hair on legs; ignoring, hating, tolerating and loving

“A long story of why I currently have one hairy leg”

From the age of 12 or 13 to the age of 17 or 18, I wasted a lot of energy in concern over body hair, on my legs and armpits. There are hours of my teenage life, gone forever, spent experimenting with a range of more or less inefficient methods of removal, and far more hours warped by my concern over this incredibly trivial matter. The standard distaste for my body that is somehow normal for teenage girls focussed itself on this particular issue.
I can pin down a moment that it started. I was in year 7, and I heard a comment by a couple of loser boys “nice legs….” and the word almost lost in giggles “ … hairy…”. It was warm weather, I was wearing a skirt. I was pretty socially uncertain in the school environment, having been home educated for most of my primary school years. I was mortified, and felt that this issue, of leg hair, was something that all the other girls knew how to deal with, and that I didn’t, and had never even thought about it, marked me out, so I never spoke about it, for fear of further exposing my ignorance.

Being certain my mother would simply think the idea of removing leg hair was absurd, and not wanting to be thought silly, I never raised it with her. It seemed there would be little point, as she wouldn’t have any practical experience. At home I borrowed my brothers’ razors. That worked. I furtively bought products myself, razors, at some point depilatory cream, as I hated stubble, and wax strips. My war against the hair on my legs was waged persistently, but with a lack of consistant tactics. The inconclusiveness of the battle- I never felt I had a satisfactory solution- was largely due to a deep uncertainty as to how I would achieve the desired outcome – of legs I was content to be seen with unselfconsciously. I could either successfully remove hair, or I could live with it.
I valued camps I went on in the summer as somewhere where, comparatively, no-one gave a shit about bodily appearance, including leg hair. I avoided paying attention to those girls/women who removed hair on camp. I was totally aware that leg hair should not be an issue, but knew that it was, and that I failed on that front. At 6th form college I got a new set of friends, having remained in a social rut of inferiority during my secondary years, and it all went uphill. I dealt with my body hair, reluctantly, but without too much stress or hassle. I did “body talk” with friends in the “my legs are grossly hairy at the moment” style. I even let my mum know, and having imagined her reaction for several years, the “well, suit yourself, I never did that, I never saw the point” was underwhelming. It wasn’t new to me that she had no comprehension of social pressure issues, or if she did she had no notion of how to discuss such things.
My first emotionally successful sexual relationship marked the beginning of the end. It was a relationship where physical appearances seemed totally besides the point, and so I was unconcerned about my body hair with this tolerant, loving man. Discovering he actually thought of bodyhair as “cool” was a moment of pleasant surprise, and recognition of the absurdity of my projected Male In the Head. As his very mainstream housemate commented to my boyfriend’s complaints about the difficulty of being a man “well, women have to shave even more than men do, and wear make-up and stuff. I don’t think I’d be very good at being a woman” we laughed together, sharing the knowledge that I was not ‘good’ in these terms, and it was the terms that were absurd, not me that was a failure. YES!!! Dislike of body hair VANQUISHED.
Since that day, I removed body hair a couple of times during the next year, using an internet researched method of sugar syrup, which, delighted by the DIYness of it, I repeated, adding cloves. Then, as I found a group that included other women who confidently displayed, and discussed attitudes towards leg hair, I totally ceased to have any drive to do anything of the sort. I’m now comfortably amused by my boyfriend’s cartoon of me cycling with hairy legs. That shared acceptance is a source of inner pride all the greater for its contrast with the dark past of my leghair hatred.
Displaying hair on the legs of my female presenting body has become, for me, a personal display of gender expectation subversion and feminist politics. I hate how that in mainstream society, any female leg on display is expected to be hair free. Seeing this, we grow up believing that this is natural, and that hairy legs are an aberration from this norm. Women generally learn that this is not the case- but many follow a regime of smooth leg presentation that reinforces this biological sex difference essentialising default. A friend posted on her facebook that she was contemplating a period of abstaining from sex unattached to a relationship, and among the choice affirming comments was the reminder of “No more issues with legs and underarm hair growth” as a positive, reminding me of the reality that it is somehow perceived as reasonable for men to expect women to be hair free.
Displaying my own leg hair with pride helps undermine this default in a small and personal way. My comfort levels around my body hair act as a barometer for the gender politics of situations- from job interviews [in this case I would probably avoid visible display], and formal wear occasions where I enjoy the subversion only if I feel socially supported, to anarcho feminist circles. This summer I was staffing 14-15yrolds on the same camps in which I found some escape from societal gender normativity as a child. There were a few body talks that I had with the girls. It was horrifying to find that in a group of 9 girls, only one was utterly uninterested in wanting her boobs to be bigger or smaller, but heartening to be able to contribute some body acceptance ideas, a bit of blaming the media, capitalism and the patriarchy and hear the girls being receptive to, and elaborating on these ideas. My own visible bodyhair was a point of discussion which could link these ideas more closely to the personal in a way that I hope emphasised individual choice, rather than falling into the preachiness which is so problematic in lifestyle discourse.
I can enjoy having smooth legs, hairfree. It’s fun. Like soapy embraces in the shower. Anyone who wants to should do it. However, I feel like it’s a body modification that should be acknowledged as such, along with particular hairstyles, make-up, piercings and tattoos. All of these can be fun, empowering, and beautiful- but should not be presented as the default state of the body. At my parents’ I found some old wax strips of mine in a drawer, and, trying one out, remembering the satisfaction of it, waxed most of one lower leg. I quite like the way this emphasises the intentionality of the hairiness of the other leg. One leg smooth is as far as I’m going at the moment. If I want another smooth leg, it’ll have to be one of my lover’s.

3 Comments

  1. Mathilde Mérat-Balaïan

    January 19, 2011 at 9:56 am

    You’re completely right, this is indeed a body modification which should be considered as such ; I’m agast to hear very young girls concern themselves with this issue – and not only on the legs, but the bikini area as well – wondering what is wrong with their body and doing everything (badly most of the time) to alter it.
    However, you are taking a stand which is difficult to take, I should know. I don’t consider myself particularly victim to the “beauty myth”, especially not on that point. I currently have an arm in a cast, and this is difficult enough on a everyday-basis ; I really don’t care if I have some hair on my body right now. I like to think I avoid the anguish some of my friends experience all the time, bleaching their upper-lip, shaving everyday, and spending so much time – and money – being so self-conscious.
    But, you see, I know the theory. I know how stupid it is to feel bad about some hair. And yet I wouldn’t go to the beach or wear a skirt without making sure I am more or less hairfree. Sheep, I know.
    It is really hard to take a stand as you do, and it is not only a question of education, or analysis. You can be perfectly aware of all the feminist theories, never read Cosmo, and still feel obligated to shave. Let me rephrase : feel GOOD to shave. Because this is the genius of those mental chores. You actually feel good afterwards – contrary to washing the dishes or answering emails. Smooth, sexy, shiny, whatever…

    Especially since the mainstream theory right now is that it is not a female concern only, but that men too feel pressured to shave their overly hairy chests / backs / pubes. Hygiene is the main argument for this, which is absurd, because hair is healthy.
    However, I do believe this shift in the market can be a good thing. I actually hope the arrival of the male population in it is going to change the perception of hair ; shave where you want, if you want. But advertisers are very good and I dare not hope too much.

  2. beva

    January 19, 2011 at 10:28 am

    After writing this, I cycled across town, and had a few doubts about some of the things it projects/ doesn’t put across as well as it could. Your comment “sheep, I know” makes me want to add a postscript
    so
    P.S.
    I feel in a highly privileged position in that none of the most significant others in my life are critical, explicitly or implicitly of my body hair choices. There are plenty in my wider circles of acquaintances from whom I sense a judgement of – surprise, ‘well, I wouldn’t do that’ etc etc, but I am able to take the stand I take at the moment without feeling uncomfortable about it.

    Women shouldn’t have to feel weak, guilty, or ‘weak’ for choosing to remove, and to feel, yes, smooth, sexy, accentuatedly feminine – or just choosing to not have people notice, and avoid having the ‘angry hairy woman who hates men’ judgement made about them – we can totally be theoretically aware of wanting to dismiss that point of view but not want to have to defend ourselves against it on every occasion.

    Also, women are often in positions where discrimination against them for not being of default body presentation is an issue. Institutional discrimination, discrimination in the work place etc. Business power dressing is an extreme situation, but I know I’d avoid showing hairy skin in a job interview.

    A woman I know, who is in her early 30s, has a mother (concerned that her daughter doesn’t appear to be likely to produce grandchildren soon) who wants to give her laser treatment for her upper lip hair as a christmas present (the unrefusable gift). [she doesn’t want it].

    The other thing I wanted to add was that I realised I gave a greater role to my male lovers than I did to female friends. I’d like to emphasise the process of sharing feelings with woman friends, the social circle I’ve found at cambridge with a lot of hair displaying women, and the solidarity of women above the acceptance of men, which is great, but y’know, is kind of what one would hope to expect to be default, rather than having to feel grateful for as ‘exceptional’.

  3. beva

    January 19, 2011 at 10:31 am

    and I just remembered. quoting a girl from the summer camp “Do you have a boyfriend?” -‘yes’ “doesn’t he mind [that your legs are hairy]?”
    I wasn’t sure whether to say first ‘of course he doesn’t mind’, or to say ‘even if he did, why should you assume that would affect my choice?’

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