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?