My mother hates that I shave. As a European, she finds my behavior repellant and confusing. We’ve never had a drag-out fight about it, but it’s always been a point of contention.
“How did I raise such an American daughter?” she says, sighing dramatically. We talked about it once when she walked in on me shaving when I was 17, my feet in the bathroom sink, the surfaces slicked with shaving cream.
“Mom, my hair is different from yours. And I really like shaving.”
“What-ever,” my mom sighed. “It is your body, I suppose.”
If you missed part one, Shave ’em Dry, the point is: I shave as a way to reclaim, feel pride in and own my body, especially all the hairy places that I so cherish. The point of part two: I let my hair grow… for the same reasons. I am really into my hair, whether it’s there… or not.
The second point of part two: I am blessed with smart, wonderful friends, who all told me what they thought about shaving. Some of them work in offices, some in circus (and some in both), some raise families. I highlighted their words as spicy block quotes.
I think of the moment when I decided to stop shaving as both the moment I became an adult and the moment I became a feminist.
Grow, Baby, Grow
First off, let’s call not call it “not-shaving.” Let’s call it “growing.” Crazy, I know. Growing.
I have a pretty strong campaign here, and there might be some radical feminist overtones about maybe-thinking-about stopping shaving and letting your hair, just, grow.
It’s because I’m tired of revulsion. I’m tired of self-hating talk and shaming images, and of media images that creep into how you see yourself. If you missed it on the news, there’s a hairy leg stocking being sold as a way to prevent “unwanted male attention.”
First: Whoa. Second: Whoa. Third: Whooooooah no! If I follow it, the idea here is “Hairy legs are icky! No rapist would rape someone with hairy legs! Rapists have high standards for the people they assault! Rapists only rape hot women with shiny teflon legs!” Or, on twitter, “Super sexy, summertime anti-pervert full-leg-of-hair stockings, essential for all young girls going out.”
It’s just shitty. This is shitty, you guys.
Imagine that you always had scabs. Maybe one on your foot, maybe one on your waistline, maybe one on your elbow. Maybe some hidden. But whenever you really move those parts, you feel a little twinge of pain and a big slam of self-consciousness. You worry that people are judging you, and seeing you as something that you don’t want to be, but that you are revulsed by yourself. You reject yourself. Emphatically. Even parts of you that are healthy, normal, and indicators of a well-kept endocrine system. Even when you only see a shadow of hair.
That is shitty, my friends. And worse, I think we all do it. And worser-er, I think it’s easy to do it. I think shit like “anti-pervert leggings” add to that ever-growing collection of scabs that burrow across one’s self-image. And while I allow societal expectations and the male gaze govern a few of my choices, I really think it’s a thing to minimize.
So here’s my radical notion: let’s really stop hating ourselves, and hating our hair. Let’s be chill with it.
Personally, I feel like it’s one of the ways I can most positively impact my own life. Revulsion, especially revulsion towards one’s self, is tiring. Revulsion is an exhausting feeling, a clenching of the throat and a tightening at the back, a slow heat rising from the throat. A self-sickness, caused by some wretched stimulai. Evolutionarily, we learned it identify threats, yeah? We’d feel a sickness when we saw maggots, and would learn to avoid that rotten meat. Overtime, we see the maggots as a repulsive object in any way, even in “normal” situations.
I have a story about that.
King Rat and his Army of Maggots
I have not shaved since New Year’s Eve, 2007. My goatee remains disappointingly lackluster.
Okay, here’s the story.
There was a King Rat that lived in our shed. King Rat lived there for years, eating the garbage from the two restaurants on the corner, and growing larger and larger. And believe me, there’s plenty of garbage to eat on my block. It’s unclear if he was entirely rat, or was something larger and more fearsome: a rat, a possum and a wildcat. A Smaug. He was smart, scrounging every night, feasting and delightin. He knew we were no threat to him, and his empire of garbage.
And one night, something happened.
King Rat died.
Maybe liver failure, from one-too-many bad burrito, or kidney issues, from some beer that mixed with gasoline. There are some foul smells in the nearby garbage cans. But cause aside, the Rat King crawled into the Great Sewer Beyond. I first saw him freshly dead, a mighty carcass in our alleyway, about 7 feet from our back shed. There were no flies, and only a small puddle of blood by his face. He must have died at dawn.
“Ah, fuck,” I said. “That’s awful,” and the early morning calmed my disgust and chagrin. I expected King Rat would get run over and re-made into rat-splat, as the city decomposes all life in its own swift way.
But two days later, all the cars had avoided King Rat. He had shrunken in a little, and the flies had mostly left him. I saw him every time I left my house, just gave him a little nod and moved on. While cleaning my backyard, I heard some of the local teenagers call 311, and give a short report. “Wish I’d thought of that,” I muttered as I swept around the hammock. It smelled pretty ripe back there.
And the next day, my best friend + housemate, Leo, and I were preparing for a house party. It takes all day for a proper party, a whole day of cleaning, setting up, resetting, moving furniture, weeding, sweeping, and tidying. It’s a lovely, if tiring, ritual. We devoted ourselves to the backyard, as it was sunny and beautiful outside. We swept the “patio,” reshuffled the compost, moved the boxes, and beat off (heh) all the house rugs.
“It smells like poop back here,” Leo said. “Like real poopy-poop.”
“Ugh, yes,” I replied. “Do you think it’s coming from the garbage? OH NO, do you think it’s a bad potato like that one time we had bad potatoes and they smelled like a long-dead baby mouse that had pooped itself before it stated to rot inside our pantry?”
“Um. I don’t think it’s a potato, Reyes.”
“Oh. Then I know what it is.”
I opened the gate. There he lay, more shrunken, but still titanically possum-sized. I closed the gate.
“I have an idea,” I said, and walked off into the house. Leo kept sweeping, “I’ll help you, if you want it!”
I came out with two snow shovels, a plastic bag, and a big plastic tub. “Might want help.” I said. Leo took the red snow shovel, I took the blue one. Everything was going to be fine. We picked up King Rat between our two shovels, balancing him between us. He was heavy, and awkward as we carried him towards the plastic-lined tub.
And then the shovel trembled under the bulk of King Rat. And part of him started to slide.
I don’t mean that he slid into one part of the shovel — part of him slid away from the rest of him. And under the skin, there were only maggots. Maggots, thick and healthy, wriggling all through that rat. Both Leo and I trembled, nearly screaming, and walked faster to the plastic tub. We dumped him in, gingerly as we settled him down, and the instant he was down, we threw our shovels on the ground.
There were still maggots on them, on the red shovel especially.
I might have screamed. Let’s not dwell.
“Oh, God,” I said, after few minutes of screaming, and walked a few steps away.
“That is awful,” Leo said, her voice low. “I have an idea,” she said, and walked clean away.
“I’ll help you,” I said, and stayed there. Staring at the maggots, writhing on the pavement. Even naked and wriggling for food, that maggots disgusted me. It made me feel sick, and angry, and the smell still hung in the air. That awful poopy-poop smell.
“Let’s burn the fuckers,” she said, holding a jug of Lysol. “Let’s burn them out.”
“YES,” I scream-growled. “BURN THEM.”
“Do you want to get some water from the rain barrel?”
“BURN,” we yelled, at different times and in different evil-villain voices.
Leo poured the Lysol on the maggots while I waited, bucket in hand. And we washed the fuckers out, every single little maggot, until everything was disinfected and clean, and no longer absolutely repulsive.
We washed the shovels. We smashed a few maggots under our flip-flops. We screamed with glee. We said “burn” a few more times.
And I realized in that awful, if victorious, moment, that the only other time I feel that repulsion is when I see my own body.
I remember that revulsion whenever anyone takes a photo of me. My scabs itch. As the photographer settles in, I realize it’s another moment where all my clothes didn’t fit right, and my face was weird, and I was so ugly that I assume that it upsets the people around me. At events where people take photos, I whimper away, to the bathroom, to the back of myself and close my eyes. I am underwater, pushed down and down, bobbing away distantly. I start crying. I can’t breathe. I feel alone. I run away from others. Like I am the rat, covered in maggots.
That is a tiring feeling. Revulsion.
To hate your own hair, to be revulsed by a healthy part of yourself, is a type of dysmorphia that I want to fight. I think we hate things that we don’t understand and that we aren’t accustomed to. And honestly, getting used to my little leg hairs hasn’t caused me a world of grief, nor has it decreased my sexual success rate or my body odor.
Don’t hate your hair. Don’t be the rat. Let yourself grow.
Fighting the Trigger, and Loving the Growth.
There’s obvious (silent and ingrained) social pressure that exists outside of my own compulsions, which probably would have never developed if those social pressures didn’t exist.
I’ve done some things that are like shaving, and some things that are like growing. It’s a transformational aesthetic, a view of self that supports change, a way of avoiding stuckness. I enjoy the ritual of shaving, and I enjoy the results. But I detest the trigger.
In case you missed it, the idea that women always have shaven legs is pretty sexist, and there’s a huge amount of social pressure for women — mostly white, younger women — to shave their pits, legs, and large swaths of their pubes. You can see some stats about shaving here (fun fact: women shave an average 12 times a month, and spend over $10,000 in shaving supplies over their lifetime.) I shave, because I think my privates are cool, and my decision to make my privates much more visible and less shrouded in cute little curls, is not a brave one, as it supports our status quo.
But I do fight the feeling that I need to. I fight the feeling that it will determine my attractiveness, which will determine the amount of power I have in a room. I won’t get angry about my little belly fat, my stupid-face being weird, the accelerated growth of my body hair. I won’t let dumb advertisements and unreasonable norms govern my own self-conception. Dammit, I’m very comfortable being my own worst enemy — I refuse to let myself get shown up by advertisements that portray women like me in a wholly negative way.
So I’m saying, maybe, let that hair grow. Just for a day longer. See what it’s like.
When I shave off my hair, it is like I am letting go of my major life stresses.
As a college freshman, I got lice. I volunteered at an anarchist collective after Hurricane Katrina, and when I returned to my charming college, I brought with me many small, multi-limbed travelers. To save myself the bother of chemical shampoo and those awful metal combs, I decided to shave my head… and it was magical. The shaving process, which we did in a public bathroom, was amazingly fun. There are so many nerves in the scalp! I had forgotten!
And my skull is really round, and (I think) very pretty. In the back, the way my head balances on my occipital ridge? And you wanna talk about curves, let’s talk about the cervical spine. I’ve got a pronounced one. You can touch it. It’s okay.
And I loved that sense of exposure, and the feeling of height. With a shaved head, I felt taller by miles. And as the hair grew back, it was so soft and so strong. And, don’t laugh, but I could feel it grow at night, thick, dark and mighty, like a forest rebounding after a healthy fire. I cut my hair regularly because I love that feeling, of increased exposure, followed by increased growth.
And I feel that way about my whole body, and its hair. So, as much as I love that smooth shin-bone of mine, I like the thicket of hairs I get on my calves, right under my knee. I like growing out the top of my pubic hair so I get a thrilling goatee (more young Fred Durst than Ra’s al Ghul). While I don’t ask that you, merry internet reader, do the same, I’d suggest trying it for a week, or just two days, to let yourself get used to a slightly fuzzier armpit or a more complete Map of Tasmania.
And I’ve never felt itchy when I’ve been growing it out. Just lucky, I guess.
Money in the Bank: Shame, Shaving and Business Plans
I’d rather cover up then shave. I don’t like to draw undue attention to my appearance because I need to be taken seriously.
What seemed odd to me, after reading articles about shaving, was how people expressed their shaving, and how some people seemed delighted by their now-exposed skin and some… didn’t.
I love other people’s hair. I love it. I love to pull it, to bury my face in it, to smell it, to braid it. I love thick hair, and thin hair, coarse hair, curly and straight hair. I like people who have rugs, sweaters, braids, beards, soul patches, awful hipster mustaches. One of my long-term partners had such a faithful beard that in 4 years, I saw his whole, naked chin *once.* It had a little Gaston-cleft (that explained why his mother always called him “Butt-face”).
But overall, there wasn’t much of a description of people’s faces, genitals, or their legs, or their pits, or why they were so interested in exfoliating/exposing/expunging these naturally hairy, mildly sweaty places. Where is the love? In male-targeted shaving ads, there is a whisper of it. I hear a bit of delight in the uncovered cheekbones of a newly-shorn man. But overall, there is no added joy in these places, which strikes me as a pity. Much of the drive to shave is not in finding reverance for ones own body, but in feeling the safety of conforming to gender norms.
After my car accident, I had a lot of trepidation about my legs…. But I eventually decided that if I can be bold about scars, why not leg hair.
Emer, of the Vagenda, presumably/perhapy the same Emer O’Toole of the lovely hairs so decried by the Daily Mail, wrote an amazing, piece “Hair! (Not the Musical)” which conveyed a brilliant slew of ideas around identity and confidence.
The point she makes, here and other places, is that your confidence is something that is linked to you, who you are, without make-up, without products, without shaving. It’s about being confident in who you are, and knowing you are a person who deserves respect, and whether you’ve got some killer pit-hair growing won’t negate your personal worth.
Because the people who make you think that, who make you feel that shame, they do it to make money. Shame is very profitable. There is an enormous industry behind shaving, that pours billions of dollars of advertising money into setting standardized beauty norms. Gillette, for instance, employs 28,700 people, and ships its many products all throughout the world, while their top-secret research lab is tucked away in a tiny English town.
In a “rapid prototyping” lab downstairs, with bizarre contraptions making gurgling sounds that evoke Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, workers use lasers to turn liquid UV resin into solid plastic razor prototypes. The ability to churn out prototypes overnight – along with identifying different categories of female shavers – has helped accelerate the pace of innovation for women.
In recent years, Gillette has introduced 20 percent more products for women compared with men.
This awesome (and aptly-titled “Gillette Sharpens Its Focus on Women”) business-tech article by Jenn Abelson in the Boston Globe clarifies the forces of technology and capital motivating the drive towards hairlessness. When the solution is a razor, things start looking hairy. For more clarity, please watch this commercial for Gillette.
Recently, Veet has also released some questionable ads, like this one:
Being inundated with these messages day in, and day out, is hard. Shaving norms seem to affect white women more than other cultural groups, with white women leading the charge for complete hair removal, buying bikini waxes and Brazilian waxes. In most advertizements, the models are white, and concerned with fetishizing an idealized white body. This silences the images and realities for the majority of women, who are not young, white, and mostly-blonde. At the same time, that norm encourages women who can conform to it… to do so. These images, of hairy legs as bad, unattractive, and unallowed, strongly impacts the behavior of thousands of women. The Altantic’s Ashley Fetters covered the shift fairly well, including a discussion of the racial component of it.
Almost every case of my shaving is linked to particular individuals having issues with my preferred gender expression in general, and shaving is a relatively small battle to cede when it comes to that.
In my mind, one of the single greatest reasons to grow my hair out, in these respects, is to increase visibility and support for women who consciously opt-out of shaving.
Within the queer community, shaving, and overall body maintenance is a very differently considered idea, and one that encourages (I’ve found) a wider variety of expression and choice. Keeping my head-hair short, and taking my style from Rufio, is a way I express my flaming personality, and in busting out of the idea that women should have long, straight hair, I’ve found a lot of excellent styles, and know more about pomade than any human should.
And that idea extends to all my body. Rejecting the standard beauty norm does not rob one of beauty. Rejecting the norm allows you to find the way you want to look, and how you want to present yourself to others, in a more honest, vibrant way. And maybe the thing you’d need to complete that look is having a little bit of leg hair.
I have a birthday sweater and the world can deal with that.
A Brief Appendix
PS: I like this cartoon from Marc Johns and I hoped you might like it too, and his description: “Because when we are naked, aristocrats (and other important people) are a bit funny looking, just like the rest of us.”
PPS: I would really, strongly appreciate YOUR COMMENTS on why you shave or don’t shave. Please be civil, and know that everyone should make their own choice about how the use and present their bodies.