The intricate relationship between females and body hair By Sydney Hildebrandt

Popular culture has greatly influenced the relationship between females and their body since the beginning of time, it seems. But in recent years, female body hair has become a statement – something to be messed with.

Growing up in Western culture, girls are taught at a young age to remove their body hair, while boys are trained how to grow and groom ‘manhood’ in the form of facial hair.

It’s not a secret that Western culture social's norms encourage and sexualize the idea of smooth legs and hairless arm pits on women, but label hair on men, especially beards and moustaches, as ‘masculine’ and ‘desirable’.

“Pop culture naturalizes the status quo. It produces and reinforces the idea that women should not have body hair,” said Ummni Khan, a joint chair at Carleton University’s Pauline Jewett Institute for women’s and gender studies.

The first women’s razor advertisement was released by Gillette in 1915, and targeted only arm pit hair.

During the second World War, nylon shortages led to bare legs and eventually hairless legs. And with the arrival of the bikini in 1946, pubic hair slowly disappeared.

In the 1970s when sexual liberation was a boasting theme of the decade, growing out pubic hair became the new fad.

From the 1980s until now, hair removal and the introduction of Brazilian waxing in the 1990s painted the path to a less hairy world.

Though this may not reflect the best of society, according to authors of The Last Taboo: Women and body hair.

“In a Western capitalist society which sees itself … as having broken most established taboos … women’s body hair remains an area of silence and blankness,” said co-author Karín Lesnik-Oberstein in the book.

Although female body hair may be a discrete topic, it is slowly rising in importance to women as seen at protests and on social media.

The removal and maintenance of body hair has become much more than a fashion trend, and has evolved into a political statement and a course of action for women as they look to establish equality on yet another matter.

Protesters gather together in Ottawa, Ont., for the Women's March in January 2017.

History has shown us that women often use the pressures of society, such as the stigma of body hair, as a defence to reach their goal of equality. This time, they’re pursuing an end to the social pressures of hair removal.

In the process, women throughout the world have been embracing their natural bodies, hair included. Dying and styling arm pit hair is one of the few trends reaching places such as red carpet events.

Celebrities such as Anne Hathaway and blogs like the Hairy Legs Club are trailblazers in the normalization of female body hair.

Not only is hair removal expensive, time-consuming and painful, it’s sexist, according to second-year English literature major Megan Brown-LaCarte.

“A woman’s body hair is no different from a man’s, and there’s no logical reason to treat it like it is,” she said in an email.

“I choose to not remove all of my body hair because I find it tedious and uncomfortable, as well as using it as my personal means of overcoming sexist expectations,” she said.

Though some may follow in Brown-LaCarte’s footsteps, others may agree with Sydney Schneider that growing out body hair does not represent what feminism is.

“As a form of protest, [not shaving] is totally valid, but labeling it as a feminist thing becomes very dangerous. Feminism is so much more than not shaving and doesn’t have to include that,” said Schneider, the program coordinator at Carleton University’s Womyn’s Centre.

Aalya Ahmad, a women’s and gender studies professor at Carleton University, said she agreed that feminism is more than refusing to shave, but hair is still powerful.

“There are many ways hair can signify power and sexuality. I think it’s really interesting that we live in a culture that shames [women] into letting go of some of that power [through hair removal],” said Ahmad.

Though hair removal started as a way to separate women from men and show the ‘natural’ differences between the two, it also resulted in division between races, cultures and classes.

“South Asian women are taught to bleach out the hair on their arms, and to be very ashamed of their thick, dark hair. There are also pressures for black women to straighten their hair or to look half-white,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad also talked about the significance that hair has on class standing. For someone who is financially ahead, removing body hair and styling hair on the head can be an indication of one’s wealth.

Overall, Schneider said she thinks pop culture has created unrealistic expectations.

“Men grow up expecting women that they’re intimate with are hairless creatures … it’s a dangerous understanding to put out this idea that women have no hair,” she said

In a survey with a variety of men 18 and older, some said they did not have any expectations of how much hair should be on female or male bodies.

“Attraction is not set in stone. Whatever works for you, works for you,” said Collin Fletcher, 30.

Others such as Damir Brkic, 21, said shaving is a personal choice, but in the end, he said when he thinks of a man, he thinks of a beard.

Another, Bashir Sadik, 18, said he prefers as little body hair on women as possible. Otherwise, “that’s kind of weird,” he said.

The relationship between females and body hair under the scope of pop culture and social media is a dynamic one.

Learning to shave has traditionally bridged the gap between girlhood and womanhood, marking the time when a girl becomes fertile.

The growth and removal of body hair has been sexualized by media, and the idea that women must shave to be sexual has been implied, according to Schneider.

Schneider said she felt empowered the first time she shaved her legs because she felt included and beautiful. But now, she has learned to appreciate her body hair.

“[Not shaving] became a form of self-love where I was able to reclaim my body as my own because I was making my own decisions about my body hair, and someone else wasn’t telling me that to be beautiful, I need to shave,” said Schneider.

But for other women, such as Brown-LaCarte, the need to shave while in a relationship is felt.

“I do struggle with feeling a pressure to shave before dates and intimate situations, and usually feel uncomfortable going into those situations without completing some body hair maintenance,” she said.

Though body hair removal became popular through social influence, Ahmad said she thinks it is ultimately the choice of each person, regardless of their gender, if they want to shave or not.

“Once you take off those cultural blinders and start to be a little more broad-minded as to what you see as being beautiful and acceptable … it’s really powerful to be able to liberate yourself from [social expectations],” she said.

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