Shame & Women’s Body Hair

IMG_1357editedI was 13 years old, standing in the playground stark naked from the waist down. I don’t think the girl who pulled my trousers down expected my panties to come with them, but they did. I stood there, my pubescent hair suddenly exposed. “What can people see as I bend down?” I thought as I pulled my trousers up. A hot wash of shame spread through my body. No one followed me as I turned around and walked blankly to the girls toilets. I was shocked, mortified and wished the ground would swallow me up.

I repressed the experience. In order to face spending the rest of my day around people who’d seen me stark naked, I donned a mask of stoic indifference. They had borne witness to the exposure of a deeply private, uncomfortable and unowned aspect of my changing body, brought into plain view of eyes and minds that, along with my own, conspired to keep it shameful and concealed. My transition into womanhood was heavy with the discomfort and shame of what my body grew and where it grew it. Without my consent, these eyes had seen a part of me I was keeping safe and hidden for a time IMG_1784EDITwhen I could accept it. That time never came.

As I grew older it was an undiscussed rule that all girls and women should remove the hair from their bodies. From my legs and my bikini line, to my armpits and my upper lip – and these are just the obvious places – the hair was regularly waxed, shaved, bleached, plucked or somehow concealed.
The whole process was kept under wraps like a dirty secret, only shared with my beautician and best friends; a bizarrely rigorous operation carried out to make sure that no one noticed we grew any hair at all. Today my girlfriends and I delight in disclosing to each other how hairy we are, or how long we’ve gone without waxing our legs or shaving our armpits, as if our temporary break from hair removal is a cheeky and rebellious ‘up yours’ to society (that we keep safely under wraps, of course). I did find some sanctuary from the relentless cycle of hair removal during my most serious relationship to date. After time spent apart I kept myself preened and ‘fresh’ when reuniting with my beloved, yet was more lax with the regrowth after some time spent together. Though this was only ever a minor deviation from standards imposed. Generally speaking, not having smooth child-like skin in the presence of a man (or woman) one is, or could potentially be sexually involved with, is done at one’s own risk – a woman can only really relax when she is hair-free.
IMG_1756 Edit 2For this blog post I have photographed myself and a group of close friends ‘wearing’ our hair without shame. An obvious reason for this is to rip the lid off the taboo that is female body hair by showcasing the confidence, self-acceptance, sexiness and even sensuality with which one can wear it. I have not had the resources to include other ethnic groups, age groups, or transgender women (if it hasn’t already been done, I would strongly encourage such a project). Yet, for me personally, I could not have photographed a more inspiring group of women. They have each touched me deeply through the lives they lead, the choices they make and the attitudes they have chosen. I am honoured they now grace the pages of my blog and join me in exposing their hair.

Another reason for this post is to encourage deeper discussion. More than just making a statement, I wish to seriously question the norms we take for granted as women, but also as a society. I am hardly the first woman to take issue with these norms, and the rich history of feminism(s) bares witness to such questioning around issues – many that are far more urgent and more violently oppressive than these. I stand on the shoulders of giants, but stand on their shoulders I will; until we truly begin to heal our individual and collective shame, such conversations will remain necessary. Many different avenues can be used in order to open minds and start chipping away at the unconscious seeds of oppression that germinated long ago and have a stranglehold on our hearts and minds. We can start anywhere – today, I have chosen to start with body hair.IMG_1495

There is no real understanding of oppression of any kind without unpacking the factors that keep it in place. To women who feel that removing their body hair is an empowering choice made out of their own free will, I ask you – how many of us have consciously chosen to opt into a paradigm that treats aspects of our bodies as shameful or repulsive? I respect the choices of women who wish to remain within the confines of normative behaviour. I often choose to do so myself – to transgress these confines often means looking our shame in the face, requiring the practice of both courage and vulnerability. Yet let us know that we were socialised into hair-removal through shame, and that shame is a tool used to control behaviour. In other words, we are buying into oppressive practices. None of us were naturally born disapproving of the hair on our bodies. Our early friendship groups, our early experiences of the male ‘gaze’, our film culture, the corporations that own hair-removal beauty products and spend billions on advertising – these factors amongst others have imposed upon us a standard that we cannot meet naturally. Not only can we not meet it naturally, but we must pay for the privilege of meeting a standard that shames us.

IMG_1657editedAt first, much of corporate advertising is intended to create the market it hopes to exploit. Simply put, corporations are in the business of duping us into believing we need what they want to sell us – by pulling on the strings of shame, belonging and self-worth, they manufacture our needs. In 1915, while female fashion was evolving to reveal more skin, Gillette saw an opportunity to cash in on what was a ‘gap in the market’ and put out its first womens razor. The beauty industry and other corporate
competition honed in on the profit-making, and the rest is history. Since then the likes of magazines, beauticians and girlfriend cultures have been the gatekeepers of our body-shame, reigning us in lest we ‘let ourselves go’ to the wilderness of our own hair. Natural creatures we shall not be – not if capitalism has its way. My dear friend and model Ruth E expresses the sentiment behind this paragraph perfectly: “Don’t try to tell me my [facial] hair is ugly. Don’t try to get extra money out of me by making me feel disgusting and inferior and imperfect. Don’t hold me to a standard I do not consent to being held to.”

We pay a far higher price for conforming to these standards than what it costs us to ‘look good’. While growing up, belonging was a matter of survival and so we perceived no choice in the matter: conform or be ostracised. For many women this belief remains. Not only do women conform to what they think men want and expect, they conform to the expectations of other women too. A woman unconscious of the shame that keeps her oppressed will be strongly affected by the unspoken competition amongst women for desirability, as well as the need for approval from other women for her looks. In order to belong, a woman has had to unconsciously agree that her value is not inherent but found in the eyes of others. So giving up her purposefully planned hair-removal routine (which often carefully coincides with plans from nights out to holidays) would mean totally revolutionising her self-image and, crucially, reclaiming her body. Are women ready for such radical inner change? Are we ready to consciously explore our bodies, minds and hearts for the shame that oppresses us? If we are we can begin the serious work of healing. We can plant the seeds for true and lasting self-liberation.

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All images © Anaïs Charles 2015. All rights reserved.