The norm for women to remove visible body hair is perhaps one of the strongest norms of appearance in Western society. Although more and more men are starting to wax and shave, there is still a sense in many social contexts, I think, that this is optional. For women, however, it is viewed as essential in almost all social contexts. From a feminist perspective, this norm can be critiqued in two ways. Firstly, it can be assessed in terms of its effects: women spend time and money removing body hair, time and money they could be spending on other things instead. Moreover, I’m not sure it’s something many women particularly enjoy; from talking to friends about removing body hair, I get the impression that most of them experience it as a chore rather than a treat. Many describe the prospect of not removing body hair as unthinkable. Secondly, it can be assessed in terms of its social meaning. As Sandra Bartky (1990) points out, the hairless female body, which typically occurs naturally only in pre-pubescent girls, has connotations of childishness or immaturity, and, by extension, powerlessness.
I became very conscious of this norm when, at 18, I stopped removing the hair from my legs. It was a decision motivated in roughly equal parts by practicality and politics. I was about to go backpacking for nine months, and the thought of lugging a razor around and spending time every few days scraping at my legs in rubbish hostel bathrooms instead of exploring a new place was profoundly unappealing. I had also been doing an art project about beautification practices, for which I looked into the first adverts for shaving products for women. These appeared in Harper’s Bazaar 1915, with the snappy line, ‘summer dress and modern dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair’. Although of course I had known all along that women had not always removed their body hair in the way that I and everyone I knew did, seeing the actual heavy-handed methods by which this norm was introduced made me much less inclined to go along with it.
When I told my friends about my decision, they were appalled. ‘You’ll turn into a hairy gorilla woman and no-one will ever love you’, said one, with a look of great concern. I remember finding this hilarious. I went on the trip, didn’t shave my legs, and had a great time. When I came back, I got into a habit of occasionally waxing my legs for special occasions (my sister’s wedding, for example). Otherwise, I let the hair grow and didn’t worry about covering it up, at least for the most part. Interestingly, I found that so long as I was in an informal setting, showing my hairy legs didn’t bother me at all; it was only when I was following some kind of formal dress code that I minded how they looked. Birkenstock sandals and hairy legs were fine; high heels and hairy legs gave me a sense of dissonance. Gradually, however, this faded, and at some point (I forget quite when) I also stopped removing the hair from my armpits.
Now, at 27 and lecturing in a university, I never remove my body hair, and will happily go anywhere and do anything with hairy armpits and legs on show. Sometimes, especially when I am otherwise looking quite ‘dressed up’, I get funny looks, almost exclusively from women. I don’t mind them in the least. In fact, I rather enjoy the feeling of having puzzled someone, of having frustrated their expectations. Occasionally I notice my students noticing it (I wave my arms about quite a lot when I lecture). I’m not quite sure what they make of it, but whatever the case, I’m really not fussed.
My experience of not removing my body hair has, then, been almost uniformly positive. However, it would be naïve in the extreme not to recognise that this is, in large part, made possible by my specific social position, including various types of privilege that I have. Of course, no woman’s body is ever securely acceptable in our contemporary context. Even the bodies of those women who are famously beautiful (and whose job seems mainly to consist of keeping on being beautiful) are only one careless morning away from the ‘red circle of shame’, employed by gossip magazines to highlight such horrors as stubbly armpits, under-eye circles, and chipped nail polish. Nevertheless, some women’s bodies are more acceptable than others.
As a white cis woman who is not disabled and not fat, my body is well within the bounds of what is judged to be (relatively) acceptable in most contexts. My deviation from the norm of female hairlessness is viewed in this context, as a single transgression by an otherwise (relatively) acceptable body. For example, my sense is that it is not usually taken as evidence of slovenliness, of ‘otherness’, or of the absence of sexuality. By contrast, if were a fat woman, a disabled woman, and/or a woman of colour, I think that the chances are that my decision not to remove my body hair would be viewed in light of negative stereotypes of those identities, and that I would therefore experience much more negative responses than I do now. Moreover, if I were a trans woman, these responses might include challenges to my gender identity, claims that I am ‘really a man’, which could result in violence or even death.
Apart from these very obvious forms of privilege, other more specific facts about my social position also make it easy for me to resist the pressure to remove my body hair. I work in academia (specifically philosophy), a context in which a certain degree of eccentricity is tolerated, or even encouraged. If I worked instead in, say, finance, or the tech industry, I might find that not removing my body hair had serious negative professional consequences. My family background is friendly to counter-cultural stances; indeed, my mother has her own stories to tell about having visible body hair. I do not have to face criticism from those close to me as a consequence of my decision not to shave my legs and armpits.
The very different costs that differently situated women experience when they resist norms of appearance that mean that a simplistic call for women to resist the pressure to remove visible body hair would not only be pointless, but harmful. To issue such a call would be to deny the specific pressures that apply to multiply oppressed women, and risks taking the experience of the most privileged women as a template for all women’s experience. It is clear, then, that feminist critiques of appearance norms such as the norm of female hairlessness need to be conducted with care, distinguishing between the norm itself and the actions of those who comply with it, and targeting the former rather than the latter. Yet my experience of conversations on this topic, both with friends and acquaintances, in my teaching, and online, suggest that this is typically a challenge.
The problem is that critiques of norms are very often interpreted as criticisms of the women who comply with them, even when this is not the intention. When I teach Bartky to first-year students in my Feminist Philosophy course, for example, I tend to find that women students are in equal parts attracted to the critique and made anxious by it. Many adopt the rather confused stance of proclaiming that Bartky is quite right about how social pressure on women to remove visible body hair works and how oppressive it is, but that their own decision to remove their body hair is purely a personal preference which they know (how?) they would still have in the absence of social pressure. The latter point is offered up in the manner of a defence against blame. Yet neither the Bartky paper the students read for that seminar, nor anything else in the course material, seeks to apportion blame to individual women who comply with norms of appearance.
One response to these dangers is to refrain from criticizing norms of appearance at all, so to avoid casting any implication of criticism on the women who do comply with them. This, I think, is also a mistake. Norms play a significant role in oppression, and as feminists I think that we should be in the business of critiquing norms, including beauty norms, from a political perspective. So it’s important to think about what underpins the tendency for any critique of the norm of female hairlessness, however carefully articulated, to be interpreted as an attack on women who do remove body hair. Part of the explanation for this, I am sure, is that critiques are at times directed, inappropriately, at individual women, in ways that overlook the intersectional considerations I just raised. Yet I think there are other factors at work here as well.
One of these is an implicit way of conceiving of feminism that I think of as the ‘Card Carrying Model’. Feminism, on this model, is a set of precepts and strictures which people either sign up to or reject. According to the Card Carrying Model, to show that norms of appearance are oppressive or patriarchal is to show that women who comply with them are doing something anti-feminist, and ought to have their ‘Feminism Cards’ revoked. The Card Carrying Model sets feminists up to waste time and energy criticizing the personal decisions of other women, especially those who are prominent self-described feminists. In doing so, it paves the way for what has been described, by Andi Zeisler and others, as ‘choice feminism’ (http://www.salon.com/2014/09/01/the_crisis_of_bad_feminism_is_worse_than_you_think/). Choice feminism holds that everything a self-described feminist does is a feminist act, even if there is no clear way in which it helps to reduce the oppression of women. In doing so, it evacuates all political significance from feminism, reducing feminist identity to a lifestyle choice. The Card Carrying Model generates a pressure towards choice feminism: if a single ‘anti-feminist’ act will cause you to lose your Feminism Card, then it follows that we need to be able to re-categories many acts as feminist if we want to avoid the conclusion that there are, in fact, no feminists after all.
Even aside from its function in sustaining choice feminism, the Card Carrying Model is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, it overlooks the changing and shifting nature of oppression, which cannot be countered by fixed and static commitments but requires flexibility of tactics. Second, it overlooks considerations of intersectionality; since gender-based oppression interacts with and is inflected by many different forms of oppression, no set list of precepts could possibly function to oppose the oppression of women in all of its manifestations. Third, as Marilyn Frye (1983) has argued, oppression is characterised in part by double binds. A double bind situation is one in which a person is given two (or perhaps more) injunctions as to how to behave, and these injunctions conflict, so that it is not possible to fulfil both of them. Furthermore, failure to comply with one or more of the injunctions has negative consequences, and the person cannot leave the situation. Finally, there is no way for the person to seek clarification or a meta-injunction about what to do. An example of a double bind is a professional woman who is expected to look both attractive and serious, where her colleagues’ expectations of each of these two things are incompatible (any mode of presentation they judge to be attractive they will find unserious, and vice versa). The defining feature of a double bind is precisely that there is no wholly positive way to navigate it, meaning that set strictures are completely unsuitable responses to double binds.
For all of these reasons, there is no set of precepts or strictures that can be identified as the feminist position. The Card Carrying Model of feminism simply won’t work. As an alternative to the Card Carrying Model, I want to suggest that we conceive of feminism in terms of practice; I’ll call this the Practice Model. According to the Practice Model, there are various practices – ongoing patterns of socially meaningful action, usually undertaken collectively – that can undermine patriarchal norms. Given that patriarchal norms are multifarious, and given that there are multiple ways to undermine any given norm, these practices are many and varied. Feminism is to be identified with these practices, rather than with a fixed set of precepts. Feminists should expect that these practices, and our understanding of them, will be constantly evolving. As Robin Morgan has put it, on this view feminism is ‘a means, not an end; a process, not a dogma’ (1996: 6).
By contrast to the Card Carrying Model’s focus on working out whether individuals are feminists, the primary question for the Practice Model is, ‘is this practice feminist?’, meaning ‘does this practice function to undermine the oppression of women?’. This shift makes it possible to say that norms of feminine appearance are oppressive, and are an appropriate target for practices of resistance, without suggesting that such practices of resistance need to take the form of non-compliance, nor that they are mandatory. In other words, we would be able to say that the norm of feminine hairlessness can be weakened if some women do not comply with it, and that this is a good thing from a feminist point of view, without being interpreted as casting aspersions on the women who do choose, for whatever reason, to remove their body hair.
Dr Katharine Jenkins (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Nottingham)
Bartky, Sandra, 1990, Femininity and Domination, New York: Routledge
Frye, Marilyn, 1983, The Politics of Reality, Berkeley: Crossing Press
Morgan, Robin, ‘Lightbulbs, Radishes, and the Politics of the 21st Century’. In Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, eds. Bell & Klein, 1996, 5-8