By Manya Gupta, India.
Both beauty as a concept with many casualties and the social constructions around body hair removal are frequently discussed topics within feminist media; however, these discussions are often exclusionary towards the people least capable of making the choices now touted as bold and brave and feminist. This article will analyse the history of body hair removal, why it matters that a choice to not participate in the practice exists for women, the intersectional impacts of this issue on women of colour, and my perspective of the path forward. I will also attach a list of resources and personal narratives on the internet that I have found especially empowering and important to listen to.
Before that, I want to acknowledge this: I am from a South Asian country where almost everyone is brown. I am a cis woman. I am upper class. My experiences and understanding of this will differ significantly from that of someone that lives in a more racially diverse place and does not share my privileges. I also recognise that while this specific piece will focus on impacts on women of colour, the impacts of the social taboo around body hair can land just as hard on some women that are white.
On history. The reason I think this is important to observe is it provides an understanding of the emergence of the norm, and allows us to approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism: beauty does not have to mean what it does. There are, of course, many social norms that are historically constructed in similar ways, and this is not enough for us to consider them problematic; however this provides an important lens that enabled me to make choices about my own body. Even in 1964, 98% of American women removed their body hair -- how did we get here?
While hair removal is not a new phenomenon (evidence exists that it was common for women in ancient Egypt and Elizabethan England, amongst other times), its steep rise in popularity to the point where it is normalised and expected of women can be attributed to the 1900s in the West. First came the ads: Gillette, calling body hair an “embarrassing social problem” that a “well-groomed woman” could simply not have, Harper’s Bazaar, “If we were dean of women, we'd levy a demerit on every hairy leg on campus,” Nair, and so on. Then came World War 2 and the Roaring Twenties; knee high skirts as women entered the workforce, a shortage of nylon so an end to stockings. Ad companies jumped in again; they offered the solution of hairlessness. Now, porn and media standards of beauty ensure this standard is upheld. Because of the way this norm was constructed, it is tied deeply with notions of femininity, class, and “appropriate”-ness, access to which often matters more to WOC or low-income women.
Why should we care? The first reason is that this is just painful for so many women. A norm which says hairless is beautiful makes young girls uncomfortable to talk to people just in case they see hair on her face, or to access public spaces without having to steal a parent’s razor to avoid being bullied. But beyond this, hair removal has significant costs - in terms of money, more than $10,000 across a lifetime on average in the US; in terms of time, almost 2 months of a woman’s life; in terms of the physical pain that many of these processes actually bring.
Importantly, then, the fact that this is not a real choice accessible to so many women of colour is terrible. Firstly, they are more likely to have hair that is more dense and more dark. Secondly, the costs of hair removal and the time spent on it are effectively more expensive for them. Thirdly, the cost of not making the decision to remove hair is also greater. WOC are already marginalised due to their differences from mainstream norms of beauty. Divergence further from that norm is often simply dangerous and impossible for people that are vulnerable. There is therefore no coincidence that the predominant celebrities and voices in this conversation are white and otherwise conform with beauty standards, like Miley Cyrus or Julia Roberts. While I still think that their contributions have been largely positive, awareness of this fact is important to encourage greater diversity in the future.
Conversations which recognise that these standards can be damaging especially to WOC are difficult ones to have, because they require individuals to be open about an issue that is laden with a lot of shame. But building such spaces is essential, because this is an impossible cycle to break out without such conversations. Many women have histories of second-too-long gazes on their arms that have accumulated in avoidance of these conversations and continued hair removal being their preferred route. As Ruqaiya Haris put it for Dazed Digital, “It also feels surreal at times that the same beauty culture that made me loathe my own body hair is now telling me, rather forcefully, that I must embrace it…. [it] now makes me feel as though I have failed at self-love again because I haven’t yet learnt to accept the hair I was always taught to hate.” While it has always been a feminist issue to think of what we look like and why, and history suggests that these norms are patriarchal and damaging, it is still a legitimate choice to remove body hair and that does not make you less of a feminist. It is okay. I understand.
To insert as a quote by Paniz Khosroshahy, “I stopped shaving soon after and I do not consider myself morally superior to women that do shave…. It’s because I believe that the patriarchy is to blame for women’s patriarchal socialization, not women themselves.”
I think we are making progress. There is increased visibility in media, and advertising companies even in the sphere of hair removal, like Billie, are using WOC models with body hair. The aim of this progress, for me, is to facilitate choices, and to build safe and accepting spaces for women for all skin colours and physical appearances. I do not need to spell out that there is a long way to go.
A variety of personal accounts:
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