Monday, 18 May 2009

Should I be a hairy feminist?

I’ve been conducting a personal experiment lately and have stopped shaving my legs, because I realised I was doing something without ever having thought about why. My mother visited, and in the same tone she’d use to describe an unwise clothing purchase, declared them 'horrible'. I’ve seen other people call female leg hair ‘disgusting’ and shudder. Given that I'm even embarrassed to show off my hair in the gym changing rooms, I think I have a while to go until I'm happily wearing skirts and letting it flutter in the breeze. Plenty of self-declared feminists have told me that this is not a 'feminist issue', but I am still uneasy about the social pressure involved, especially as for the majority of people gender expectations are clearly involved somewhere.

I fully accept that for many women, hair removal is primarily a matter of personal preference, not of pleasing a partner or being socially acceptable. Insofar as it is a matter of social pride, for them not going swimming when unwaxed is the same as wearing matching underwear in case one is hit by a bus. For some people this is to do with aesthetics and feeling ‘tidy’; some see it a hygiene issue. I don't feel strongly either way.

I do not think there is convincing evidence that a dislike of female body hair is due to primordial concerns with determining health and fertility. It can arguably even indicate health and fertility, and promote hygiene. There are people who like it, and they can’t all be relegated to the ‘fetish’ category. Female hairlessness is not inherently or naturally more ‘beautiful’.

I wonder whether hair removal is due to a desire for symmetry or ‘neatness’. I saw a cartoon recently of a monkey who had shaved her armpits and legs, and left the rest furry – the result was ridiculous – but it is fair to say that in human women when the darkest hair is removed the result is a more ‘uniform’ appearance. However, perhaps because I also have dark arm hair (which I have no intention of removing) I do feel a little like that monkey when I shave my legs, perhaps partly because I am developing notions about simplicity and about not having six different products/machines in my bathroom with which to deal with hair on six different parts of my body.

Finally, I’ve heard of a theory that our wearing of clothes and lack of hair is due to our desire to distinguish ourselves from animals. Given what I know about the rise of ‘civility’ and etiquette, it seems likely that hair removal, for men too but to a lesser extent, has become seen as a sign of civilization, of being removed from baser nature. However, this too is not attractive to all – ask the nearest hippy.

My view is therefore that while there is no strong logical reason to prefer either, it is possible for both hairiness and hairlessness in women to be ‘personal’ preferences, as well as driven by prevalent imagery and social pressure. Nevertheless, we are all creatures of culture, and it is important to examine the basis for that culture.

Part of body adornment and modification is the act of emphasising parts of ourselves which we feel to be beautiful, be it curves, a flat chest, bright eyes, or smooth skin. Emphasis on particular elements varies between places and eras. At some points in time, asserting the differences between the sexes has been seen as desirable, at other times not - ideas about men wearing lace or eyeliner, flat-chested women, and the ‘gender’ of skirts have varied dramatically. I am still open to the idea that there are some biological differences between genders, but they are probably not binary, qualitative or polarised. Choices over which physical elements to emphasise as 'gender-defining' are cultural. When these ideals are in place, people may well choose a particular appearance because it displays their distinct sexual and gender ‘identity’. Sexual and gender identity may well be important, and, unless we all start wearing burqas, they are often going to be expressed (as are other aspects of identity) through semiotics of appearance.

If we assert a particular gender identity by reinforcing and accentuating the differences between the sexes, I think we need to be alert to the risk of essentialism. If we accept norms which state that wearing flowers, lace and long skirts are part of a feminine identity, what stops us from accepting other norms that say pacifism, care for the environment or domestic work are more feminine? Perhaps there is some distinction to be made between humans as physical, sexual beings, and as intellectual, moral and social beings, and as long as we remain aware of this, we can avoid essentialism in our behaviour. To impose gendered beauty standards on others does, however, imply essentialism.

I think it's a problem that anyone should do something which they dislike, but which has no basis in health or hygiene, purely because of social fear. I think it's a problem that anyone should do something they feel neutral about doing when it's not an entirely free choice. Thus I do think it is courageous for women who genuinely wish to stay hairy to do so (or for men who wish to remove their body hair to do so, though I think the social pressure there is less). However, I don’t think it is necessary in order for them to be considered true advocates of gender equality.

Nor is it necessary for women to stop removing their hair if for personal or cultural reasons they do want to, just to remove a ‘binary’ which is not a factor in the rest of their lives. They may be influenced by cultural norms of beauty, but we are all creatures of culture. Perhaps what we do need to do is be aware of the influence of culture. When it becomes extended to norms of beauty that are much more difficult and even damaging to follow, we will then be more cautious.

I do feel strongly that for anyone to call a woman ‘manly’ or unfeminine because she chooses to stay hairy, or to call the practice of not shaving ‘unfeminine’, is to tread on very dangerous ground, whether because it reinforces an often-polarised norm as being essential to a gender identity, or because it implies that gender and sexual identity is and should be key to all of us as people. In more general terms, to describe body hair, which grows naturally, as repulsive is just as bad as telling someone that not using makeup, or wearing trousers to a ball, is revolting. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing the latter, so why allow the former?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

A Great Wall of Feminism? Introductory Post

I think this cartoon has some misleading implications.

The first thing I found in it to dislike was the top image, which implies that lesbian marriage rights are less important than heterosexual marriage rights. I hope that the intention was more to show the (debatable) difference between demanding 'pieces of paper' and the right to see one's partner frequently, but it would've been much less misleading to have contrasted lesbian marriage rights in Britain with the right not to be executed for being homosexual in Iran.

My other concern is about the reference to a Great Wall of Feminism itself. Development and gender theory have recently been about diversity and breaking down generalisations about human experience or women's experience. These are valuable contributions, and I'm not advocating a return to essentialism or ethnocentrism. However, I do wonder whether rigid distinctions are being set up when in fact there are more widespread mentalities at work, and when solidarity is not hopeless. I'm also alert to the fact that whilst 'Western' feminism is a product of culture, so are the alternative mentalities promoted in 'post-development' - and culture has generally had its winners and its losers.

The images on the left are all of women standing on soap boxes or giving righteous (and self-interested) speeches. I think the cartoon was a response to the UN conference on women in Beijing in 1995, and thus does make the important point that not all issues do get covered by supposedly representative conferences. However, the implication is that the problems being talked about by First World women are not real issues at all, whereas Third World women are actively suffering and working. Is this supposed to make First World feminists feel guilty? Why is there no picture of homophobic bullying in an American playground? Or a London woman raped because of stereotypes about what she wanted? Conversely, why is there no picture of a Third World woman activist?

I wonder if there is a hint of Molyneux's distinction between 'practical' and 'strategic' women's interests here. A practical interest is one which needs to be fulfilled for someone to have the best standard of living possible within her role, as ascribed by social structure norms. A strategic interest is an interest in changing those norms, structures and roles themselves. This is a useful distinction when investigating the aims of different movements, but I suspect that in terms of eventual outcomes the distinction is false. By implying that a focus on long-term goals (smashing the glass ceiling) detracts from the need to focus on immediate welfare (putting a roof over women and children's heads), this cartoon misses the point.

I plan through this blog to muse and research my way through the connections and differences between structures, mentalities and realities for rich and poor women. I'm under no illusions whatsoever that my decision whether or not to shave my legs is going to have a momentous impact on the lives of those suffering because of the gender status quo. However, I do find that reflecting on the meanings behind even small decisions can be very revealing. Furthermore, as a privileged British woman I am lucky enough to have choices over how to adjust my lifestyle to my ideals, and to choose to interest myself in gender at many different levels. I'd like to be coherent. I will be posting about leg hair, but I will also be posting about more violent parallels, and about 'separate' issues.

Finally, where in the cartoon is the husband who is visited only twice a year, and what does he think of all this? I wonder whether we have set up other Great Walls which limit our understanding, not only between different women but also between women and men. I believe fervently in equal rights for men and women, I don't agree with double standards, and I do think that in most parts of the world women have had a rougher deal: I therefore call myself feminist. However, women enforce gender norms on each other and on men; men enforce gender norms on other men as well as on women. My upcoming dissertation project will be on female genital cutting. Some feminists have been in uproar against men who 'diverted' discussions about this onto the topic of male circumcision. I agree that there is a difference of scale, but in many regions they are seen as highly comparable practices. How are we to understand this issue if we shout down that belief? I hope I can draw into this blog ideas about men and masculinity as well as women.