In middle school, my mom tried to bribe me with $500 if I didn’t shave my legs until I was 18. I’d been begging her to let me have a razor. With 7th grade came a swift, intense shift in my relationship to my body, and suddenly I felt like the only girl on the basketball team who still had virgin hairy legs. And while I had never put any thought into that hair before, its occurrence had suddenly become horrifically embarrassing. In the potent, wobbly age of “becoming a woman”, a whole list of requirements had emerged, none of which I seemed to meet, especially not with my furry legs. Even as she eventually gave in to my plea, Mom still insisted that my then-blond, barely visible hair would just grow back to be darker and thicker as hers had, that it was totally unnecessary in the first place, and why did I care what anyone would think?
Now I’m older, post-college poor, hairy all over, and fantasizing about what I would do with that 500 bucks. What was I thinking?? Look, Mom! I did what you said! It just took a decade. A decade of stubble, itchy skin, DIY bikini waxes, lotion, dull blades, ingrown hairs, self-conscious hook-ups, safety, comfort, and blending in. A decade of pulling, tearing, tweezing, picking at my body. It wasn’t all that bad. It had just become a consistent habit. Something I had to do. Maintenance, a chore. Girls were supposed to be smooth and hairless, and boys could be hairy. That’s just the way it was. I questioned that gender discrepancy every now and then but never thoroughly enough to consider changing my ways. I was in too deep. I had already subscribed. Buying mango scented shaving cream. Dropping 60 bucks on a Brazilian wax. Making sure my all my hairy areas were neat and dormant so as not to disturb the way of the world.
But then a beautiful thing happened. It wasn’t abrupt, immediate or spontaneous. It was a slow, gradual, tentative loosening—of effort – time – money – caring. The catalyst was my dear friend Ryley. We were slogging through our last year of undergrad in the heart of Orange County, CA, where having smooth hairless female legs is like a holy commandment of the beach body. But Ryley stopped. Not sure if she was motivated by sacrilegious liberal deviance, or a result of having no time for anything but the Mac Lab, but I started getting used to seeing her hairy legs in denim shorts and doc martens wandering around with no concern. I remember people kept asking her when she was going to shave. She would just shrug. Eventually it became part of her look. It wasn’t horrifying. It wasn’t gross. It was just her. She no longer gave a fuck.
This was puzzling, but intriguing to me. What if I too, dropped the razor? What would it mean about everything I’d believed? My whole worldview? My view of myself? Would I be less feminine? Less of a girl-woman? Less attractive, sexy, beautiful to the opposite sex? Wait – did that even matter? Who was I shaving my legs for? Was I doing it because I liked to do it? It was nice to have smooth, silky, alien legs, but it only lasted a day or so before the itchy stubble returned with a vengeance. Was I consistently shaving and waxing so that I could be normal? Even though these are naturally occurring evolutionary mammal processes? Was I participating in a widespread hoax that women didn’t grow hair? Accepting these nasty swollen ingrown hairs as a side effect of being born with a uterus?
There was only one way to find out. It became an experiment. I did nothing. I let it grow. I shaved every once in a while when it got too weird for me. I became aware that I was uncomfortable to see my own hair—its blatant wildness, color, texture. It was even more uncomfortable to let other people see it. Especially with the looks and the comments, though anticipated, for ex: “Ew,” “Oh my god,” “Lost your razor?”. Over time it became more and more challenging for me to understand that reaction, why exactly my hair was seen as disgusting and/or unfeminine. Why women are subjected to so many rules and regulations to determine how we are supposed to look and display ourselves for the modern world. It steadily became more and more liberating to drop the whole mirage.
And honestly, I can finally, wholeheartedly say that I no longer give a fuck. Thanks in a large part to the multitudes of spectacular women in my life like my wise mother and brave friends like Ryley. Discomfort and embarrassment of my own body still leak in. But it is what it is: an ongoing relationship with myself and my own insecurities, and a whoooole lot of un-learning what it supposedly means to be a female.
I’m not writing all of this down as an attempt to persuade all women to throw out their razors, burn their bras, and convert everyone to strident feminism (…EQUAL RIGHTS THO…). Do what you want. The point is being conscious that it’s what YOU want, not what you’ve been told to want. We all deserve the right to live in our own bodies as we wish, without ridicule or shame over aesthetics.
I should acknowledge that to some, this issue may seem inconsequential. Who the hell cares about leg hair? Armpit hair? Or, * gasp * a hairy vagina? Where does that rank on the scale of important things in the world today?
But in my own experience, the pressure to shave my legs in 7th grade is just one silly example of the double standard bullshit women and girls deal with on a daily basis, which is indicative of a much deeper, nastier system of oppression and violence. The subtle, manipulative dis-empowerment women experience constantly is so hooked into the cultural psyche that it’s not always perceived. The reality is, some people really don’t want to see women’s body hair, or hear about menstrual cycles, or the pay gap, or discuss the tragic global epidemic of rape and sexual assault. Some people really don’t want women to have the right to choose whether or not to grow a new human in their own body, and will go to extreme, violent lengths to communicate that. Some people don’t give a damn if women are paid equally as men. Some people are still uncomfortable, but it is not up to women to make these people feel more secure.
I do believe that it is up to all of us, regardless of how we identify with gender and its hangups, to explore the way we relate to ourselves, without conditions, without the exception of parts we don’t like. With fierceness, trust, and courage. What if we cultivated a society/culture and a subsequent media that encouraged all people to accept themselves as they inherently are, rather than feeding them constant messaging dictating what needs to be removed / re-shaped / enhanced / suppressed ?
As we work on that (it’s already happening), I’m going to let my mom know, as I often find myself doing these days, that she was right all along.
Written by Rachel Becker