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Guest post by Nadia Morris

Not too long ago I was standing in a YMCA open gym, waiting in line for the mat to practice flips. I was chatting with a girl my age that claimed to be uncomfortably warm with all the physical activity we were doing. However, she wouldn’t take her sweats off and change into shorts because, as she confided in a hush, she hadn’t shaved her legs in a week and it was totally gross.

I sighed and shrugged off the pants I was wearing over my shorts, which revealed my legs, which vaguely resemble those of an adolescent wookie. “There,” I said, “feel better?”

‘Cause here’s the thing: I am a woman who does not shave her legs. This usually engenders a broad scope of reactions from other people, ranging from disinterest to approval to downright disgust. Despite the fact that the majority of people in my life really don’t care, I still take waaay more shit for it than I think I should have to.

It started out simple– My legs are physically not meant to be shaved. No matter WHAT form of depilation I try, my skin ends up a tender, ingrown, mass of razor/ chemical burn. It just doesn’t seem to work for me the same way it does for other people.

So when I was 17, I stopped. I thought it was stupid to subject myself to pain and discomfort in pursuit of an abstract standard of beauty (abstract because I wasn’t dating anybody at the time). Luckily I grew up in a fairly liberal, non-conventional area and the choice was accepted without question by most people.

Then I went off to college and quickly jumped back on the bandwagon because I wanted to fit in. Most people at my school were not nearly as earthy-crunchy as I was. But I did a lot of thinking about the act of shaving. What it meant, why it was the status quo, and I decided one thing:

The expectation for women to always have perfectly shaved legs and underarms is sexist as fuck.

Why?

1) Shaving is a social norm that is for the most part, imposed on women by men.

2) It makes women look doll-like and puts the female body on a pedestal.

3) The physical modifications (including shaving) that people undertake in the name of beauty, falls almost entirely on women/female people

4) Shaving can prompt women to strive for a sometimes unattainable standard of perfection. Especially for the women who shave due to societal expectations rather than for themselves, it can create wholly unnecessary insecurity.

All of these points could be whole posts in themselves, so I might not cover each one as fully as they deserve. Rather, these are some thoughts that I want to touch on as part of a larger picture.

1. Origins

There is a lot of debate around exactly when and why women started shaving their legs and armpits (NOTE: I wont be writing about pubes in this post because there would be too much ground to cover). For the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with this explanation:

According to Joan Brumberg’s book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, women in America began shaving in the 1920’s when the fashion and the film industry began “an unveiling of the female body.” As hemlines rose and sleeves grew shorter, the new trend was closely followed by a marketing assault on female body hair. Women failed to realize that their newfound fashion freedom had come at a price; the need for greater internal control over their bodies [1].

My assumption is that shaving was not a fad women brought upon themselves. The movie industry and the advertising companies that were bent on making female body hair undesirable were all controlled by men, as were most things in the 1920’s. If this is the case, there is a huge amount of inherent oppression that stems from a dominant group creating and imposing social norms on a marginalized group.

2. The burden of beauty

A while ago I saw some beautiful photos by Leland Bobbé of men with half their faces in drag make-up. It’s quite striking how much people do in our culture to accentuate  natural differences between men and women. But from looking at these photos, it’s quite obvious that the burden of accentuating natural differences between men and women fall almost entirely on the women. 

Basically everything these men have done to their faces- shaped eyebrows, painted lips, painted nails, earrings, glued on eyelashes, skin covered with foundation- these are things that women do to themselves on a daily basis just to make themselves look more like (our version of) women.

 HD 2

all images from http://lelandbobbe.com/
HD 3 all images from http://lelandbobbe.com/

Our culture has made attractiveness and the bodily modification that goes with it, a Woman Thing. And it includes all the time, expense, and expectation that goes with it. It is estimated in the average American woman’s life, she will spend 1,711 hours shaving (that’s 58 days), and $10,000 on shaving related products [2]. That’s a lot of freaking time and money just for ONE beauty standard that women are expected to uphold. If you like it and it is a way you want to express your gender identity, that’s great! But some women do it because they think they have to, just because they are women. And that’s messed up.

4. Dolls on a pedestal

One of our editors, Bridie, once quoted a Cracked.com author in her article about motherhood, saying “there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.”

I think this happens with the female body. Many women have softer, smoother skin than men, and less body hair. This gets accentuated and idolized until before you know it, women become porcelain dolls that are sitting atop the “flawless” pedestal. But we’re not actually being flawless. Because we’re, you know, human.

Putting the female on the body on a pedestal does not allow us our humanity, our flaws. Our whole gender becomes airbrushed. I don’t think shaving itself is the problem here, rather the expectation that women have their legs and under arms perfectly smooth at all times. I know many women who become greatly insecure when they don’t have time to shave their legs every morning, to the point where showing their skin is completely not an option. When I was shaving, that insecurity made me feel dehumanized, like my body was there to be visually pleasing to other people rather than to serve me in whatever endeavors got me too busy to shave in the first place.

5. Self-gratification versus insecurity

My last point (for now) is that since shaving is a social norm, women end up fighting a never-ending war against their own bodies, spending time and money on modifying their appearances. When women/female identified people do it for themselves, to have smooth skin they enjoy having touched, shaving can be awesome! But some people, like I used to, only do it in order to feel accepted.

There is already so much pressure on women to feel insecure about their bodies. This is just another thing we can add to the list, another way we have to exert internal and minute control over the way we look and God forbid if we don’t.

Many of us are so accustomed to thinking of mainstream beauty standards as the Only Way of Doing Things that desirability has become inextricably linked to these standards.

Take Schick’s advertising campaign for their “Quatro for Women” razor. The company wanted to show women how their razor “could benefit them in the areas of dating and romance.” They did this by creating an online community that gave young women advice about “dating, love and life.” [3] This is a perfect example of how the media perpetuates the belief that women need to have smooth, shaved legs in order to entice a man. Basically, if you don’t shave and do it WELL, you will be rejected romantically and no one will love you ever.

"Legs so sexy guys may just stop staring at your chest." Is that really the best we can hope for here?
“Legs so sexy guys may just stop staring at your chest.” Really? Is that really the best we can hope for here?
I’m not knocking the GIANT PERCENTAGE of women who shave who shave because they like the way it feels when their bare skin are touched. I agree, it can feel great! But I think the link between shaving and desirability has become too strong and too mainstream, to the point where women who consciously don’t shave their legs are stigmatized as undesirable.

Before you start, here are some counterarguments.

OK, so men shave too. They spend time and money on it too. Yes. Correct. The difference is, it’s socially optional for even the shyest, most conventional men to sport a five o’clock shadow, or even have a bit of scruff on his face for a few days. Nobody cares.

No one forces women to shave but it’s hard to deny there is a social stigma around women with unshaven legs. In my experience, it takes strength to be able to deal with that. Those who are brave enough to stop shaving are free to do so, but the women who feel too inhibited or constrained by the standards of their professional life are just SOL.

My senior year of college I stopped shaving my legs again. It’s been about a year and half so far. I still get a range of comments. Some are positive, some are curious, some are outright revulsion. They come from strangers, friends, and lovers. I’ve had people on the street tell me “that’s disgusting, you need to mind your hygiene.” (and lets please NOT pretend that shaving is about hygiene). I’ve also gotten high fives.

I have started becoming extremely careful with whom I become intimately involved with to avoid the sting of rejection. Because it’s happened before. Once, a budding romance was abruptly called off the first day I wore a skirt around my object of affection. Another time, I asked a potential love interest how he felt that I didn’t shave my legs and he responded “That’s a tough one. You’d have to make it up to me in bed.” Since of course, my one job in life is to be sexy and I failed in one bracket, I’d have to make up for it by being doubly good in another.

So why, with my tender 23 year old ego, do I continue this small scale personal campaign? Because I believe when the right to make decisions regarding one’s own body is taken away, it harms people’s self-confidence and independence. Because it makes me hella uncomfortable and it shouldn’t. So the more insecure not shaving makes me feel, the more I believe there need to be women like me walking around in skirts. I want to remind people what women are supposed to look like, if only if we stopped fighting futile battles against our own bodies. I want to remind women, yes they really can bare their legs even if they haven’t gotten a chance to shave today. I want people to be able to make their own standards and leave me to mine.

Sources

[1] Brumberg, Joan. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House Inc., 1997.

[2] (2012). “Shaving Statistics.” Retrieved 10 April 2013, from http://www.statisticbrain.com/shaving-statistics/.

[3] “Case Study.” Brandweek 49.4 (28 Jan. 2008): 6-6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. American University Library, Washington, DC. 18 Sep. 2008 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=28838722&site=ehost-live&gt;.

Braman, Amie. “Women and Body Hair: Social Perceptions and Attitudes.” The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair. Ed. Karin Lesnik-Oberstein. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 3-4.