I have a vivid memory of standing in the shallows of a lake in Vermont, where I was spending the summer at a tennis camp, age 11, raising my arms—in play or to call a friend over—and being pointed at. My memory of this moment is akin to Adam and Eve’s revelation of their nakedness in Eden: I remember suddenly realizing I had, for the first time in my existence, grown armpit hair. (I don’t know how the offending hairs had escaped my attention until that moment as they were already about three-quarters of an inch long—but both puberty and memory are mysterious entities.) Like Adam and Eve, I was ashamed. Women, girls, weren’t supposed to have hair there. Later that day, I bought a razor at the camp’s small store. For next 15 years, I shaved my armpits at least three times a week. When I got home from camp, I asked my mom if I could start shaving my legs, too. “You can,” she said, “but you should wait until you’re older. Once you start…” She let that sentence trail off, but I think she meant, “you can’t stop.” I was excited to be growing up, to become an adult, a woman. I started shaving my legs, too.
As a teen, I remember mostly being disgusted by my body. Most of my hygiene routine was designed to eliminate any and all reminders of direct, genetic relationship to the ape. My main enemies were: 1) any armpit and leg hair, toe hair, and any eyebrow hair that fell outside of the acceptable shaped area, 2) sweat and B.O., 3) greasy hair, 4) pimples, 5) cuticles, and, as an older teen, 6) pubic hair. There was a lot about my appearance—my bumpy nose, small breasts, wide face—I couldn’t control; I was determined, therefore, to keep everything else I could control in line.
Before I go any farther, let me just say, that cleanliness is still a priority of mine. But there is a difference between a clean surface and a sterilized one, and, as a teen, I was trying my hardest to make my body sterile, pristine, immaculate. I also want to say that shaving, or otherwise removing body hair, doesn’t make you anti-feminist or obsessive; however, I personally didn’t start feeling comfortable in my body as a body—as an animal body—until last year, when I moved to Iowa City, into an incredibly liberal community of writers and artists, and, following the lead of a few of my new friends, stopped shaving—first my pits, then my legs, then my bikini line. I became hairy. And, along with the hair, came smells: hair traps smell and holds it in a way that skin can’t.
Even in this community, of feminists and radicals, I felt embarrassed by my new hair. For nearly a year, I avoided wearing tank tops and other styles that exposed my unshaven parts. When I left Iowa—to go home for vacation or to visit friends—I often chose to shave. I didn’t want to attract ridicule, judgment, questions. Although I still struggle with this shame, I’ve gotten better: I no longer shy away from tank tops and, this winter, when I went home for Christmas, I didn’t shave my armpits. No one commented on them. My husband doesn’t mind my hair and, as an added bonus, when I do shave, he finds my smooth pits and legs extra-sexy. He doesn’t take them for granted.
I don’t exactly feel “liberated,” but choosing when and whether to shave my body hair is a way of existing outside of the demands that—yup, I’m just going to go for it—our patriarchal society imposes on women. I’m not compelled to shave because women aren’t supposed to have hair there; I shave when I want to, because I feel like, because I would, for whatever reason, prefer to go hairless for a while. I guess it’s about control, but it’s different than the control I had felt as a teen. That control was an illusion. We are animals; we have bodies; and no amount of cleanliness or hygiene can erase that fact. Sometimes our bodies are gross and weird and not at all sexy—and that’s fine. It’s fine not to be sexy. But what society calls “gross” or “weird” or “dirty” can also be sexy, sexier than “clean” and “normal” and “smooth.”
Have you ever stopped shaving? If so, what was the experience like? If not, would you consider it? Why/why not?