A few weeks ago a woman at my bus stop – I might call her ravishing – wore a buzzed haircut, long soccer shorts, a baggy t-shirt, and nike sneakers. I was sitting on the ground, so her gleaming hairless calves were just a few feet from my eye-level. Her shiny smooth skin winked at me in the hot afternoon sun and I think I fell in love right then and there. For minutes I watched her calves, smitten. Finally, I tilted my gaze south to the pale hairy ankles poking out from my jeans and let out an internal groan of dissatisfaction.
I’d decided to stop shaving about 6 months prior in what I believed to be a noble challenging of social norms. But I was beginning to resent my decision and all the cognitive dissonance it brought with it.
Why should we have to shave our legs?! I’d shouted to the world bitterly this past February. And right then I decided to practice what I preached. I knew a little hair might make me uncomfortable, but I wondered if I could power through it. Maybe even grow to love my hairy legs. Body hair is cute on animals, why not on me? I will not be a victim of my own internalized misogyny!
It was exciting at first. As my hair grew longer, Benjamin Button-ing my legs back into fifth grade, I watched with genuine curiosity, sometimes my fuzzy knees captivating me just inches from my nose. Did my interest in watching my leg hair grow speak to the cadence of novelty in my life? I rate this a 7 on the pathetic scale.
When the thrill of change wore off, I slipped into an era of hairy apathy – a feminist victory I attribute completely to San Francisco’s climate. When you wear pants every day it’s easy to forget about legs.
But when the weather warmed up and denial-by-avoidance was no longer an option, it was time to face the emotional gravity of my contrarian move. What would I feel? Pride? Empowerment? Shame? Embarrassment?
Honestly, it didn’t really feel like much at all. I felt a little sheepish maybe, but that was it. Friends would comment and I’d say it was “weird, huh?” And we’d move on.
It was tame. A non-issue. No one cared! Of course no one cared! Oh oh. Except me. I cared. A little bit. Was that okay? As time went on I found myself jumping through mental hoops to convince myself I either was still having fun with it or, a the very least, was too progressive to care.
“They are kind of cute, right?” I desperately asked my boyfriend one morning. I was sitting on our couch in pajama shorts, my furry legs pretzeled in my own lap as I ran my fingers up and down my shin fluff.
“Yeah I guess so!” he called from the kitchen table. Beat. “You know I don’t care,” he quickly added when my eyes narrowed at the smirk on his face.
We were all trying.
Growing my leg hair was a miniscule (MINISCULE) act of defiance on my part, but as time went on and I began honestly examining my feelings on the topic, it was calling a lot of my own views into question.
Why was I put off by the aesthetic of hair on my legs? It started to look bad to me in the bright light of the public eye. Was that disgust purely learned? Should I quit? Was it okay to accept learned norms sometimes? Was my shunning of the practice silly considering the thousands of other modern ones I buy into on a given day? Did it matter if I gave up and shaved? What would that mean? Would I feel like a failure? If no one cares, why am I still thinking about this? If no one cares, why would I start shaving again?
So I began conducting some research.
Did you know hair removal can be traced back to many ancient civilizations? Some evidence shows women using substances like arsenic to zap their body hair as far back as 4,000 b.c. Edgy. Other evidence reveals cavemen removed their hair to avoid getting mites and providing their enemies with handholds. Ancient Egyptians removed body hair for religious reasons. A lack of hair during the Roman Empire was a sign of wealth and class. Body hair has been a thing for a while.
But most say the modern-day obsession with hair removal and the culture that surrounds it only dates back to the early 20th century, when advertising and more revealing clothing for women boomed in congruence. The practice of frequent shaving was massively embraced by western society – American women in particular – going from common to ubiquitous to almost socially required in a mere decade – a blip when considering the less-stringent millennia leading up to it.
The root of motivation today, however, remains murky. Explanations span from practical (hair poking through stockings was not aesthetically pleasing), to biological (hair’s bacteria-trapping capability is unattractive to mates), to hygienic (hair traps sweat and odor), to sociological (hair is naturally more prevalent on men and is therefore seen as a masculine trait).
But if today the practicality element is irrelevant, and the biological and hygienic explanations don’t hold when we consider men’s body hair, we are left mostly with sociology and our learned culture to reject hairy women for their supposed lack of femininity.
My research brought me back full circle. Smooth lady legs merely offer a contrast to male ones. Hairlessness is just another idealized trait that slots nicely into the western ideal of a pure and acutely unmasculine woman.
An argument could be made that shaving, like many other things, is simply a choice women make nowadays. You might say yes, it has misogynistic roots, but it’s become a different animal: a cultural practice or a beauty ideal that’s infiltrated our personal tastes. It’s something different now. Women want to do it! It makes them feel good! But does that make it okay? Is something really a choice if you do it because nonconformity presents consequences? Judgment?
Then again, maybe the perceived consequences are overestimated. In my experience having hairy legs hasn’t presented much of a challenge except the emotional barriers in my own head. I guess the conclusion is it’s complicated. Of course it is.
The practice (or nonpractice) of shaving legs is a teeny tiny part of being a woman. There are so many more important things we can do to empower ourselves and other women. Our choice to shave or not shave doesn’t make us more or less of women or feminists. The implications aren’t as large as I imagined they might be when I made this “bold decision,” but it’s been an interesting challenge for me emotionally.
Today I turn 26. Last night I considered shaving my legs so I could wear this dress more comfortably. If I waited until my birthday, was that a ceremonious closing of a loop? Could I spin this into a victory? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For some reason I can’t pinpoint I feel determined to ride this out.
And you know what? I think I might be on the upswing of this rollercoaster. When I looked past my blue dress this morning I saw my leg hair glinting in the sun the way that woman’s smooth calves had a few weeks ago. And they looked less alien to me. They looked like they maybe belonged there.
I think they’re growing on me. Literally. (Sorry.) That realization doesn’t mean as much to me as I thought it might, but it means something.
On that quasi-feminist note, I’m off to a Taylor Swift concert. (Heh.)