"If you don't shave your armpits," she beamed, "it gets all wavy like a man's."
We all turned to the back of the room and laughed at the strangeness of our classmate's statement. We'd been getting A Talk about personal hygiene - specifically, how to not smell awful after our eighth grade PE class. Mrs. Loo had just finished extolling the virtues of baby powder.
Walking the Razor's Edge, Image Credit: JD Hancock via Flickr
There was an assumption that we were all shaving our armpits since we were all young ladies now, and that's what ladies do. I have no idea what the other girls were doing, but I'd anxiously started shaving as soon as I saw the first feathery strands under my arms. I knew that not shaving was an invitation to ridicule, and I was desperate to not earn any more of that business.
There were constant jokes about body hair, mostly racially charged. An Okinawan classmate laughed about the thick fluff on her arms, saying that if we thought she was bad, we should see her father. We whispered about about Samoan women with wan a* under their arms, tucking our hands into our armpits and waving our fingers like little tentacles.
And so it was that I couldn't wait to wage war against my own body hair. I actually begged my mother for permission to shave months and months before going rogue and stealing one of her razors. She was angry at my theft, and that I had disobeyed. I was angry that she was trying to keep me a disgusting, hairy baby forever.
I was twelve years old.
But I had already fought back humiliated tears as a friend sat next to me and said that I could have some really nice legs if I just bothered to shave them. A moment earlier I'd been sitting in silence next to the first boy I wanted to be the father of my babies, working up the courage to breezily say howzit. I knew that my dreams of pre-teen romance were crushed by the grossness of my hairy legs when he got up and walked away. I vowed right then and there to be silky smooth for the rest of my life.
That vow never lasted, though off and on I tried to keep up with the never ending stubble of legs and pits and bikini line. It was a pain in the ass effort that required constant vigilance. And I am seriously not one for vigilance. I fell of the hairless lady wagon early and often, going to school embarrassed because there was no hiding my scruffy legs while wearing the pleated knee-length skirt of my uniform.
I went to public school the next year and mostly hid behind a rotation of acid washed jeans that clung to my sweaty legs in the hot Hawaii afternoons. Every once in awhile I'd wear a dress or a skirt to school, which was far more comfortable, but required that I had managed to shave my legs without injuring myself.
Injuring myself was common during those first years of shaving. The skin above my Achilles' tendon was nearly always scabbed over with the remnants of previous shaving adventures. My knees, a breeding ground for ingrown hairs, were dinged and nicked and required more band-aids than when I was learning to ride my bike. But I kept at it, because that was what women were supposed to do. Well, that, and I hated the way it itched when it started growing back.
I went through my first bout of hairy lady rebellion in my early twenties, though it was really more prolonged laziness than rebellion. After moving to the Pacific Northwest and discovering a land where shorts weather does indeed end, I also discovered a magical thing about my body hair: it didn't itch anymore once it grew out.
Like I said, magic.
I stopped shaving for months at a time and learned to ignore the weird way that air breezed through my leg hair after getting out of the shower. I noticed that my armpit hairs do not make me look like a man. In fact, I actually likedmy dark fluff, finding the soft tangle of hairs to be far superior to the coarse stubble that collected there no matter how often I shaved.
Maybe, I thought, I'll be a yeti for the rest of my life.
I had a chance to try out my newfound hairy lady love when I went swimming at a nearby recreation center. I changed into my swimsuit and was immediately overcome by a nauseating anxiety. Alarm bells I hadn't heard since high school started going off in my brain. Oh no! What if I get laughed at? I honestly wondered if I'd be able to survive.
I considered going home, but had come with friends and honestly could not think of a single reason, other than my body hair, to skip the swim. I decided that I wasn't going to let being a mammal ruin my day and that people at the rec center probably had more things to worry than somebody else's armpit hair. I took step after step towards the pool, pretending that I didn't care what anybody said.
And then, just like that, I got into the water.
As I paddled around, alternating between long, reaching backstrokes that displayed my horrifying armpits and restful moments treading water, I felt okay about being the only yeti in the pool.
It was going well for awhile, and then I noticed some girls gaping from behind a window in the racquetball court. I couldn't help but notice the looks on their faces. It was like I was showing off my fluffy bunnies at them. And they were not amused. There was some pointing. Corkscrewed faces. And one of the girls looked like she actually was going to be sick. I smiled a bit and kept swimming, completely aware of the dark, wet fluff that flashed by every time I reached back to pull myself through the water.
And I admit that I felt strangely, rebelliously happy.
The girls left the racquetball court and I left the swimming pool, and if we ever saw each other again I never knew it. I had survived my very first test of having body hair in public, and it had really been a non-issue. Neither the world nor I (nor even those grossed out girls in the racquetball court) burst into flames because I didn't shave.
I did shave at some point that summer, and picked up the razor pretty haphazardly after that. I've been through many variations of the lady-who-is-a-mammal-who-is-also-a-socialized-human-being thing, which means that sometimes I shave and sometimes I don't. I shaved for my wedding, and would do so again, if I could ever fit back into my totally bangin' strapless wedding dress. I shave when I feel like it, but for the most part I don't feel like it. And while I totally do ask Ian if my body hair bothers him (so far, the answer is no), I never do it with the intention of changing myself to suit his preferences. I mean, Ian shaves his face when his beard gets uncomfortable for him, no matter what I have to say about it.
Personally? I love it when Ian goes a couple weeks without shaving. His beard finally starts softening and I like to pet it as if he's gonna start purring any second. But he hates the way his beard feels so he shaves it off even though it's just gotten to the stage that I like best. And that's the way it goes, because it's his fucking face, and asking him to wear a scraggly pelt on it just to delight me is bonkers. (Dammit.)
Yet we live in a world where women are still expected to be smooth. To glisten, rather than sweat. Where a woman's body hair is used as a punchline; as a way of calling her freak without actually using the word freak. Even Ash Beckham, in her super moving TED talk, uses not shaving her armpits as the first example of militant lesbianism.
My body hair isn't a political statement. Sometimes it's there, and sometimes it isn't, and whether it's there or not is purely a matter of comfort. And comfort means different things in different situations. I don't think that's a very radical idea. But for some reason it is radical, when it comes to talking about how a woman deals with being a mammal.
Because it's true, right? That's why I have hairy legs. And armpits. And a crotch full of bushes that doesn't quite make me an 80s porn star, but mostly because it's not the 80s. I have all of these things because I am a mammal, and I don't really buy into the idea that I have to get rid of it all in order to be a woman. In fact, I think that's kind of a creepy thing to think about women.
I mean, if we're so squicked out by the fact that women are mammals, is it any surprise that women aren't seen as fully human? If I can't have the same kind of armpit hair as a man, then why should I expect the same kind of paycheck amirite? And if I'm supposed to be as smooth as a child, then is it any wonder that I'm not afforded the respect and agency that ought to be afforded any adult? Maybe when we can collectively get over our strangely socialized asses and fundamentally accept that women have body hair, a woman with hairy armpits can stop being code for a militant, crazy, freak.
But right now, for all sorts of reasons, my body hair is some kind of unintentional statement. And that's such a bummer, you know? Because I thought having body hair, and deciding what in the world I want to do with it was just something that came standard with being human.
*sea urchin; pronounced vana
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