Body Hair: An Investigation
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.- February 24, 2017
By Kellianna Staier
Why do billions of people feel the need to put on makeup before they walk out the door each morning? Why do people add product to their hair to make it look a certain way? Why do people wear bras? What is the deal with ties?
The short answer to any question about why most people make choices about their physical presentation lies within the social construction of gender norms. Society tells us (sometimes explicitly, sometimes not) how men and women should present themselves physically in order to be considered attractive. People take this advice to varying degrees of extremity- including anything from putting on chapstick to getting lip injections.
One particularly salient and highly contested example of this is body hair. In the United States, it is considered the norm for women to remove the hair from their armpits, pubic region, and legs, and it is the norm for men to keep it all.
I spoke to four college students who deviate from the body hair norms and learned a lot about just how large of an impact something as seemingly arbitrary as the hair underneath your arms can have.
Louise Sullivan, a junior at Skidmore College, acknowledges that her armpit hair is “a little bit of a statement,” “an aesthetic choice,” and also a way to embrace her queer sexuality and practice body autonomy. Garrett Chatlin, a sophomore at the College of William and Mary, explains that shaving his armpits makes him feel “one element closer to the person I wanted to be and one step further away from putting up an appearance to please other people.”
Sullivan and Chatlin both were very aware of the effect that the choices that they make about their physical appearance can have on others. Sometimes it can be as subtle as a judgmental glare or a passive comment, and sometimes it can be much more assertive and influential.
Chatlin specifically speaks of a fear of “social judgment.” In terms of being afraid to shave his body or dress differently, he says, “I’m worried that their [friends, peers, classmates] opinion of me will fall or change without me being able to control it.”
So, while he would ideally prefer to dress in a much more androgynous manner and shave his legs and armpits, he sticks to just shaving his armpits for now. He feels that, because no one sees his armpits on a regular basis, it is a safe way for him to express himself without fear of repercussion. While he has never experienced direct negative feedback, the anxieties are enough to deter him.
Olivia Hockenberry, a freshman at Skidmore College, feels much less anxiety when it comes to the opinions of others concerning her body hair. In her senior year of high school, she stopped shaving her armpits as a way to express her feminist ideals. She strongly believes that “body hair is there for whatever reason it’s there for” and “whatever you’re comfortable with is good for you and whatever you want to do with your body is your choice.” Hockenberry has had support from her mom throughout her whole life in terms of her physical presentation.
At age four, she decided that having long hair was an inconvenience, so she cut it all off and has had it short ever since. At age seven, she even dyed her hair pink. She categorizes armpit hair the same way- a decision she made and has stuck with in order to make her feel more comfortable with herself. That does not mean, however, that she does not ever second-guess her decision. Hockenberry is in an all female a cappella group at Skidmore, and she chose to shave her armpits before being on stage for a performance with a particularly large crowd. She thought that maybe she would “look prettier on stage” without armpit hair. It was an instant regret, as soon as she shaved she realized that she did not “have to” look a certain way just to be on stage in front of others.
Sullivan also acknowledges that she sometimes considers shaving her armpits, but she tries to take a step back before she does anything drastic. She explains, “I have to figure out why I’m feeling uncomfortable and whether or not it’s like from my brain or…whether it’s like someone else making me feel that way or something else making me feel that way…I just think it’s important to make decisions…even if you’re noticing, like- sometimes…I do feel better when I have shaved legs, cus I know people won’t look at me weirdly. And then I’m like ‘okay I know that I’m making that decision based on someone else’s thoughts’ but like I’m aware of it.” At the end of the day, it is a decision that is supposed to be empowering for her, and that is what is most important.
For Noah Goldblatt, another junior at Skidmore, empowerment was both the driving force and the end result of removing his body hair. He was introduced to RuPaul’s Drag Race his junior year in high school and, despite thinking it was “weird” at first, eventually got very into it and decided to try drag himself. He identifies as genderfluid and feels like drag is the perfect way to express his “feminine side.”
Goldblatt feels like drag helps him “see the other end of the [gender] spectrum.” He remarks, “I was able to learn to appreciate what a kind of feminine body could look like and reach that intermediate area which then applied to my own body.”
Every time he performs, it can take up to an hour to shave his entire body. Once he got an electric razor and learned how to use it for drag, he started trimming his body hair on a more regular basis. For Noah, it is far more about how it looks than how it feels. At the end of the day, he believes that “people should do what’s comfortable…but I also believe in pushing your comfort zone.”
Before speaking to these symbolic rule breakers, I had never considered growing out my body hair. After all, why should I? Women that I knew and grew up seeing were all perfectly hairless, so that seemed like the thing to do. However, thinking about body hair in terms of an arbitrary social norm that should not be put in the same category as physically beneficial acts such as brushing your teeth or washing your hair, makes me want to reevaluate. Gender as a social construct is ridiculous enough on its own without the accompanying expectations surrounding physical presentation. For now, I think I am more comfortable removing my body hair. But who knows, maybe someday I will try growing it out. After all, they are my armpits.