by Sacha Dhabalia
When I started telling people that I was going to dedicate my dissertation to writing about the stigma surrounding female body hair, I anticipated some of the reactions I received. These ranged from quizzical expressions, to, “how can you write 10,000 words on that?”. I also felt some unease in telling other sociologists my dissertation title, as this topic could be considered trivial to say the least. We learnt about climate-change, class, gender and racial inequality on a day-to-day basis, so female body-hair could have appeared to be an easy cop-out in comparison to other darker societal issues our world faces.
Why couldn’t I just not shave? Why did it make me feel so uncomfortable?
Yet, ever since the end of my first year at university, I had become fascinated by something many people, both around me and culturally, seemed to overlook. This was a couple of years before both ‘Januhairy’ and when razor-ads finally started to show body hair being shaved off. It all started with my female flatmates getting involved in a ‘Movember’ of their own. Not wanting to miss out, we collectively decided to grow out our underarm hair. It turned out that I was the only one who couldn’t go the whole month. As I watched the girls take pictures with their fists pointed to the sky and their underarms looking a little warmer on the 1st December, a seed had been planted in my mind. Why couldn’t I just not shave? Why did it make me feel so uncomfortable?
These questions ended up changing the way I think about myself, my loved-ones, and Western culture. The beautiful thing about delving into a stigma is that it acts as a secret portal to which you can understand so much of the way our culture works. Hope (1982) eloquently states that, ‘behaviours which are most taken-for-granted in a culture may well be the most important ones for revealing an understanding of that culture’. She was right.
'...when we ask a woman to be more ‘feminine’, we are actually demanding her to return to a more childlike appearance.'
One of the most common reactions to a woman who decides not to shave is disgust. Disgust can be described as incorporating anything that may serve to remind us of “our own animal nature and ultimately our own mortality” (Rozin, 2004). It is common for people to draw a comparison between hairy people and animals, which makes an assumption that being civilised is tied up with looking less animalistic. However, this argument falls short considering male body hair is still very much accepted. Not only is it accepted, but it is often assumed to be a symbol of strength and virility. We must then ask the question as to why a symbol of strength is not accepted when it is displayed on a woman’s body? When we say that hairlessness on a woman is ‘feminine’, is it because we assume women’s bodies to be less ‘hairy’? In fact, it is only children in our human species who show less visible body hair compared to adults, so when we ask a woman to be more ‘feminine’, we are actually demanding her to return to a more childlike appearance.
'...visceral and verbal disgust can often be used as a form of social policing to shame individuals back into a culturally acceptable performance of their gender.'
Studies have shown that the hairlessness norm for women is more pervasive in cultures that feel threatened by female power. It is interesting to consider that, as Western cultures allowed more rights for women in political, economic and social spheres, the hairlessness norm gradually increased and claimed more parts of the female body as the decades rolled on. It seems clear that there is a subconscious yet wider fear of the gap between gendered behaviours closing. In Western culture, the genders of man and woman are a huge part of how we operate around the world and in day-to-day life. They shape our social norms, interactions with others and beliefs about ourselves. To have someone blur the boundaries calls into question the fabric of social order and social norms, something many do not want to think about in too much depth. Therefore, visceral and verbal disgust can often be used as a form of social policing to shame individuals back into a culturally acceptable performance of their gender.
To be disgusted at female body hair is to believe that women cannot claim characteristics that are deemed ‘masculine’. It is to fear strength, virility and body neutrality when adopted by a woman. It is an expectation that women should regress, and it shames their human adulthood. It is, at a very basic level, a failure to see women as equals.
Hope, C. (1982). Caucasian female body hair and American culture. Journal of American Culture, 5, 93–99.
Rozin, P., Spranca, M., Krieger, Z., Neuhaus, R., Surillo, D., Swerdlin, A. and Wood, K., 2004. Preference for natural: instrumental and ideational/moral motivations, and the contrast between foods and medicines. Appetite, 43(2), pp.147-154.
This article was originally published on Hear Her Speak on 24/07/20.
Sacha lived in Bristol and studied Sociology, where she wrote extensively about the stigma surrounding female body hair. She is deeply interested in the micro-issues that womxn face, as she believes that 'smaller' oppressions tend to be the most symbolic of how a culture treats or regards womxn. Her Instagram, @justwomanbeing, explains some of her findings in literature, thoughts, and experiences on having female body hair.