I’ve been campaigning for equality and social justice since I was in primary school.
My first campaign was lobbying my primary school principal to make the oval safer for girls at lunchtime. At university I graduated with a Bachelor of Business and a file from the Australian Federal Police for protesting everything from nuclear testing in the South Pacific to upfront university fees.
Despite being a troublemaker from way back, and being fully on board with Our Bodies, Ourselves, I’m sorry to say that I’m still a good girl when it comes to many Feminine Rules.
Exhibit one: shaving my legs.
My daughter asked me recently why I shave my legs and I didn’t have a suitable answer.
I could have told her that I’ve imbibed our culture which treats women’s bodies in their natural state as an aberration to be cast as shameful.
But she’s seven and trying to explain misogyny and patriarchy with Doc McStuffins blaring from the TV in the background is just too much for 9am on a Saturday.
And she’s a little young for me to explain that in our culture the pinnacle of female beauty is to look like a pre-pubescent girl – hairless, minimal curves and non-threateningly innocent.
I could have told her that hair removal is a personal choice; that I just prefer the feel of my skin hair-free.
But if that were true, why do I not shave in winter? My razor blade gets such little attention in the colder months I have to wipe the cobwebs off it on the first warm day in spring. Even then I only shave my lower legs, the bit that’s seen.
The truth is I hate removing my body hair. I hate the time it takes, the money it wastes and the sensation of the razor scraping my skin or the wax pulling my follicles out at the root.
Most of all, I hate that removing my body hair is a requirement for being an acceptable woman; the implication that I am not OK the way I am.
But I still do it. And I suspect many women feel the same.
Now, I’m sure there are women who shave, wax and pluck because they genuinely want to. I’ve had many conversations with women who assure me that hair removal is a personal preference and they are not at all influenced by social expectations. No doubt there are some women like this.
But given that the beauty industry calls summer the “Waxing Season” I’m guessing that many women’s personal “choice” is not really that free. If we all loved being hair-free so much wouldn’t we be hair-free all year round and not just when people can see it?
For many of us, the choice is less about hair and more about feminine compliance.
And, yes, social exclusion can be a real consequence of non-compliance. A friend who grew up in Spain, where she learnt that her body hair was an expression of her sexuality, was horrified when she was recently asked to shave by a bride. The bride didn’t want a hairy woman near her on her big day.
Our preferences for body hair, or the lack of it, isn’t just a matter of cultural identity. It’s also about fashion trends that are driven by a beauty and advertising industry masterful at creating, and then cashing in on, our body insecurities. As anyone who had the misfortune of seeing their friend’s dad’s porno collection in the 80s can testify, women didn’t always need to have brazilians to be considered sexy.
Our preference for hair-free skin is not hard-wired either. We can safely assume that cave people weren’t shaving their bikini lines or waxing their cracks, backs and sacks, or anything else for that matter.
And it’s pretty hard to argue that hair removal is a simple matter of personal choice when women who don’t shave their body hair can receive death threats, or are accused of being men haters, or unclean/unsexy/a hippie/difficult, and all the other stereotypes and assumptions about the characters and worth of non-compliant women.
And it’s not just women who are being subject to the requirement to go hairless. Men’s Health magazine has pondered the suitability of male body hair with articles such as: “Should you shave your armpits?”
The article attracted the following comment: “It’s part of a mans (sic) grooming requirement. Especially if your (sic) man who trains hard nothing worse I feel that (sic) doing overhead press and have what looks like rat tails under your arms. Legs chest (back of course) should all be subject to grooming.”
For other men, hair is part of their identity as a man, as illustrated by the following comment on the thread: “dot (sic) be a pussyfied man by this pussyfied society!! grow up and dont (sic) act like a b—h”
Clearly hair is not just hair. For men, body hair can be key to their identity and masculinity. For women, body hair is a political statement. That one of the most subversive and rebellious acts a woman can do is to not shave shows just how strictly our bodies are policed.
Which is why my 11-year-old self can fight for the rights of girls to have a safe play space at lunch time and win — a section of the oval was cordoned off where football and rough games were banned after my protests to Mr Partington — but my 40-year-old self still can’t get over the shame of her naturally occurring body hair and resist the pressure to remove it.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.