get to some essential standard, either. We’re human — culture is part of our nature, and culture depends on place and time and community. Sometimes I think people use “cultural expectation” as a shorthand for deviation from some Edenic, natural norm that we could find if only society would tolerate it.

    For ourselves and our children, I think we try to make it possible to make choices. Possible in the sense that we and our children feel strong and independent enough to consider the issue and make a personal choice, and possible in the sense that people bring up issues like these for discussion, so that we become aware that our current cultural norm is no more or less than that — not a law, or guiding moral principal, or essential part of one’s sex or gender.

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  2. I remember reading about the new Nair product in the Times last fall.

    It’s yet another reason to be grateful that my daughter spends minimal time with other girls, and more time with more likeminded girls. I do shave my legs, and am currently distressed at what perimenopause is doing to my upper lip, but for me it’s a personal choice, not one dictated by society. And these weren’t concerns for me during puberty, as they seem to be for girls now.

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  3. This is something I do think about quite often, and find myself surprised that so many women argue that their decisions are ‘just for me, not affected by the pressure’ etc. when this is so obviously the influence.

    My Mum has never (to my knowledge) shaved any part of herself, and that may be relevant to my feelings. I don’t remember it seeming an issue at school at all, but as a university student I did begin to shave lower legs and armpits. I’ve always been lazy and have dark hair, so preferred to have lower legs waxed on the occasions I felt the ‘need’ (usually about 5 times a year).

    Then I stopped – when i came out, I think, and rediscovered my feminism.

    When i got together with my partner, she plucked her eyebrows which I hated, so we negotiated and she stopped that, and I’m meant to shave my legs, which I do when they will be on show – and I have come to like that. I acknowledge, however, that this is entirely due to the influence of all I see around me.

    Agree that the ‘gross’ and ‘hygiene’ arguments seem all-pervading now. I really can’t get with either of those, and do find very worrying in the infantalising of women in this as so many visual areas!

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