The Hair Under My Arms

This portrait was taken as part of a series called “Natural Beauty” by Ben Hopper, London-based photographer. Check out his work here:

Hey lady, I have a question for you.

Why do you shave your armpits?

This isn’t a trick question and I don’t have any judgmental categories to put you into depending on your answer. I couldn’t even really guess what you might say, to be honest.

Before we go any further, I need to establish a very important thing. I’m not an armpit discriminator — hairy or smooth, I probably still like you (if you’re the likable type) and we probably don’t get along well if you are always suffering through some irrational, upper middle-class white hippie mom diet (that is to say you don’t eat pizza, so we obviously don’t spend much time together).

But the amount I respect you has zero to do with your pits. It’s really important you understand that first.

I like asking this question, nonetheless. Because the answer to this reveals what are, to me, so many of the lingering and false standards of both beauty and behavior we women still buy into — quite literally. The average women spends more than $10,000 on shaving products in her lifetime, according to a survey by the American Laser Center. That is so many hamburgers. I love hamburgers. This is the saddest statistic I’ve ever read.

As I child, I both looked like a little boy, as well as DGAF.

If you grew up in the 90s and have a vagina, you might think Alex Mack and Hermione Granger and this thing called Whiz Freedom Feminine Funnel marked the end of antiquated gender expectations.

As a young, pubescent and androgynous girl with a bowl cut, so many frogs and a dream to one day be a park ranger with a beard, I was all, “OH, I can be a uni-sex-shirt-wearing, kick-ass Disney-loving girl and still MORPH INTO PUDDLES OF WATER. Score!” And I’ve managed to pee off at least seven mountain peaks without a penis — or that weird funnel, for that matter. Unnecessary.

I was growing up fast and breaking all sorts of gender barriers — but then I stopped shaving my pits and upset a lot of people. Someone called me gross. That’s, like, a really mean thing to say. My initial reaction was just sheer confusion — isn’t 49.2 percent of the world walking around with hairy armpits everyday? Doesn’t every princess’s father have hair under there? Do people think I have to recite some pagan chant and perfume my pits with the smoke of burning cats in order to get hair to grow under there? Or are they just living completely unaware of the hairy pit double standard?

If you’re a hardcore feminist, you hyperbolize these implicit societal expectations and double standards as discrimination. I think that’s harsh — we’re talking about armpits here.

But I was simply allowing my body to do what it just naturally does and I didn’t think I was that weird. But then someone called me gross.

First, I’m all like “whatever.” Then I’m like WHAT THIS EXISTS? This just inherent reaction to reel when a pretty lady in a dress lifts up her arms to reveal some fuzz? And thus, what began as a pitfall (pit pun #1) of my own sloth evolved into a heated crusade, and I was its Joan of Arc.

This just in: everything grows and that means it is alive and healthy and that is a good thing.

It all started when I was barely surviving winter in Montreal. I was living off oatmeal and strategizing further austerity measures by sneaking a dollop of toothpaste from each of my five roommates on a daily rotation, so as not to attract any one of their attentions. (I’ve since come to realize my grave offense and have repented a thousand times over for my toothpaste theft. That’s just so wrong and gross. Actually gross.)

I had a hard time spending money on food to sustain my life, let alone on razors to shave my legs. They’re so expensive, anyway. And I’ve never been the type to invest in the higher quality ones, so I was buying cheap packs of four, letting them rust or break or dull, and then throwing them away monthly. That’s a lot of money and a lot of waste. Nothing about shaving was cool.

So flashback to me in Quebec wearing two layers of pants just to survive my walk home. I was pondering this concept of “shaving.” Yes, I was convincing myself, I DO love that feeling of rolling around in the sand with my bare legs on the beach after a good shave. And I DO love the way hairless, shiny legs look in a summer dress. And ALL my babe boyfriends prefer my smooth legs, too!

But in Montreal, I had not sandy beaches, summer dresses, nor boyfriends. By the time I boarded my bus, I had calculated the number of days my legs had seen the light of day in the last three months. It was none. So I stopped shaving. There really was no good reason not to. And that was all that happened.

I wasn’t, at this point, some Joan of Arc leading a crusade against the misogyny I now feel the female cosmetic domain has yielded to — I was broke and lazy and a little disenchanted with this idea that if I had smooth legs, I might find a boyfriend.

I did it for simplicity and because it was -25 degrees outside.

Even while I toiled over shaving my legs, I never had the chance to show them off. They were like my own little secret, hidden in my jeans — which really isn’t worth it to a girl like me. Now I don’t shave them, and they are still a secret — just a little dirtier of a secret now.

I grew my leg hair out all winter and, like someone who goes too long without exercising, forgot how or even why I ever even wanted to shave in the first place. I had grown especially fond of the added warmth my leg hair had brought me that winter and entirely forgot my armpits existed. Come summer, I confidently strutted outside in my dreamy summer dress and sandals and ginger fur. I felt so good.

And then that thing with the person calling me gross happened.

The more comments I got on my legs and pits, the more I began to subconsciously build up this arsenal of defending points. At first, it felt a little like someone defending their favorite color or flavor of goldfish or something, a little ridiculous — but I received such passionate opinions on my armpit hair, I felt I had to start fighting them with equal amounts gall and fire.

And the more I did, the more passionate of an armpit hair crusader I became.

However, sometimes it’s hard to be a crusader for something that doesn’t necessarily make much sense. I began to deeply believe that women should be hairy, but I suppose that’s my point — armpit hair doesn’t make sense one way or the other, and I think as a society who loves skimpy bikinis and having sex with strangers, we’ve arbitrarily decided hairy girls are a definite no-no.

Now I want to go back to that pivotal point in the ever evolving debate of what is and what isn’t beautiful and scrutinize why hairy became ugly and hairless became sexy.

Evolutionarily, there’s no conclusive advantage to being hairless. Some scientists theorize we have hair in certain places to reduce friction and chafing. Some say it wicks sweat away, and therefore destroys the ability of odor-producing bacteria to colonize on human skin.

Benefits to more body hair might include increased exposure of pheromones, which do all sorts of magical stuff for species, including detecting compatible genes and emotions in members of your species.

It’s all still debated. But, bottom line, there’s no clear advantage or disadvantage to having hair in your pits.

Prickly can be beautiful, too.

Shaving, however, is more clean cut (pit pun #2). Razor burn, cuts and other skin rashes are extremely common among most women who shave (be it under their arms, on their legs, or around their front bum.) It’s become a serious health issue and when I asked my lady doctor about it, she made a snide comment about girls going into the “Screamin Peach” and then running into her office screaming and infected. Apparently excessive shaving is a hot issue in women’s health right now, as it should be.

Okay, now let’s talk about bikini lines. The director of the health centre at Western University in Washington State, Emily Gibson, is also a crusader for hairy women and has a thing or two to say about bikini waxes.

According to an interview she did with The Independent, declaring an end to “the war on pubic hair,” pubic hair removal “naturally irritates and inflames the hair follicles, leaving microscopic open wounds. Frequent hair removal is necessary to stay smooth, causing regular irritation of the shaved or waxed area. When that is combined with the warm, moist environment of the genitals, it becomes a happy culture media for some of the nastiest bacterial pathogens.”

Later on in the article she mentions other side effects like sexually transmitted diseases, so can we just start loving our body hair now? Bikini waxes are seriously scary business.

Socially, there’s a lot more to evaluate. Most of it I call “baggage.” Baggage is the really heavy, often involuntary and unnecessary, beliefs we lug around with us on our bikes, to work, to school and in the shower, when instead of remembering the thirsty kids in India and using a reasonable amount of water, we’re instead treating our legs to luxurious creams and loads of attention in the hopes someone will think we’re pretty and love us.

There’s a lot of baggage surrounding women’s assumptions that they should, everywhere and at all times, be shaven.

A lot of this baggage was introduced by the porn industry.

Before women began to believe the smooth and bare labia majora was more hygienic, or simply what women should do, there was the invention of the bikini and the popularization of porn. A team of researchers at George Washington University found that from the birth of Playboy up until the 80s, more than 95 percent of the publication’s centerfolds flaunted naked models with healthy, full and all-natural downstairs bushes.

It wasn’t until the 90s — as bikinis began to be taken in, waistlines drop dramatically and the porn industry gain traction online — that the number of these unshaven women began to diminish drastically.

Look at these tasteful bathing suits from back in the day. Do you see any butts? Any butts? Even the guys were modest about their midriff.

Fetishes with these exciting new infantilized women began to drive the billion dollar industry, influencing the shrinking sizes of underwear in Victoria’s Secrets everywhere.

The pornification of women became the normalization of shaving and the man walking around the park in Montreal last summer calling hairy women gross is vindicated by the glamorously hairless models in magazines. (There’s a really intriguing article that dives into this subject real deep. Check it out.)

So back to my original question: why do you shave?

There are some good answers to this question and I have a feeling some of my most favorite smart and powerful women shave on the reg.

But are we, ladies, complying with outdated, invented and imposed societal expectations for fear we would be rejected if we dared to do differently? Are we grasping for an image of beauty and maturity we were told came from the store and ended up in movies, a true recipe for a powerful female?

Are you thinking of “them” as you wax, or thinking of you?

Because I am thinking let’s ditch the disposable razors and grab a hamburger together, instead.

Do you have any thoughts, feelings, reactions, words, songs, pictures? I love connecting more people to conversations about important things — like women’s armpits. And I would like to learn a thing or two from the rest of you.

Opine on Twitter and let me know @thebeancan. Use hashtags #ArtfulAnarchy and #NaturalBeauty.