Body hair gets called a lot of nasty things – dirty, grimy, unattractive – and women’s armpit hair in particular has a bad rep. In my hometown of Milton, Massachusetts, a middle-class suburb just south of Boston, body hair seems to be approaching extinction. I do not remember seeing any body hair but my own for most of high school. Many of my friends waxed their eyebrows, lips, arms, legs and pubic hair. Among this classic case of high school chaetophobia (phobia of hair), growing out body hair never occurred to me as an option.
I spent last summer as a happy, healthy and hairy camp counselor at a wilderness program in Vermont that I attended as a camper when I was younger. In early high school—a time of too much eyeliner, MTV and Abercrombie – camp brought me back to planet earth and filled my life up with rope swings, barn chores, mud baths, wild edibles and body paint. As a thirteen-year-old girl, camp epitomized acceptance. Upon receiving a position as a Barns and Gardens staff member this summer, I was eager to reconnect with the land and the community. The camp is Quaker and the community is all female— making it a pretty accepting environment with its fair share of flourishing fuzz. Many of my co-counselors rocked their body hair with confidence and style. Everyday was a hairy lady parade— armpit hair served as a nice accessory to any pair of overalls. This is not to say that all women were hairy – many women continued to shave, while others let their manes grow long because well ‘hair grows and why stop it?’ It was a bit of a body hair utopia, a place where pit hair was adorned with glitter and admired for its classy middle-part.
Not shaving for three months was a conscious step outside of my comfort zone, but something I wanted to try. Ironically, I was uncomfortable about the idea of making other people uncomfortable. I was expecting to “tolerate” my pit hair but never love it the way I did.
The day I returned back home to Massachusetts, I was stretched out in my sunny backyard relaxing after a long journey home. When a dark shadow covered my face, I looked up to see my brother scowling down at me.
“That is just foul,” he said looking at my armpits.
“Why?” (I had been counting down the minutes until he commented on my silky tufts.)
“I see armpit hair as a masculine thing. It is a huge turn-off. It would be weird if a guy shaved his armpits.” What I had done, he said, was “not natural.”
“But armpit hair grows naturally,” I responded. “I’m not altering it. How is that not natural?”
“I know you think you don’t want to be with a guy unless he is down with that,” said my otherwise reasonable brother, “but in reality there are very few guys who will find that attractive.” (A point I beg to differ; confidence in a hairy bod is sexier than ever, haven’t you heard?)
“Right,” I said, “but it’s my body. I think armpit hair is beautiful.”
“I mean- it is your body.”
And so the conversation ended at an impasse.
My brother’s first point, that armpit hair is simply a foul and unnatural addition to the female anatomy, is just wrong. Some speculate that we have armpit hair to minimize friction between the upper arm and side, while others theorize that it is an indication of sexual maturity and collects pheromones to attract potential mates. Either way it is hard to argue that armpit hair is not natural. Perhaps it is so natural that many judge it as uncivilized and wild – a far cry from Victorian ideals of tame and well-mannered femininity. Some feminist scholars have theorized that “women pluck and shave in order to appear more sexless and infantile and that, in cultures that feel threatened by female power, hairlessness norms have become more pervasive.”
Untangling cultural norms about body image, gender and sexuality in regards to body hair is undoubtedly tricky business. As someone who shaves periodically, I understand the appeal of smooth skin. For many women, shaving is deeply ingrained in beauty and hygiene rituals. Perhaps it is driven by habit or preference rather than the desire to appear sexless and infantile. Still, it’s worth considering how these norms have originated and for whom women may really be shaving for.
Historically, body hair hasn’t always been taboo. Female body hair removal was not popular until the early 1920s. Hair removal became all the rage in the 1930s when the hottest fashions began to reveal an increasing amount of bare skin. As new revealing clothing styles became more popular, companies like Gillette and Nair constructed the idea that attractive, sanitary women should be smooth and shaven. Around 1916, Gillette teamed up with Harper’s Bazaar, an American women’s fashion magazine, to create a campaign to prevent women from growing out their underarm hair. During that two-year period, there was at least one advertisement for some sort of depilatory agent in every edition. In 1916 to 1920 hair removal companies expanded the underarm campaign by publishing primarily “instructional” hair removal advertisements. Magazines featured commercial headings such as; “How Actresses Remove Hair from their Underarms”, “How to Remove Hair in 5 Minutes” and “For Ladies of Refinement, You Should Know This About Objectionable Hair”. X Bazin was one of the most popular companies that demanded hair removal for the sake of fashion, with advertisements claiming: “Fashion Says—Evening gowns must be sleeveless or made with the merest suggestion of gauzy sleeves of tulle or lace…The Woman of Fashion Says—The underarms must be as smooth as the face.”
Today’s mainstream media and advertising culture still reinforce these body hair norms, convincing women that buzzing the fuzz is attractive, clean and natural. To the extent that pit hair publicly challenges notions of normative female appearance, growing one’s armpit hair may inadvertently or purposefully be an act of resistance against gender norms.
These days, armpit hair is often associated with social and political extremism, as well as masculinity. In the sixties and seventies female underarm hair was symbolic of the bohemian identity and leftist politics. The hair spoke for itself. Today, women’s armpit hair continues to be perceived as a symbol of counter-cultural movements. This makes flaunting the fur a political act, flipping the bird to society’s common perception of female body norms. Lets just say it is hard to grow out your armpit hair without making a statement, as I have recently discovered.
As I transitioned back to home life after camp, I was surprised by the sudden attention my armpit hair seemed to accrue. I experienced an odd sensation of culture shock in my own hometown. Apart from my brother’s unsavory remarks, most of the judgment I faced at home was more subtly inflicted. While not too many people spoke to me about my pit hair, many talked at it. In the most ordinary of conversations, eyes tended to fixate on stray curls peeking out from under my arms. For the first time in my life, I was consciously choosing to present myself in a manner that had the power to repulse or offend others.
The cultivation of my body hair and the many uncomfortable situations that followed forced me to reflect on normative gendered notions of beauty. As a white cis femme woman merely experimenting, my pit hair prompted me to consider the lives of those who do not actively choose non-normative gender appearances.
At home, friends, strangers, and neighbors seemed to interpret my body hair as a sign of my experimental, earthy, or rebellious college phase rather than a statement about my gender. Although some were cautiously supportive, many friends did not understand where I had come up with such a crazy idea and why I was subjecting myself to uncomfortable situations. I began to feel like a pit hair martyr, suffering through awkward conversations and bearing the judgmental glares all for the sake of a hairier tomorrow. With the exception of the nation’s socially progressive niches and culturally alternative nooks, the country was clearly not ready for the backyard revolution I was attempting to spark. In Milton, armpit hair didn’t quite fly the same way it did in the Vermont woods – and I felt like a lone wolf.
So I shaved. It was not an easy decision, nor was it right or wrong; however, it was hard not to consider it a defeat. On that particular Wednesday afternoon I was tired of worrying about embarrassing my family and friends. I decided my armpit hair just was not worth the trouble anymore. Thankfully, like any body hair, it grew back and I now wear it with pride. Meanwhile, I look forward to the day when women’s armpit hair is no longer a big deal, when its very existence is no longer enough to curl lips and end conversations.
As a white cis, fairly femme, middle-class woman, I realize that growing out my pit hair is a privilege within itself. Firstly, I had a supportive space to experiment with my armpit hair and was able to remove it as soon as I felt too much discomfort. For many people, it is not this simple. While my armpit hair saga is a story of bodily experimentation, for others, body hair may be linked to a more complicated and emotionally fraught story of non-normative gender representation. Growing out my pit hair, and just as easily shaving it off, forced me to reflect on how others’ choices about their gender presentation may not come so simply.
I have also been able to freely experiment without worrying that my body hair might be judged as a larger statement about my race, culture, socioeconomic status, or sexuality. For instance, in “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Women”, Toerien and Wilkinson link body hair with social class when they write, “Given that the presence of hair on a woman’s body may be taken to represent dirtiness, poor grooming, and laziness, by retaining her body hair, a woman may risk being negatively positioned by representations of the ‘unruly’, ‘out of control,’ ‘vulgar’ working-class woman.” As a white woman in a middle class environment, I did not fear that my body hair would be judged as a larger statement about my socio-economic status or truthfully any of my identities.
With all this in mind, it would be unfair of me to blindly encourage everybody to grow out their pit hair. The freedom to experiment without retaliation or judgment is clearly not universal. Even for those who can, the goal of this piece is not to convert the shaven to the shaggy–to each their own body-love, whether waxed or wooly. We all have personal preferences.
Rather, through this story, I hope to share with you my experience in examining a daily habit and considering the deeper meaning behind it. Growing my pit hair has been a powerful moment of experiential learning for me. It has shown me in the slightest of ways, how non-normative gender appearances can shape people’s movement through life, comfort level in various situations, and ultimately their self-perception. It has given me a more personal perspective on body hair norms and the space to interrogate these norms. Most importantly, it has made me reflect on how I want to position myself in relation to them.
For now, I’ll proudly grow my pit hair out – if anything, it provides outstanding heat insulation during this chilly fall season.
Fah, Breanne, and Delgado, Denise. “The Specter of Excess: Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives.” Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules. By Chris Bobel and Samantha Kwan. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2011. 13-25. Print. 14.
Hansen, Kirsten. “Hair or Bare?: The History of American Women and Hair Removal, 1914-1934.” Thesis. Barnard College, Columbia University, 2007. <http://history.barnard.edu/sites/default/files/inline/kirstenhansenthesis.pdf>.
Toerien, Merran and Sue Wilkinson. 2003 “Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Women.” Women’s Studies International Forum 26 (4): 342.
By Anika Wasserman, Contributor
All Images via Google Images