Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 29, 2014

Pressure on the follicles

Tumblr has a tag devoted to “body hair positivity” and another for “body hair shaming.” In doing a Google search for “body hair,” what comes up are headlines declaring “the year of the bush” and ads for “hair removal that works.” On Facebook, more than 600 people have “liked” a page supporting women with body hair. Cameron Diaz’s new body book features a page titled “In Praise of Pubes.”

Contemporary society has a fascination with something that every human — particularly, every woman — deals with every day.

“I would like to think that it’s because it’s an outgrowth of a movement to recognize women’s bodily autonomy,” Burkhardt Distinguished Chair in History Catherine Denial said. “So the women get to be the ones who decide what happens to their bodies — regardless of anybody else’s opinion, regardless of pressure coming from anywhere else.”

Denial acknowledged, though, that it can be difficult to act in the face of those pressures. Young women seem particularly aware of the role of peer pressure, as a number of them stated that they started shaving because, seemingly, everyone else was.

“I was in sixth grade, so I was 11,” senior Kelsey Witzling said. “I probably didn’t have enough leg hair for it to even matter, but everyone was shaving their legs — or it seemed like they were.”

After her mom took her shopping for a razor, she told Witzling to wait so that she could learn how to shave.

“I went ahead and did it on my own. And it was fine — everything went well, but I did it on my own because my mom didn’t have time within the next couple days and I was so, so worried about not having shaved my legs,” Witzling said.

Nowadays, Witzling keeps up the practice of shaving her legs, underarms and some pubic hair, but she also noted that removing her body hair “doesn’t take prominence over anything else in my life.”

“I’m going to go all psychology major on you right now, but just that I’m at that age where we’re all kind of going through this identity formation stage,” she said. “Now, I’m comfortable with who I am. … I remove body hair if I feel like it, if I want to do that for myself, but at this point, it’s not something that I really care what other people think anymore.”

Denial seemed to be in agreement with this thought process.

“If you’re making a drastic change to your body in any way — whether it’s to do with what you eat or what you don’t eat, whether you exercise or don’t exercise, how you dress your body, what sort of body hair you do or do not have — it’s always a good idea to ask yourself, ‘Where is the impulse for this coming from?’” she said. “And to try and be clear that you’re not being pressured into doing something for a reason that feels icky once you actually get down to it.”

A concern that women seem to have is the notion of how they will be perceived by their sexual partners or significant others. TKS conducted a survey of 99 current female students at Knox, and of those who stated that they do shave their legs, the second largest factor that increased the frequency of shaving was the presence of a boyfriend. Similarly, of the women that shave their pubic hair, the first largest factor that increased the frequency of shaving was an increase — or potential increase — in sexual activity.

Body Hair infographicDespite what these numbers might imply, Witzling said that she has never received negative comments from a partner in regards to her treatment of her body hair.

“It’s always been me who’s brought up a comment of, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, are you OK with this?’ … Or, ‘Does it bother you that I haven’t shaved my legs in three weeks?’” she said.

Now, Witzling has “come to a point where I feel comfortable with what I want for my body hair, as opposed to what I think a partner wants.”

Instead of pressure from partners, what women seem to face is pressure from other people they’re close to.

Freshman Robin Delaquess, who does not shave either her legs or her underarms, has never received any criticism for her behavior directly, but has experienced indirect criticism.

“There’ve been situations where I feel the indirect vibe of negativity towards women who don’t shave. Like, people will be talking about celebrities or people they’ve seen just walking in the street who don’t shave, and there are like, sort of [these] negative reactions towards those people while I’m listening and part of the conversation,” she said.

Delaquess noted her opposition to shaving has roots in the fact that it seemed to be a “cultural, expected thing.”

“I was a kind of rebellious person. I was like, I don’t want to just do it because everyone else was doing it,” she said.

Delaquess first started shaving at the age of nine or 10 and decided to stop at the age of 13 or 14. Like Witzling, she noted the pressure of other girls as a factor that contributed to continuing to shave her legs.

“I’m lucky to have sort of a very liberal family community, so I didn’t grow up with a lot of peer pressure. … In terms of being around different types of communities where there was more of a social norm … I was very self-conscious at first, especially because you know how girls will sometimes talk about their hygiene practices and shaving, and like, ‘Oh, I’m so prickly now. I haven’t shaved in a week. I feel so gross.’ And meanwhile, I’m sitting there with mammoth legs, or whatever,” she said.

It was in this “more self-conscious phase” that Delaquess became interested in why women remove their body hair in the first place, as there is no physical or medical need to do so.

“I remember reading something about how it was a razor company or something that said, ‘Hey, we have this whole market of people who currently aren’t shaving because they don’t have beards to shave off and we could sell more of our product if we make it the hip, fashionable, feminine thing to shave off your body hair,’” she said.

The fact that the beauty industry seemed to be behind the cultural standard of shaving ultimately contributed further to Delaquess’ reason not to shave. Denial noted that the trend of removing body hair most likely started to become popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

“If you look at things like the early movies, when they would have showgirls, … those girls do not have any visible body hair,” she said.

Denial also recognized the significant role that the media plays in women’s conception of body image.

“People are getting so much information all the time — whether they’re conscious of it or not — about what their body should look like. And I think that it’s so insidious, and those messages are coming at us so fast from so many different directions that it’s super hard to be conscious of where they’re coming from and conscious of how they’re shaping your worldview,” Denial said.

Junior Devin Hanley, who identifies as queer, seemed to be aware of a very specific body image that has become the standard for women in society.

“It’s definitely instilled in us as women or as a society, like it’s not fashionable or it’s very taboo not to shave,” she said. “But especially operating within a queer realm and within a very safe realm like Knox — like a very, very isolated, insular bubble — it doesn’t seem to have as much effect, at least on how I operate.”

For Hanley, identifying as queer means identifying with “anything that falls outside of a cisgender heteronormative binary of sorts.” In that case, she does not necessarily identify herself as a woman and she does not necessarily feel held to the same standard of beauty as other women.

“If I’m feeling really good about something I’m wearing, or how I look, how I’m presenting myself, I wouldn’t classify that as feeling beautiful. It’s more a sense of feeling comfortable, feeling strong, feeling confident,” she said.

Her treatment of her body hair has become incorporated into this sense of comfort. Hanley, like Delaquess, does not shave her legs or her underarms.

“Once I was kind of figuring things out like as a queer individual — so let’s say maybe two and a half years ago — it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore, and honestly, it was kind of exciting to just stop shaving and see what happened,” she said. “I just became comfortable to the point where I no longer feel the need to. And I also no longer feel the need to hide it.”

Again, the “safe realm” that Knox provides has contributed to her identity formation.

“For all its problems, it is a very tolerant — maybe even accepting — place. I think there’s this general sense that anyone can really do whatever they want, as long as it’s not hurting anybody else,” Hanley said. “And so that’s a really nice space in which to find yourself, regardless of in what capacity.”

Chelsea Embree
Chelsea Embree is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in art history. She previously served as co-mosaic editor and as an arts and features reporter for TKS. During the summer of 2013, she served as a content intern at The St. Louis Beacon. Chelsea has studied under former Random House copy chief Sean Mills and taught writing as a teaching assistant for First-Year Preceptorial. An avid blogger, she has written extensively about youth in St. Louis and maintains a lively poetry and nonfiction blog on Tumblr. She is also the director of communications for Mortar Board and co-president of Terpsichore Dance Collective.

Tags:  body hair gender legs media pubic razors shave shaving Tumblr underarms

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