Aged twelve I shaved my legs for the first time, locked in my family bathroom. I scraped the ‘unsightly’ and ‘unwelcome’ hair from my legs using my dad’s blunt razor. My inexperienced younger self did this with no water or shaving gel – the result was disastrous. The red cuts and angry rash left me looking quite unlike the ‘goddess’ that Venus adverts had promised, but resembled more of someone suffering from a nasty skin condition. This was the first of many shaving, waxing, plucking, epilating catastrophes throughout my teens that left me broke, itching, with ingrown hairs, uncomfortable and in pain. 10 years later and I am just beginning to come to terms with why I felt compelled to wage war with the hair on my body.
My choice to shave had nothing to do with my upbringing; my mother – an ardent feminist – was horrified when she found out. What I am aware of now is that I actually didn’t have a choice. As my body dealt with the painstakingly confusing transformation into adulthood, it became obvious society had picked and chosen what parts of a woman’s body were ‘allowed’ and ‘sexy’ and what was ‘disgusting’ and had to be modified. Body hair undeniably fell into the latter. Growing up, the focus and scrutiny of the appearance of the female body, its sex appeal and attractiveness just didn’t exist in the same way for the opposite gender.
The pressure from commercial shaving companies holds a large responsibility for the cultural rejection of female body hair. Mainstream media, music and the film industry have also contributed to our disillusioned view of women’s bodies. Imagine Beyoncé was an advocate of tufts of armpit hair and fuzzy legs. If this were the norm and being celebrated, would we think being clean-shaven was disgusting? The porn industry is another well-known culprit, often depicting women’s bodies and genitals appearing hairless and child-like. It seems body hair has been monopolised as a typically male attribute, and cultivated as a symbol of masculinity (although this is also coming under scrutiny in some worlds of male grooming).
Unshaven women threaten and challenge the authority and power behind gender stereotypes. This narrative fits into our patriarchal model, keeping women as the weaker more vulnerable gender, by looking like children (apart from where breasts are concerned). This consolidates the false idea that women need ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ men to protect and look after them. Some women would argue feeling less feminine at the prospect of growing their body hair. But what could be more feminine than the natural processes of the female body? It is purely the way we have been conditioned to feel about that hair that makes it seem masculine. Naturally, it is normal to want to have control over our bodies, choosing to shave (and do anything else to our bodies) is a completely valid choice to make. What isn’t right, is the generations of women believing a perfectly normal part of their body is inherently disgusting.
Entering my twenties I became more familiar with women who had chosen not to shave, I respected their decision but still maintained it was easier and less hassle to remove my hair (that had never really been allowed to grow) than to take a stance and become one of those ‘hairy women’. I also began to identify some political and sociological values with unshaven women. These women were almost always middle-class, feminist, politically-engaged, left-wing and often labelled as ‘hippies’. My own friendships formed from a wide variety of classes, backgrounds and political views, it felt such a shame that I would have to belong to a certain social tribe to make my own decisions about my body. It has increasingly become obvious the decision to shave at the age of twelve, and continue removing my body hair as I entered womanhood was made, not of my own accord, but for me by society, sexual expectations, the media and often, surprisingly, from other women.
‘Pride Ungroomed’ began as an idea to portray beautiful women who don’t shave their armpits. But throughout the project it became apparent that I was falling into the same trap that I was trying to question, with the view that portraying a woman’s beauty with her unshaven body made it somehow more acceptable. The project has evolved to become more about removing the taboo from the subject and hopefully creating a space to start a well-needed conversation. The response from male and female friends alike was surprisingly open and positive. It seems the view that women should shave is more part of a group mentality rather than any individual view. Like so many other things in society we all choose the easiest, most trodden path.
Whether you choose to shave or not, that’s not really the point, what’s more important is that we are aware that we have a choice, that our decisions about our bodies are coming from within and we strive towards a society that supports us either way.
This is an ongoing project if you want to find out more or get involved email firstname.lastname@example.org.