The Complexity Women Have With Their Body Hair
Women’s relationship to their body hair is complex.
Women have been taught that it’s more acceptable to shave, and at the very least trim, their body hair whether it’s armpit hair, leg hair, pussy hair, nipple hair, or facial hair. These gender expectations run deep, and it’s no simple matter. From a young age, girls are taught to shave their pits and legs, and if they don’t, then they're usually subject to being made fun and feeling like they don’t fit in. Boys are told that their body hair is acceptable the way it is, and that it’s unacceptable for them to shave their pits and legs. Girls and boys are taught to expect girls and women to be practically free of body hair making it a norm that’s difficult to undo. But, is undoing this expectation in every woman’s interest?
Women, and our relationship to our body hair is complex. Sometimes, we shave. Sometimes, we trim. Some hairs we shave. Some hairs we trim. Some hairs we let be. There’s always a process of doing and undoing. It depends on our mood, our willingness, our interest, the circumstance, what we find sexy, our comfort level at any given day or moment. There’s no “right” way to be with our body hair. We all have a different relationship to our bodies, and that includes our body hair, and that relationship is often a complex one. It’s the complexity that needs to be acknowledged.
I wanted to ask various women-identified folks about their relationship to their body hair. How do they feel most comfortable? What is the complexity like for them? Do they feel societal pressures? Below are four stories from women of color sharing about their relationship to their body hair.
“My mother used to joke that I made hair decisions based on laziness and I guess that extends to body hair. For me, it’s more about time and financial efficiency. I shave when I remember, otherwise I just cover the area with clothing. When anything gets too long I do tend to shave. I only trim my pubic hair. I used to shave it all or get a wax but I know only to do the bikini area. Part of this was cost efficiency; I had moved to Korea for two years and the cost of waxing or Nair was adding up. For the bikini area, I tend to keep that clear only if I plan on going out in a bathing suit, otherwise I just keep it trimmed. If there were more readily available boy short bikini bottoms I would likely keep it trimmed all the time.
The one part of my body where I have strong stance on hair wise is my face, I prefer to have no body hair on my face. I wish my choices were about far more enlightened reasons and I am well-versed on the societal pressures to shave or not shave but a lot of my relationship with body hair is economical or about not wanting to spend a lot of time on what I feel like are unnecessary body maintenance choices.
While I don't care either way, I am not blind to the fact that a potential partner may not be quite as initially enlightened, so the appeal of shaving areas that are visible is that it is the socially acceptable option. I also like the fact that my legs look longer when they are clean shaven. The appeal of not shaving is that it is cheaper and less time-consuming.
These societal expectations are costly, and if they could be avoided I would rather avoid them. I tend to shave before a date with a guy I am properly interested in. I shave and trim a lot in the summer. It is not so much important as it is that I do it because I feel more comfortable when I fulfill the social requirement. I try to be confident in myself, but regardless, I prefer to not attract undue attention.
I wish body hair on women was more socially acceptable, then I would just stick to trimming.”
“One of the most annoying things about getting my menopause about 17 years earlier than most women do was the thing most people wouldn't expect: it was the loss of most of my pubic hair. As someone with somewhat conflicted feelings towards my bodily hair, the one area that I had never compromised about leaving to grow untamed was my bush. I never touched it, perked it up, tidied it, shaped it or anything else. (This despite some complaints from sexual partners). On beaches I would nonchalantly, and in fact, gleefully let it all hang out, at most tucking it into my bikini bottoms (I refused to wear boy shorts as this wouldn't afford me this small rebellion). Now the pubic hair is neat and tidy and looks groomed. I hate it.
I wish I could say that I have been consistent in this refusal to get rid of my body hair. As a South Asian woman with quite light skin, but jet black hair, my hair is very easy to spot, and it's thick, too. Many South Asian women have a hatred of their bodily hair because it's so visible. Most South Asian women spend a great deal of time getting rid of their hair, not just on their bodies, but on their faces.
I hate to say it, but I feel most comfortable shaving my legs in the summer (I won't do it in the winter) because the looks I got on the one occasion that I went au naturel in a skirt was just eye opening. People stared in horror. I hate that I'm not brave enough to weather that on a daily basis.
"It's always angered me that women are shamed into removing as much hair as possible from their bodies, and the pursuit of the lie that somehow being hairless is cleaner and more desirable for a woman."
Another small rebellion: I usually don't shave my armpits even if I'm going to wear something sleeveless and I'm dancing. Actually, I find armpit hair sexy, but alas my wife doesn't agree.
It's always angered me that women are shamed into removing as much hair as possible from their bodies, and the pursuit of the lie that somehow being hairless is cleaner and more desirable for a woman. Societal norms about bodily hair are so entrenched most people don't question or even notice them. Intellectually, I completely reject this control of women's bodies. In practice, I am well aware that I am a hypocrite in shaving my legs and tidying what would otherwise be a monobrow. I wish things were different.”
“I feel most comfortable with shaved pits and trimmed public hair. I'm lucky my legs really don't need maintenance but once a year. Due to having really coarse hair, I can't shave my arm pits because I will get the absolute worse abscesses. They have left huge deep scares and because of all on the scare tissue my hair doesn't grow as much. Unfortunately, the majority of the hair has been replaced with scars I'm just now feeling empowered enough to not cover up.
I'll never be a bald cat because it's simply too much work. There's nothing sexy about leaking infected abscesses on a vagina so to make sure I never have that, I just trim. The fear of shaving bald and getting ingrown hairs that get infected, yeah, forget it. I have tried Nair but it takes 2 or 3 applications. Applying a harsh hair burning cream three times a week to go bald is just not in my life plan.
I trim really low to surprise my husband every now and then. I trim regularly because my hair grows like a weed in the public area.
Nothing in society pushes me to shave. I let go of that years ago. I do wish people didn't associate armpit hair with being unclean. I shower, I put on deodorant, I'm good, it's just a little hair people!”
“As an adolescent, I quickly conformed to the expectation of hair removal; the message was clear: body hair on a woman was ugly and undesirable. I started shaving, and quickly grew to resent the ritual. The first time I stopped shaving I was a feminist University student raging against the patriarchy. It was also winter. When spring came I felt forced to shave; I wasn’t ready to publicly rock my body hair. Shaving off months worth of hair felt like removing a part of my body. It’s much easier to see shaving as normal when you are only ever removing stubble.
The next time I stopped shaving I used pregnancy as my excuse, but I stayed razor free after my baby was born. I chose confidence over compliance, and it felt so empowering. I’ve had to overcome my fear of being hairy in public, but I’ve found that having a bold and confident stride made all the difference. I do trim and remove some select hair, but now it’s a mindful choice, not an obligation. I look forward to the day when body hair is seen as normal instead of rebellious, when removing hair is only a question of personal preference, and when our bodies are liberated from any societal pressure and expectations.”