A few weeks ago I realized that both my armpit and leg hair had grown out quite a bit. Between cold weather and the unpredictable shower schedule of a stay at home caregiver, it’s an easy place to find oneself. As I thought about shaving, I realized that the idea of keeping my hairy armpits didn’t challenge my idea of my attractiveness, but hairy legs most certainly did. I was puzzled by this, and decided I needed to do some digging into body hair attitudes among my peers; other cold climate moms. I posted a survey to the larger of my online mom groups, which is made up primarily of other Vermonters, to ask about people’s winter body hair removal frequency, and these were my results:
So it’s about half and half between those that shave all the time through winter, and those that just do it when it starts to bother them and they have time, like myself, with some smaller factions choosing to shave or wax much less frequently, or not at all. In addition to this multiple choice question, I asked my fellow mamas if they would elaborate on their body hair attitudes in a private message. The answers I got were varied and interesting, but there were a few prevalent themes:
1) The women who remove their body hair regularly almost all had the same primary reason: the sensory experience of having that skin be hairless. They expressed that they prefer the feeling of their skin being smooth, whether under their clothes or not. A number of women also expressed that they felt it was easier to manage their body odor without armpit hair. Of the women who choose not to remove their body hair, the unpleasant sensory experience of the prickly regrowth was also a big factor. I was really surprised to find that about 50% of the content of the written answers revolved around the women’s sensory experiences.
2) Almost no one mentioned their partner’s preference as a reason for their hair removal, but of the women who do not regularly remove their hair, almost all of them mentioned that their partners have expressed finding this choice attractive. This was maybe the most interesting dichotomy between the two groups.
3) Many of the women expressed that when they were much younger they removed body hair other than legs or armpits, including belly, arm, back, or facial hair, out of anxiety that they would be unattractive if they didn’t, but had come to the realization with age and perspective that hair removal in those areas didn’t matter nearly as much as they had thought in their more insecure younger years. I went through this myself in middle school. A girl in my classes mentioned that she shaved her arms, and I immediately became embarrassed of my own. When my parents noticed what I was doing they made me stop, and would check my arms frequently, warning that I would have very thick arm hair if I continued shaving them. Now as an adult, it seems laughable to me that I ever worried about my arm hair, but the insecurities of middle school and puberty are hard to rival.
Having investigated peer trends, grateful to the women who had generously offered their time and perspectives about body hair, I decided to do a little research about the historical and cultural context for our current body hair attitudes. There are a number of great internet resources regarding the history of hair removal, which is strange indeed, but can be summed up by saying cultures throughout history have valued specific hair removal practices, and there is no continuity or even overall trend. My conclusion was that human’s attitudes about body hair seem entirely dependent on the style of the moment and cultural expectations.
So this brought me back to my initial question; why was I more comfortable with my armpit hair than my leg hair? Well, it turns out it’s another instance of “Jill gets taken in by a trend she doesn’t realize is a trend.” This is like when I hear a pop song in a store I think is really catchy, then find out it’s #1 on the Billboard Charts, or the time I suddenly decided I loved honeysuckle pink, and found out it was the Pantone Color of the Year. In 2014, female armpit hair began having a serious pop culture resurgence. Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities started showing off fluffy-haired pits. There was even a trend (which I totally missed) of dyeing one’s armpit hair bright colors. So we can go ahead and chalk up my acceptance of my armpit hair to cultural messaging I wasn’t even aware of, but was obviously absorbing over the last few years. So for now I will shave my legs when I get to it, until summer rolls around and I will likely start shaving them more regularly. I will go with the pop culture flow and keep my armpit hair since I am feeling good about it. Who knows, maybe someday I will get more comfortable with my leg hair, but for now, I am willing to accept my uneven attitudes about my body hair.
One other interesting cultural tidbit from my research I think is very much worth noting: I came across many articles and blog posts from lesbian, bisexual, and queer (LBQ) women who certainly didn’t begrudge straight women their body hair freedom, but did bemoan that greater cultural acceptance of women’s body hair has made quietly signaling your sexual orientation or judging that of someone you are interested in more challenging (ETA: I just learned from a helpful reader that this signalling is called “flagging.”) I found this was really interesting, particularly as a straight woman (who is trying to write respectfully, but I am still learning) who also has a very short “alternative” hairstyle and sometimes dresses in a way that people associate with LBQ women. I am curious to see how the appropriation and assimilation of LBQ culture plays out over the next few years as attitudes continue to shift.
A huge thank you to all the women who took the time to sit down and write really thoughtful and honest answers to my survey; I learned a lot and I know it took some guts to share some really personal stuff! I would love to hear your thoughts on body hair, or lack thereof.