Curly
Goes the waves
Cascading down my inner thigh
My legs
Densely
Yet fine enough that I hope no one notices.

I remember seeing a woman at the lake once.  We were both standing at the bottom of the diving platform, both in bikinis.  I think hers was camo.  I don’t remember talking to her, but I will always remember the short, prickly hair sticking out from her inner thighs, leaving the moist warm confines of her swimsuit.  I was affronted by the sight, even though at the tender age of 12 I was already shaving there too.  It was the first time I had seen pubic hair in the sphere of the public.  I thought to myself, “doesn’t she know that’s disgusting?  She should shave!”

It’s funny that two words so similar—pubic and public—should be so separated in our conscious.  The only thing differentiating them is an “L.”  I wonder if they are perhaps the inverse of each other—with pubic hair being the ultimate form of private.  So shameful that not only do we hid it, we spend money and time and pain to trick ourselves and others into thinking it does not exist.  As Petra Collins discovered when she posted a photo of herself with pubic hair sticking out—pubic is not public.

“It is perplexing that such an image, apparently so harmless and familiar, could be banned alongside accepted imagery posted by celebrities that promote an aggressive sexuality and gender” says Collins, lamenting how her photo was taken down.[1]  A few years ago, I too would have felt uncomfortable.  Maybe I wouldn’t have flagged it or taken it down, but the image would have stuck with me, bothered me.

When I was probably around the age of 8 or 9 I started developing pubic hair.  I don’t remember how I felt about it until a semipublic experience with two of my cousins.  We were going to get a bath together, all 3 of us, as we were all around the same age.  Sitting in the bath with them, they asked me why I had hair growing there.  I didn’t have an answer.  From that day forward, I knew that my pubic hair was something to be ashamed of.  From that day forward, I was always trying to get rid of it, pull it out, shave it off, make it not exist.

In a moment, shame
A lifetime in one question
I carry it still.

The first time I ever knew I was sexy while sporting a naturally hairy body was in Burlesque my sophomore year of college.  I labored over whether or not to shave.  I was going to be naked in front of 200 people.  I was worried that my hair would detract from my sensuality.  Even now as I write this, I am wrought with conflicting feelings.

“I’m gay, but your performance made me bi.”

– Anonymous Vassar Student

I was told that by an audience member after the show.  How can I be so sexy, yet still feel that my body hair makes me lesser?  Johnston and Taylor say that “a key insight of feminist politics and social change projects is that political inequalities and oppression are personalized and internalized at the level of individual subjects.  Because of this, addressing internalized feeling of inferiority is politically significant and can profoundly challenge the gender order.”[2]  Here I was, using art and performance as a way to work through my feelings of inferiority much like Pretty, Porky, and Pissed Off, a Canadian fat activism performance group which used their bodies to empower themselves and others.  But like them, I’m afraid my interest in burlesque has fizzled due to time and energy.  Will the strides I made there with myself fizzle out too?

 Funny that one performance should be empowering, when others have been so harmful.  At 11 years old, I shaved for the first time.  Well, it wasn’t me doing the action, but rather my mother.  We stood on the side of the stage, my arms raised above me as she shaved my arm pits.  It was the night of my recital.  My ballet teacher had told me that I had to shave, or I could not perform because the few straggly hairs growing from my arm pit were so obviously revolting.  My mother had been pushing off the ultimately inevitable moment where I would start shaving because she wanted me to get my hair permanently removed before I ever had to pick up a razor—legs, underarms, bikini, and even nipples.  Not that I have hairy nipples, but any hair was too much.

I feel for my mother, I really do.  People made fun of her when she was younger because she had hairy arms.  But it still bothers me that she would want me to get my hair removed before I even really had hair.  Today I am grateful that we couldn’t afford to get it removed.  

One of my favorite movies is Return to Me (2000).  In one scene, the main actress, Grace is in the tub preparing for her first date with the leading man.  She’s on the phone with her best friend, Megan (played by Bonnie Hunt, who also wrote and directed the movie), and they talk about what she might expect on the date.  Megan asks, “Did you shave your legs?”  Grace says, “No, why?”  Megan goes on to explain that Grace won’t “go too far” if she hasn’t shaven.[3]  I didn’t really understand the scene growing up.  Once I was older, I’m not sure I questioned it that much.  Now I wonder if it is one of the many things contributing to my complicated thoughts around body hair—the thought that I could stay pure by knowing I was too unattractive to have sex with because I didn’t shave.  It’s kind of fucked up now that I’m writing about it.

The first time I thought about actually growing out my underarm hair was when I read an article showcasing Miley Cyrus’ unshaven pits.  I’ve never been that into her, but honestly it was the hottest she ever looked.  It was a news story in Elle about celebrities who didn’t shave, including Drew Barrymore, Sophie Loren, and Julia Roberts.[4]  The headline and photo featured Miley, but it was the photo of Julia Roberts at her London premier of Notting Hill that made me realize I could be beautiful and classy and elegant while choosing not to shave.  After seeing her so beautiful and confident, I decided I could do the same.

The summer after I decided to stop shaving I got a job as a waitress in Arkansas.  It was a local sports bar chain with all female servers.  The uniform was jeans and a company tank top.  Halfway into the summer, my male boss pulls me into the side room.  He started by saying “this is awkward,” and then proceeded to tell me that they had gotten a complaint because one of the customers found my armpit hair “unappetizing.”  He said I had a choice—I could shave or wear a t-shirt.  I chose the t-shirt.  I wish I could have told him that the customers weren’t eating my armpit hair, but I needed the job.  I just shut my mouth, and luckily my boss never brought it up again.

The Gaze
Home
My body
This vessel which carries me
Is made to be a house
With plain white walls and polite optimism
A place for men to store their fantasies
And paint me how they will.
Their gaze, which inspects my body
Ever present
Not my body,
But theirs.[5]

The hair on my body is a constant reminder of my gendered struggle.  That something so simple as doing nothing (letting it grow) could be so controversial is revolting—maybe as revolting as my underarm hair was to the man in the restaurant.  Yet, every time I get in the shower, I think about shaving it all off.  It would be easier.  It would be one less thing I would find unattractive about myself.  But I fight this so that someday others won’t have to.  Maybe I won’t make as much of a difference as celebrities, but hopefully by the time I have kids I can help them be comfortable with a natural part of themselves in a way I never was.


[1] Gretchen Faust, “Hair, Blood and the Nipple Instagram Censorship and the Female Body,” Digital Environments, 2017, , doi:10.14361/9783839434970-012. 163.

[2] Josée Johnston and Judith Taylor, “Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33, no. 4 (2008): , doi:10.1086/528849. 118

[3] Return to Me, dir. Bonnie Hunt. 2000.

[4] Daisy Murray, “Bad-Ass Women Who Don’t Shave Their Armpits,” ELLE, November 07, 2018, , accessed April 09, 2019, https://www.elle.com/uk/beauty/g24659890/celebrities-hairy-armpits/.

[5] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1990.

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