The “Feminine” Body: When Hair Is Your Worst Enemy

Young shocked woman shaving her face with a razor, isolated on white-Edit

I WAGED AN UNSUCCESSFUL AND COSTLY WAR on my armpit hair for six long years, from the age of 12 until I turned 18. I could never get a close, smooth shave. The combination of pitch-black hair and paper-white skin didn’t help. No matter what razor or cream I used, the result was burned, irritated, bleeding skin that still contained visible hairs poking through tender pores. I burned and cut my skin every other day for 6 years in an effort to be acceptable.

And it never occurred to me that I could just stop until a friend of mine exposed her unshaven armpits to me. My complete lack of awareness that shaving was a choice has unsettled me since, but I’m certainly not alone there; the ubiquity of a practice can give it an air of “just what you do,” which has a way of escaping analysis. “Far from being the inevitable outcome of a biological imperative, femininity is produced through a range of practices, including normative body-altering work such as routine hair removal,” write Merran Toerien and Sue Wilkinson in their paper, “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman.” “The very normativity of such practices obscures their constructive role: because the vast majority of women remove their hair, feminine hairlessness comes to seem “natural”; to not remove hair is thus not a legitimate option.”

The message, historically, is that the female body requires intervention.

The association between hair removal and women is not new. Women in ancient Egypt were accustomed to removing all their body hair. During the time of the Roman Empire, women’s pubic hair was considered “uncivilized” and thus often removed. Throughout the centuries when women wore conservative clothing and most of the body was hidden, body hair depilation was concentrated on the exposed face, neck, and arms. When women’s fashion in the West changed in the early 1900s to include sleeveless dresses and higher hemlines, a new domain for alteration opened up; product manufacturers began aggressively marketing hair removal products to women, highlighting the connections between femininity, desirability, and hairless armpits and legs in their advertisements.

The message, historically, is that the female body requires intervention. Without being worked on and molded to specific standards, the female body is naturally unfeminine, unruly, unacceptable, and undesirable. The women in possession of such bodies are pathologized and characterized in different ways: lazy, ugly, unmarriable, insane, physically ill, lesbian. These characterizations can be found even in medical literature throughout history, as Toerien and Wilkinson note. By not spending time and energy to present herself as expected – soft, smooth, tamed, altered, conformed – a woman fails to perform her role as object. Something is wrong with her.

Toerien and Wilkinson draw out the association between notions of feminine docility and submissiveness and the removal of body hair, noting that the extension of expected hair removal to the armpits and legs corresponded with the relaxing of gender norms in other areas – i.e., women achieving the legal right to vote and the relaxing of expectations concerning women’s behavior in public. Hair removal served, not only to create a new market for advertisers and product manufacturers, but also to reinforce gender duality at a time when this was being challenged by more overt forms of equality.

The infantilization of women is related to the association of femininity with docility and dependence, and some theorize that hair removal plays on this conception of women as childish or immature. Research into the views of counselors-in-training concerning what constitutes a healthy man, a healthy woman, and a healthy adult with sex unspecified has repeatedly revealed that many people do not attribute several of the traits of a healthy adult to a supposedly healthy adult woman. Culturally, it remains very common to refer to women as “girls,” whereas men are rarely referred to as “boys.” Removing body hair, a marker of sexual maturity, could be one way of according female bodies to this infantilized conception of femininity. Also, there is an inherent passivity to conforming oneself to societal rules and standards, and passivity is another trait of the docile, childlike, feminine woman.

Casting off cumbersome practices of body alteration is not an option equally accessible to all. “[S]ocial constructions have concrete effects on our lives, opening up (and closing down) possibilities for the types of practices that are conceivable and appropriate in society, as well as for the types of people that we might conceivably and appropriately be,” Toerien and Wilkinson note. The choice to abstain from physically altering one’s body could have real social and economic consequences for women, depending on location and profession. We should also note that this pressure impacts women of color, poor women, and especially trans women disproportionately, as their bodies and behaviors are subjected to greater policing. A razorless revolution may seem like the goal, but the immediate negative consequences for many women take the romance out of the idea, not to mention its feasibility.

…it starts with facing the shame and effort constituting women’s body alteration practices.

But there are things we can do, one being to talk about these cumbersome practices and the underlying reasons for them. That may sound easy, but there is much secrecy involved in the processes women go to in order to alter their bodies – hiding shaving supplies, pressure to make what takes effort seem effortless, to make the unnatural seem natural. Underlying these practices and the secrecy surrounding them is shame – shame that our bodies are not acceptable or desirable as they naturally are, shame that we don’t already conform to a completely unnatural and unrealistic standard. Feminists Rita Freedman and Wendy Chapkis hold out hope that making the beauty demands of society on women a more public topic of discussion can lead to a cultural shift.

Women can create solidarity and build support systems among ourselves by opening up about these practices and the pressures and shame surrounding them, but in order for the culture in which we live to change, men need to be a part of this process as well. Dismantling ingrained expectations, notions of attractiveness, and ideas about what constitutes the feminine and the masculine is not easy work. But it starts with acknowledging the arbitrariness of constructed gender norms and the expectations and pressures that come along with them. And it starts with facing the shame and effort constituting women’s body alteration practices. While many men may begin this conversation defending their love of silky-smooth skin on a woman, I like to think it may be harder for them to see this as sufficient justification for maintaining the status quo when confronted by the unfairness, the negative notions of femininity, and the senseless shame underlying it.