armpit hair

The Great and Terrifying Armpit Hair

Good-for-nothing hairy taboos

For the past year I’ve been working on the Ultimate Feminist Project: growing out my armpit hair.  How ridiculous is it to celebrate not doing something? All I did was stop dragging a razor across the sensitive skin in the under-area where my arm and torso meet. But it isn’t so simple, is it?

When Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar a childhood photo circulated online showing off his mother’s untouched armpit hair. This, for some reason, quite upset both men and women and there were even questions about her quality and competency as a mother. 

Just look at that deeply unhappy family. Maybe they’d smile more if she shaved.

For nearly all of human history there have been body hair trends for women, and when its removal was in vogue it was due to a perception of cleanliness.  But in 1915, when the first razor for removing armpit hair was marketed to women, being bare was a matter of fashion. And what started as fashion quickly became an engrained gender norm. Women with armpit hair are not simply called “unfashionable”. As Leo’s mother can attest they’re called “unclean” and given an F at Being a Woman. 

When I first got the shaving itch my mother (rightly) was hesitant to let me start the lifelong task of hair removal because at that time I didn’t actually have much hair to remove. Advertisements were just that good. I was convinced I had unsightly hair on my legs and under my arms that needed to go. I don’t even think I really knew what it meant to be “sexy” at the time, only that I was supposed to want to be sexy and that having hair-free skin was key to being sexy.

So, for over 20 years of my life I submitted my sensitive skin to harsh razors, enduring cuts and ingrown hairs, never going more than three days without shaving unless I was physically unable. 

You don’t own me

When I decided to quit this inane habit last year I had come to see it as a hallmark of the capitalist patriarchy’s dominance over my body. The fact that I had no idea what it would even look like drove me bananas. I thought, fuck this shit, this is my body and I’m taking it back

Women have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, including removing all the body hair below their eyebrows. But how can you be sure the choice you make is really yours? In the amazing book companion to my favourite podcast, The Guilty Feminist, author/comedian Deborah Frances-White simply asks that women try out their other options. She asks that if you declare you can only function in high heels, try wearing flats for a month to make sure you actually do love heels.

When I stopped shaving I was a bit more extreme, probably because of my extreme hate of the patriarchy in the past few years, and gave myself one year. 

It was so easy I am upset that I didn’t try it out sooner. There have only been a few times that my hair has made me self-conscious: the first few times I went to my yoga class and had my teachers correct my alignment with the hair in their faces, and on a trip to Prague this past summer when the weather was too hot for concealing t-shirts. Prague is a place where gender roles are incredibly strict and women should not even have short hair on their heads. But after one beer I no longer cared!

Dismantling internalised misogyny 

Now that I’ve embraced one of society’s biggest taboos for women – gasp! she has a human body – I’m applying the Guilty Feminist test to the rest of my physical person: I have had short hair, shorter even than my husband’s, for half-a-year. It is still short but I think I’m ready to grow it out again.  I have stopped wearing makeup. I feel better with a tiny bit of foundation to even out my skin tone and I like how I look with mascara. And I do my best to buy and wear clothing without giving one single thought to how a man (not even my husband) might perceive my style. 

The capitalist patriarchy has prescribed exactly one way for women to live inside their own bodies. But now I know exactly the ways in which I was blindly conforming to this and I know what I truly prefer. My armpit hair is a symbol of my self-knowledge and I am never getting rid of that ever again.