I remember distinctly when I first learned that women are “supposed” to get rid of their body hair. I was in sixth grade, and overheard two other sixth-grade girls complaining that their moms wouldn’t let them shave until high school. I had two older sisters who shaved, too. But technically, I didn’t know exactly what they shaved, and my classmates didn’t indicate what body part, either. So later that night, my younger sister and I, determined to shave something, locked ourselves in the bathroom, found a razor, and each shaved one arm. I then proudly showed my older sisters that I’d finally shaved, too — and I’ve never lived it down.
The “feeling” that female body hair must be eradicated has nothing to do with “needing” to get rid of it. We learn early on that all women are “supposed” to be softer, smoother and nicer-smelling than all men. (We conveniently ignore the fact that we’ve been shaving our bodies and coating them with scented lotion for decades, which likely aids in our “natural” good scent and smoothness.)
But cut to today, where in spite of decades of women reclaiming our legitimate right to have body hair wherever we want, many still feel bad about it. “Women like me,” Mona Chalaba confesses in a piece at The Guardian, “have been keeping a secret.” The secret is not that all women secretly love giving handjobs in their spare time, but rather that having facial or body hair in the wrong place comes at great personal cost. “It’s a secret so shameful that it’s hidden from friends and lovers, so dark that vast amounts of time and money are spent hiding it,” Chalabi continues. “It’s not a crime we have committed, it’s a curse: facial hair.”
The secret: Female facial hair is the worst of all. Chalabi focuses initially on hirsutism, or excessive body hair on women that follows a more male pattern (like on the face), which is no fucking picnic. Women who deal with it get called things like gorilla, monkey, werewolf and Sasquatch. One study she cites from 2006 found that women who do grow facial hair spend 104 minutes weekly trying to deal with that shit. And 75 percent of them feel anxiety to a degree that would meet clinical definitions.
Not a secret: Some women rock this condition proudly.
JD Samson of the dance band Le Tigre, who has had a mustache as long as she can remember, recommends not just accepting female facial hair, but respecting it:
She advocates for finding the one thing that makes you most uncomfortable with yourself and celebrating that thing. Not a secret: This attitude makes people very very angry.
“This bitch is so repulsive hahaha,” reads the first comment on the video.
The second offered a lesson in the rules of attraction:
“There is a reason mustaches are not good on women; not feminine. If you are competing for a male’s attention (males are masculine) you want to appear as feminine as possible (opposites attract). If you are not concerned with that, that’s okay. There are probably a few people out there that will find you attractive regardless. I don’t mind a tiny shadowy moustache on a woman, but this chick is too much for me. Bleaching is another alternative to waxing.”
The stigmatization of hair on women is made worse by the fact that women of color tend to be hairier. According to research, Chalabi writes, hairiness on women from most to least goes in this ethnic order:
But of course, you don’t need to be a woman of color. White Italian women, for instance, tend to have more hair in unwanted places than WASPY women. I am a white woman of northern European descent with fine light body hair that doesn’t stand out. By all the above standards I don’t “need” to shave, and yet, even I have fully internalized the idea that shave I should. And especially that not shaving is still a transgressive act. (If Lena Dunham and Miley Cyrus growing out their armpit hair in 2015 was seen as radical, you know we haven’t come that long a way, baby.)
The secret is that having body hair makes you feel unfeminine. The secret is that having body hair makes you feel dirty — like a “dirty ethnic” girl, according to one of Chalabi’s sources. The secret is that having the wrong body hair means on some level, you’re not really as feminine as hairless women, which really means not as white. The secret is, you’ll spend a lot of money and time privately eradicating it to meet the standards society has set; hair removal in America is a nearly $1 billion dollar business annually.
The secret is that growing out hair and shaving that hair is a pain in the ass, and can result in itchiness, infections and other stubbly misery. The secret is when you decide to let your armpit hair grow out, people do a double take when you lift your arms up because it’s still that rare. The secret is some guy inevitably points out that you have hair there — or on your vulva, if you’re having sex — as if that somehow obligates you to explain why.
A secret: Debates over what women should or should not do with their body hair — among women themselves — have become so politicized that women who don’t shave feel bad, and women who do shave feel bad:
Of course, it should be noted that not all women see their body hair existence or removal as a terrible secret; it’s just a reality. When I polled my friends to ask how much work they do to deliberately hide the fact that they have hair, they all said pretty much the same thing: I get rid of the hair I have during personal grooming, but I’m not going out of my way to hide it intentionally per se. As a woman, you tweeze an errant hair from a mole or nipple, shave your legs, or make your pubic wax appointment so often and on such autopilot that maybe you don’t think about it anymore.
Lots of women don’t shave anything, live their lives and don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. But regardless, all women have internalized that the hair is bad, and they embrace that or they reject it, but never without knowing that, if you’re a woman, whatever you do to your body hair, whether keep it, wax, flaunt it or ignore it, you’re still doing it wrong. That’s as immutable a fact as the hair itself, and probably always will be.