When I was nine years old, I found nothing more amusing than watching people react in horror to my soft and innocent little leg hairs.
Teenage girls who I looked up to would wince at the sight of them, squealing, “EWWWWWWW, you have SO much hair on your legs!” My response was always one of pride: “Yep! And it goes all the way up my legs, too!”
My mother, unlike my older and cooler friends, had a more tactful approach. “When you get older,” she explained, with a look of defeat in her eyes, “you’ll realize that leg hair is embarrassing. Like all women, you’ll want to get rid of it”.
But nine year old me was incredibly confused by this state of affairs — how could something so lovely and amazing as my leg hair ever be embarrassing? Has the world gone mad? Why should I be ashamed of something that my body grew all by itself?
Unfortunately, like so many love stories that end in tragedy, my love affair with my hairy legs came to an abrupt end.
By the time I hit the big 1-0, I –like all of the girls and women I knew — had internalized the idea that my leg hair was embarrassing. I became acutely aware of it during the summertime, when I was forced to wear shorts on school days. Standing in the cafeteria line, I noticed all the other girls had shaved their legs, and the only hairy legs in sight were the scuffed and bruised legs of the boys. My leg hair — in its golden and glistening glory — was no longer acceptable.
Impulsively, one Saturday afternoon, I walked into the bathroom and — without soap or water — launched an all-out assault on my legs, scraping at them with a blunt razor until my beautiful, soft, blond hairs sprinkled all over the bathtub like sad little snowflakes.
Standing there on my new found hairless legs (which were throbbing and inflamed, by the way)I felt a confusing — almost sickening — sense of pride.”I did it… now what?”
As the years went by, I continued to abuse my poor little leg hairs — I yanked them out violently by the roots with hot wax, I bought all sorts of fancy creams that promised to miraculously melt them away, and I ritualistically balanced myself against the bathtub every week–clutching a can of shaving cream in one hand and a razor in the other–scrupulously removing every single last hair that I could find. Those soft, innocent little hairs that I was so fond of many years ago were now thick, prickly, and becoming more and more menacing as the years rolled on.
Whenever I discuss my leg hair with people — or any of my body hair for that matter — I’m told that I’m either being too trivial, or that it’s too disgusting to talk about in polite company (in other words, always). But can’t we discuss the weird rituals of “femininity” and hair removal without being told that we’re being silly, or worse, inappropriate?
Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, professor of English Literature at the University of Reading, wrote a fascinating piece on body hair for The Conversation a couple of years ago. She writes:
It turns out that the more you ask that question [about body hair], the more nobody actually knows [the answers]… Why and how the removal of body hair (“smoothness”) is “attractive,” and how it constitutes a separation between masculinity and femininity is a question that almost nobody can really explain.
But in some respects, the separation between masculinity and femininity (in reference to beauty practices) is not difficult to understand at all. Beauty practices, such as hair removal, are one of the many ways that women are socialized into femininity; which requires our bodies to be taut, our lips to be plump, and our bodies (well, most of our bodies) to be hairless at all times. Far from being trivial, the removal of body hair serves as yet another micro-paranoia that women deal with on a regular basis. Hair removal functions — in a tacit, underlying way — to distance women from their bodies. It turns women’s bodies into a foreign and frightening land, and makes us think twice about accepting ourselves, prickles and all.
If we can’t even feel at ease with our own bodies and the furry bits they produce, then how can we possibly be confident and comfortable with, you know, overthrowing the patriarchy? I know that sounds extreme, but think about it –“unsightly” stubble should be the last thing on our minds. And the same goes for our cellulite and all those other bits that we’re told over and over again that we should hate.
I’ve finally decided to make peace with my leg hair. Yes, we’ll never have the same, carefree relationship we once had, but at least now I know that every single last pointy prickle that I run my hands over is on my side. After all, who wants the supposed “perks” of femininity when you can have such a beautiful, coarse, naturally-growing, dickhead repellent on your legs? I’ll leave you with that image.
If you enjoyed today’s body hair love story, you’ll definitely enjoy the others in the series: “My armpit hair made a grown man cry today,” “My pubes are way cooler than your hipster beard,” and the more sombre “Ode to my chin hairs.”
Natalie Jovanovski is a sociologist and feminist researcher from Melbourne, Australia. She has completed a PhD on the gendered construction of food in popular culture, and is interested in critiquing gendered body-modification practices, such as dieting and hair removal. She also contributed a chapter in “Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism.”