First published in The National, 20 Feb 2017
I WAS 11 years old when I first shaved my legs. Puberty had been quick, forceful and had dramatically changed my body. By that point I’d already been plucking my eyebrows for a year, and I’d had varying degrees of chemical-based disaster with depilatory creams. I couldn’t tell you one single event that communicated the acceptable amount of female body hair – I’d absorbed that knowledge without realising it. There it now was and I knew this was my cue to get it under control.
The first time I shaved my mother was out, and I was in the care of my babysitter. I was well-behaved child, so was left to my own devices whilst Vicky focused on my younger sisters.
On this particular day, for a reason I can’t recall, I decided it was time to do something about the inchoate black hair that was taking over my skinny chalk-coloured shins. With all the hubris that comes from being the eldest child with a modicum of trust, I locked myself in the bathroom and helped myself to a yellow Bic from the medicine cabinet. I’d seen my mother shave enough times, thought myself terribly mature, and figured that was all the qualification anyone needed to handle a blade with skill.
I ran a shallow bath, scrunched up my Spice Girls leggings and swung my legs over the rim of the tub and into the warm water. I was about to enact my first act of conscious womanhood. What a thrill. I wet my legs, lathered them with too much foam, and proceeded to tear my shins to shreds. The blade bit into the back of my knee and stung as the foam ran in. I kept going.
I finished, dried my legs and, despite the shoddy workmanship evidenced by crimson rivulets, I was pleased. My skin stung, but I felt grown up. If logic were to dictate what happened next, after physically harming my body, I’d have given up shaving for good. I didn’t. The pull of expectation and adult grooming was too much, and so began my long and fraught relationship with the razor.
In the years since I’ve tried just about every product or device designed to de-fuzz us. Plucking, waxing, sugaring, burning, threading, epilating. Most of them are a chore at least and bloody painful at worst – especially when your thick dark hair grows at thrice the speed and density of your blonde sisters’.
I tried doing it myself and I paid other women to do it for me. Women’s hair removal is a multi-billion dollar industry, built on the expectation for women to look a certain way.
I’m writing about this now because it’s been six years since I all but abandoned hair removal and I’ve never regretted my decision. To be honest, it’s become so normal that I hadn’t given it much thought until I saw a story trending. Like Movember, women are taking part in #GetHairyFebruary to raise money for domestic violence charities – but they’re being met with the sort of abuse you would expect if you’ve spent more than five minutes online.
“#GetHairyFebruary = delete my number”. The trolls I expected, but the resistance and judgement from other women – “sorry, I’m not doing this. I have to appear in public” – saddened me. But, of course, plenty think that way. I used to. You might do so now. It’s understandable. That revulsion is a product of the society we live in.
Six years ago I joined roller derby – an (at the time) all-women contact sport played on quad roller skates. I signed up after having my youngest child because it looked fun and I wanted a physical challenge beyond running and my bike. What I didn’t expect was how this athletic community would radically reframe my relationship to my own body.
On the first day of training, I remember this powerfully fit group of women in their pads, helmets, tank-tops and skates stretching out. Arms reached up over heads, along the insides of legs and there was something totally unexpected – armpit hair. I stared. It was shocking and thrilling. And no one cared. No one was apologetic, no one was trying to stretch in a way that would shield their body from view.
I realised I’d made it to 24 without ever seeing a natural woman’s armpit. I’d never even seen my own. As soon as the first hairs grew at 12 years old I reached for a razor.
As my time at derby progressed, my body began to change and so did my attitude. I was building muscle, gaining strength, watching myself achieve. My body was capable of doing incredible things. And so were the bodies around me. Tall bodies, short bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, postnatal bodies, bodies with scars, bodies with long hair, bodies with shaved heads. Bodies we’d been conditioned to value first for their aesthetic worth being so much more than how they looked.
Here, in this sportshall, beauty culture didn’t matter. Together we shared in the power and ingenuity of our own bodies and our minds. Our strength and skill on the track. Our judgement and decision-making. Here I was valued for what I could bring, not how I looked.
So wait – why was I still shaving my pits? I hated doing it. Always had. It took time and I no longer really wanted to. The only reason left was that other women do it because there’s a social expectation to keep our bodies hairless. I decided that wasn’t a good enough reason and so I stopped. Six years in and there’s no going back. I haven’t changed my behaviour or my clothes. I still swim. I still wear sleeveless tops and dresses. I raise my arms without thinking. The first time I left the house without a jacket, I was convinced everyone would be stare or comment. It didn’t happen.
There has only been one time I was with a new partner and he made a disparaging remark about my naked body – so I put my clothes on and left. I felt beautiful and empowered. The price of admission to my body is that there is hair in places. If you can’t deal with a little fuzz, then find someone else to have sex with. No partner since has cared. Some have even come to prefer it, having challenged their own ideas on femininity and beauty.
Women are naturally hairy, so it’s not a case of hair being a naturally masculine trait. Even at our most hirsute, we are still distinguishable from men. Beauty standards are a social construct and that keeps us in competition with ourselves and with other women. The industry makes its money through prescribing behaviour, not aesthetic. Roller derby gave me enough solidarity among other women to break out of those habits, and I hope the online visibility of #GetHairyFebruary will do the same.
At the time I stopped shaving, I did it for myself. Now, my personal preference has taken on added importance. With a daughter the age I was when I started, I want her to see that she has choices. I want her to see that her body isn’t disgusting and has value whatever she decides to do with her hair. I want her to know she can make decisions on her own terms – not on an attitude to her body she inherits without question, like I did.
As Naomi Wolf says in The Beauty Myth: “She wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to change to truly see her.”