At war with my body
My body hair was one of the many things I hated about myself as a teen. When it first started appearing, I went out of my way to conceal it with long sleeves and awkward physical postures. Finally, my grandma saw it herself one day, dragged me to my mother’s bathroom, and shaved what felt like every inch of my body.
When I entered high school, my obsession with shaving had reached its climax. The second I discovered a hair, I demolished it. I shaved every day, including my arms. Some of my peers voiced their concerns, but their worries fell on deaf ears.
Then, a year ago, I decided to stop shaving regularly. I quite publicly and dramatically announced this to my family, who reacted mainly with shock and discomfort. But it was too late to change my mind. In summer 2019, I finally ended my close relationship with my razor – we stayed little more than acquaintances.
Rediscovering my natural self
Different from most women I have heard from, I did not stop shaving out of comfort. The shower is one of my most cherished spaces, and any excuse to stay in it a little bit longer in the morning only served my benefit. I stopped shaving out of active feminist belief.
When I asked myself why I was constantly subjecting myself to this mainly uncomfortable experience, I came up with no reasonable answers. I shaved because I had been taught that not doing so was unacceptable. Letting my body hair grow would lead to judgment from others and, most importantly, myself. Though hair on my body was its natural, feminine state, I had been told that it was unnatural and masculine. What should have always been an individual aesthetic choice was instead a given. So, I decided to question societal expectations and start a conversation. I wanted to have more autonomy over my body. I stopped halting its natural processes.
Growing to love my hair
When my body hair first became visible, I felt vulnerable and insecure. I tried my best to hide it and wondered if people noticed when they looked my way. However, this initial phase of discomfort rapidly passed. I became more and more comfortable with my natural self. This was much easier than I expected.
To my utmost surprise, I have received no comments on my body hair to this day. Not even my grandmother, who is the first to speak up about anything that aesthetically bothers her, has said a word. Perhaps people are too shy or polite. One of my friends suggested that they may know it’s hopeless. She said that once a woman grows out her body hair, she has already flipped off societal expectations – what use would arguing with her at that point be? That is by far my favorite explanation.
A controversial history
Shaving for all genders goes back as far as Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians removed hair from their bodies with either sharp stones, bronze, or “sugaring,” a process similar to modern-day waxing. Back then, all human hair was considered to be related to animalistic tendencies. The Ancient Egyptians who could afford it would shave their entire body, including their eyebrows and head.
During the Roman Empire, lack of hair was a symbol of high class. Pubic hair especially was considered to be uncivilized.
However, as time passed, focus on body hair decreased. Gillette only released its first razor specifically for women, called the “Milady Décolleté.” Originally, mainly the fashion industry, women’s magazines, and the men’s hair removal industry encouraged female shaving as they stood to gain the most profit from it.
Women’s shaving practices became more extensive as hemlines were raised, and sleeves became shorter. During World War 2, there was a shortage of nylon, meaning that women could no longer cover their legs with stockings. This was an especially profitable time for the female hair removal industry. By 1964, 98% of women between 15 and 44 routinely shaved their legs.
In 1999, Julia Roberts made headlines when she exposed her unshaven armpits on the red carpet. Nowadays, our reactions to body hair on female celebrities might not be as extreme, but we still don’t like to see it. Despite that, the number of women who don’t shave their armpits has more than fivefold increased over the past decade.
Self-love and self-acceptance
I used to think body hair was ugly at best and unhygienic and dangerous at worst. However, as soon as my armpit hair grew past the awkward stubble stage, my perception of it did a complete 180. Suddenly, my body hair felt like an important part of my feminine identity and a unique expression of my own anatomy. It became symbolic of my connection to nature and freedom. As it grew, so did my love for myself. When I did shave, usually for a photoshoot or particular outfit, I missed my body hair.
My confidence increased dramatically. I even started lifting my arms a few more times than necessary, just to show off what was underneath them. Not forcing myself to shave felt healing and liberating, both in rejecting ideals that had been forced upon me and in making peace with my body as it was. I came in contact with my natural self in a way I had been socialized not to. And the person I discovered was still lovable and worthy, contrary to what ads were telling me every day. This realization was empowering, freeing, and strengthening. I had finally discovered peace within myself.
Privilege within shaving
Even within processes as simple as shaving, structures tied to racism rear their head. Dark and coarse hair requires more work and maintenance, as it is more visible and prone to ingrown hairs. This must be noted in conversations about rejecting shaving, as it is much easier for a young, white, blond woman in a liberal environment to give up the practice than for a woman of color in a conservative culture.
Even as our acceptance of female body hair increases, certain potentially hairy areas on women, such as their chin or forehead, are still considered taboo.
Another minority disproportionately affected by body hair expectations are transgender people, whose body hair often develops differently from that of their cis counterparts. By letting go of gendered standards of how and where our bodies can be hairy, we automatically create more room for people whose anatomy expresses itself differently from our own.
A growing trend
In 2019, two American college students started a social media campaign called “Januhairy,” encouraging women to drop their razor and not pick it up for a whole month. The vast majority of women who have participated over the past two years have reported positive results.
One benefit many report is saving time, money and energy. Especially the latter has affected me personally. Finding a single hair on my legs used to bother me so much, that the only thing I could think about all day was shaving it off as soon as I got home. Now when I see body hair, whether I plan to shave at some point or not, I do not file this observation in a mental ‘negative’ folder. I can continue with my day and focus on things that hold much more value to me instead.
Painful side effects
Shaving can be a painful and uncomfortable procedure. Waxing is a costly treatment that promises irritated skin and soreness. Still, many of us subject ourselves to this experience on a regular basis.
The common phenomenon, ingrown hairs, causes discomfort and inflammation. It arguably does little to beautify our skin, as is usually intended with shaving. The chicken skin we get in areas we regularly shave is a sign of our body protesting, not an unavoidable part of the female experience.
A rendezvous with my razor would usually leave my skin itchy and dry within a few days. I cut myself more times than I’d like to admit, which always ended in a bloodbath. But I accepted this price without a second thought. This was what it’s like to be a woman. “Beauty is pain,” society constantly reminded me.
After giving up shaving, my skin and soul are healthier than ever before. They both thank me for taking ownership of my body every morning when I step out of the shower without so much as single scratch on my legs.
In most cases, our body hair is a symptom of maturity, fertility and womanhood. There is no reason to be at war with that.