Body hair has become a feminist issue. Five women discuss their hair and their choices
When singer Halsey posted a picture of herself on her Twitter account, it shouldn’t have been a seismic event. But when a ‘body shamer’ reposted the picture, covering up her armpit hair, she hit back publicly, questioning why he’d done it. This wasn’t an isolated incident, rather the latest in a line of celebrities being ‘outed’ for their body hair choices.
Earlier this year Madonna posted a picture of herself and daughter Lourdes that went viral — not for the bond between them, but for Lourdes not shaving her armpits. Madonna herself has posted armpit-hair pictures with the caption: “Long hair, don’t care”. And everyone from Ashley Graham and Charli XCX to Miley Cyrus and Bella Thorne — the latter recently took down trolls who messaged her saying she should remove her body hair — is becoming more vocal about body hair choices and the implications behind them.
Why haven’t we moved further away from lambasting women for their body-hair preferences? It’s been 20 years since Julia Roberts’ fluffy armpits entered the public consciousness at the Notting Hill premiere in 1999, and she occupied front pages around the world, not for her role in the much-loved rom-com, but for having the audacity to a) not shave her armpits and b) appear to have zero ‘remorse’ about it. The media disdain was palpable: here was a Hollywood icon, a ‘beauty’, making herself look ‘unfeminine’ in a way that A-list celebrities just didn’t do. And the question her actions elicited has loomed over us since: why do we attach so much importance to women’s body hair, its visibility and its supposed ‘meaning’?
While the topic of body fuzz tends to still evoke the same reactions as it did 20 years ago — especially since the rise of social media means we’re more open about our beauty tastes and preferences — what has changed since Julia’s ‘armpitgate’ is our spectrum of attitudes towards it. Brands like Fur Oil and Bush Oil — aimed at embracing body hair as much as we do the hair on our heads — have emerged and, according to researchers Mintel, women agree there’s too much pressure to remove or groom body hair.
The accounts by these five women shine a light on why people do or don’t remove their body hair, explore the political aspects of hair grooming and reveal a new mindset about body hair that is less about right or wrong, and more about personal choice and freedom.
Alice Judge-Talbot, 32, a writer and blogger, never thought about getting rid of her body hair — until she got divorced. Now she argues that waxing is an act of self-care.
Despite being what I’ve always thought of as a fairly hairy person — my hair all-over is dark — I’d never considered removing my body hair, save a weekly lower-leg and armpit shave. Then I got divorced at 27 and transitioned from being a stay-at home mother to my family’s sole breadwinner, an experience that showed me how strong and resilient women can be.
This change manifested itself in many ways, a newfound drive for professional success being one of them. But it also made me realise how important self-love and respect is when so much of life is about working for and pleasing other people. As women we’re told that looking after ourselves is a treat, but it’s actually a source of confidence and a way of building our self-esteem.
I wasn’t long into my new role in life when I realised how important hair removal had become to me, a ritual I had come to see as religious and essential to my wellbeing as my Thursday yoga class. In the same way that wearing matching underwear makes me feel like I’m in control of a life that is always busy, hair removal makes me feel poised and confident.
Indeed, the appointment with my waxing therapist can be the only half-hour I take that is purely for myself; I see it as a vital act of self-respect and self-care. It reminds me I am a woman, one who chooses to take ownership of her body and the way that it looks.
Feminism is about choice and the fact choose to remove my body hair doesn’t make me a ‘bad’ feminist: it just means that, once every six weeks, I put myself before anything else in a way that I choose.
Alix Fox, 35, is a writer, sex educator, and host of BBC Radio 1’s Unexpected Fluids. She styles her pubic hair as a form of self-expression and to take ownership of her femininity.
While many women think the removal of pubic hair infantilises them, my feelings are the complete opposite: keeping my bush au natural makes me feel like a clueless 12-year-old.
I first started trimming and styling my pubes into a heart shape at 16, and I’ve always seen it as an extension of my personal style. It was also a reflection of how I felt inside: an uneasy mix of grown-up and cutesy little girl. At the tail end of a late-blooming, much desired yet still disorienting puberty, grooming my pubic hair was a way of taking back some control of a body that at times felt like it belonged to somebody else. As I got older, my ladygarden echoed my increasingly avant-garde tastes I experimented with temporary tattoos and hot-pink pubic hair.
Some people might assume that my preference is intended to cater to the male gaze, but that’s never been the case. My choice to modify the hair down there doesn’t diminish my feminist beliefs; it’s a fun form of secret self-expression that I do primarily to please myself, although lucky lovers do get to glimpse it too. I find it empowering and it’s a massive part of me, whether people like it or not.
Once a man expressed a preference for natural pubes, but reluctantly attempting to grow my bush back to please him was a regrettable betrayal of both my feminism and of my sexual enjoyment. The only thing that episode managed to do was remind me that ungroomed pubes still send me back to my shy, embarrassed, pre-razor-rebellion adolescence.
Now I am certain of one thing: I will never change my pubic hair for another person again. Not for a man, not for society, not for any activist who claims that I can’t be emancipated if I’ve depilated. My pussy, my rules.
Anita Bhagwandas, 34, commited intersectional feminist and Stylist’s beauty director still has a complicated relationship with her body hair.
“You’ve got sideburns — look!” Let me tell you, those are not the words you want to hear from your 14-year-old crush. It was a pivotal moment in my self-esteem development — in that it completely eroded it. Before this point me and my furry cheek warmers were cool with each other. But, suddenly, alongside being bigger and dark-skinned, they were yet another way in which I didn’t fit in — I couldn’t see a world where I’d ever feel attractive.
My doctor said it was partly due to being Indian — we are prone to visible body hair — and a side-effect of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), something I’d just been diagnosed with. I’d look at my friends’ barely-there blonde hair and smooth skin with envy — none of them had a dark smattering of upper lip hair or a line of hair that extended down past their ears towards their neck. Together with the rest of my perceived ‘otherness’, it was another layer of identity I had to cope with.
I tried bleaching (always a mistake on dark skins), trimming, shaving, I had everything threaded or waxed — including my arms, which I was convinced were also too hairy. It was pain heaped upon pain; regimes I battled with until I was 30. Only in the past few years have I eased up on my body hair obsession, partly through laziness but also because I’ve grown into my feminist views. My legs go largely unshaven during the winter, and I see bikini waxing as a patriarchal diktat that I’m personally against when men aren’t ‘obliged’ to do the same.
But I cannot let my facial hair grow — the links to my childhood self-esteem are a hairy mental hurdle I can’t cross. If they re-appear, I get the same ‘What if somebody says something?’ fear that I did then. It sits awkwardly with my feminist ideals and beauty activism, and I recognise it means I’ve been swayed by societal constructs of femininity. I’m hoping one day I won’t care — but until then I’m fine with the odd bit of maintenance. I am still a feminist.
Tobi Oredien, 28 is a journalist who grew up feeling ashamed of her body hair. Now she champions a different idea of black femininity.
My teenage years were defined by the hip-hop and R&B videos of the early 2000s. I watched Destiny’s Child strut their stuff in the Bootylicious video and I wanted to be like the backing dancers in Nelly’s Ride Wit Me. They were the rare times I saw black women on television, so it’s no wonder that’s where my standards of beauty were defined. It was those videos that made me think body hair on black women just did not exist. I was led to believe that the only hair that should be visible was on my head, so when I noticed the first pricks on my legs and stomach aged 13, I panicked.
My gut reaction was to steal an old yellow disposable razor from my mother’s drawer and hack away at every inch. It was an experience that felt shrouded in shame.
I associated body hair with masculinity and didn’t want that. I wanted to emulate those backing dancers. That meant my body had to be hairless from head-to-toe. Eventually, I swapped the razor for a monthly waxing appointment with my local beautician, which, in a strange way, made me believe was taking the right steps to look like the girls I admired.
A seismic change was triggered by Solange Knowles’ Losing You video when was 21 . Her unapologetic afro and tailored suits showed me a new image of black femininity that made me question my own beliefs: why was I echoing a hypersexualised version of black womanhood? Why should I be defined by straight hair, tight clothes and a hairless body? I immediately cancelled my monthly waxes.
While the majority of girls in today’s music videos still parade around with straight hair and hairless torsos, the internet has countered that by giving us different versions of femininity, so young black girls won’t feel the same pressure I felt to chase one single image. Now when I visit my beautician, it’s on my terms.
Daisy Walker, 28, fashion photographer and founder of Women in Fashion, says that growing her underarm hair has made her feel more empowered than ever.
As a young woman, and even as a child, I was profoundly aware of the expectations on my body and how it was perceived. From boys laughing at my burgeoning underarm hair at 13 to being raped during my childhood, I felt my body was a war zone and a topic of discussion that I was left out of. So, at the age of 25, after years of shame and feeling like I needed to be totally hairless, I was adamant I would never again take a razor to my wonderful underarms. And I let it all grow.
Such a seemingly small action had repercussions far beyond stares at the gym. felt a growing sense of power in myself, until my boyfriend at the time commented on it. He had been away on tour for months so hadn’t seen me naked in a while. When he caught a glimpse of my underarms, he said it was time for me to shave. It was a total shock. This wasn’t some creepy guy didn’t know. This was somebody who loved me. Yet he didn’t understand the negative impact of having a man dictate how my body should look.
It was in that moment that I realised what I thought was a self-statement had become political. My mind flashed back to all the times my body had been commented on by friends, my mother, boys, my grandmother. Why was my body always up for discussion? o Why wasn’t it good enough as it was?
I have since witnessed a variety of o negative and positive reactions from men to my new-found body hair. Trolls on Twitter warn me that no man will ever fancy me, but z men I’ve dated have been surprised at how o sexy they found my hairiness. I find it sexy too. Lying next to someone, looking down at both our bodies — which more or less look the same from the waist up — is unifying. Yet for some reason it took me until I was a grown woman, in the shower one morning with razor in hand to ask myself, “Who am I doing this for?”
Images: Getty / Courtesy of Contributors