‘My eyelashes catch my sweat’ — How women responded to a photograph of eleven year old with body hair.
“Hair is something the majority of young girls will remove as soon as it’s noticeable, she will do it eventually so why not help her to do it now. Yes, explain that she doesn’t have to remove all her body hair just to follow others but this is a part of becoming a woman.”
Autonomy is a complex thing, especially when it comes to children and parents.
We try to love and support our kids, guide and build them up so they can deal with the parts of the world we experience or perceive as difficult. The goal of course is to see your child grow in confidence and to make healthy decisions for themselves, it’s a steep learning curve for everyone involved and we try to be aware. Never unthinkingly parenting.
My daughter started growing body hair when she was eight years old, it was slightly unexpected, probably more for us as she accepted it in that unquestioning way eight year olds often do. Over the next summer we saw her bare knees skinned rough from tree climbing, her little arms and legs divided by tan lines and a new outfit worn every day. She wore her new growth of hair with absolute and beautiful naivety.
By the summer of her ninth year, skirts were forsaken and although it doesn’t often get very hot here in Scotland, I remember watching her sweltering through those rare 28 degree days with leggings or tights under her shorts. I tentatively questioned this choice, presuming perhaps a new found awareness of her body and her answer was clear, ‘My friends think my leg hair is weird’. Her underarm hair had thus far escaped the eagle-eyed gaze of the ‘weird hair’ police, but not for long. Soon after, she asked my permission to remove the offending hair. I explained I thought that wasn’t the best way forward and declined. Now 11, Anna has asked me a few times over the last two years to shave but her reasoning hasn’t changed and neither has my answer.
Growing up in the Highlands of Scotland 20 years ago, I experienced a similar attitude from my peers. Pakistani heritage expressed itself through hazel eyes, a long nose and thick, dark body hair grew conspicuously on pasty skin gifted to me by Scottish and Norwegian ancestry. I eventually shaved my legs in secret, each tiny hair felled in both sadness and relief, I felt I was giving up an important part of myself but I was tired too. As a parent I have made the decision to present my daughter with a different reality, a reality where body hair is not something she should consider a blight on her appearance, a reality where she can be entirely herself. In solidarity, I also took the decision to stop shaving at all around two years ago when I realised that even though I had told my daughter that she couldn’t shave, I often appeared slick and hairless after a shower, something I had been doing since that first episode of clandestine hair removal.
At home and around family and friends, Anna has always been 100% comfortable with her body hair, but the pressure to conform hasn’t stopped. We have done a lot of work together on coping mechanisms for dealing with the ever more frequent comments at school. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reeled off the list of fucking cool women who proudly wear their body hair, it’s a shorter list than I would like but it’s my lifeline in an ocean of pre- pubescence. Anna’s humour has been a godsend and her ability to confront and process all of it has improved. It got to the stage where she became so comfortable with herself that she once exclaimed joyously to a classmate ‘Oh my gosh, we have the same moustache!’. This was met with tears and accusations of bullying and I almost laugh when I imagine the look of innocent confusion on my daughter’s face. My constant and tiring quest to raise a decent human left me explaining to Anna why those sorts of comments may need to be less liberally sprinkled around the playground. Not everyone is as comfortable with their facial hair as she is.
I work as a photographer and I take a lot of photographs of Anna. The subtle changes in her body language, the way she holds herself, her beautiful face, I find them all completely fascinating and it is such a pleasure to photograph my daughter. Recently when I was taking her portrait, I explained that the way she was posing meant her underarm hair was exposed, she was unfazed, wanted to show it and the image was captured. She loved how she looked, I thought about sharing it online, we discussed this at length and although she often doesn’t want me to share certain images she seemed keen to share this one. I posted it on my personal Facebook and we received a hugely positive response from both men and women who said they thought she was a badass. She is a badass.
In the comments, a lot of women I know also shared their experiences around body hair and body hair removal and they felt it would have been monumental for their self esteem, future relationships and happiness to accept their natural form at such a young age. I felt bolstered and hopeful, the tangible sense of empowerment emanating from my daughter was nothing short of exhilarating. The post also brought up a lot of parenting worries. After asking Anna’s permission, I decided to share the image and the original post I’d written on a facebook group I am part of, which has around 7000 members and is composed entirely of women (many who are parents) from my local area. My post explained the situation and that my daughter was eleven. All quotes in this article are different women’s views posted in response to my image.
I expected some negativity, (‘I’m not so naive’ I told my husband before I posted it). I did not expect so much negativity. The pure horror. There were 197 comments in total and there were absolutely words of solidarity and support as well as carefully articulated scepticism, but these were in the minority. I felt compelled to reply to individuals directly which in hindsight is not something I’d recommend to anyone. I cried, I literally shook with rage and I swore a lot in the privacy of my own home, though within the confines of the thread I am proud to report I remained almost entirely composed — convince not alienate right? Despite my decision being so carefully considered, it left many women feeling very uncomfortable, which they expressed through irate condemnation, not just of my parenting but of the hair itself. I wish I could see them all as having good intentions but it felt like I unleashed something ferocious. I felt really shaken (I still do over a week later).
I’ve belonged to this group for a while now, people post almost daily asking for parenting advice or talking of experiences or realisations and I’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a strongly expressed reaction to any of it.
In fact I witnessed a conversation where lots of women detailed and bonded over their hair removal injuries (third degree wax burns, ingrown hairs so bad they required surgery, infections) and the level of pain they experienced while having hair around their anus lasered. Worse than childbirth apparently but ‘only ten more sessions to go’ to have a completely hair free butt crack. Not a single negative or strong reaction to this post.
“I have only seen problems associated with hair removal (infection/ burns/ ingrown hairs etc). Never had a patient come in with a natural pubic hair related issue”
I was shocked by the reactions. How the double standard of male v female body hair pressures had escaped them completely. How they saw their natural state as ‘unclean’ and ‘unnecessary’ and how bound they felt to this fixed idea of ‘femininity’. I was also really hurt by what I perceived to be a lack of understanding from other mothers towards me and from women towards my daughter and their shared experience as females.
“I understand why you would want her to embrace her body in its natural form, but, having said that, teens are cruel and I am not sure this is a feminist battle I would pick for my daughters”
“Surely your daughter should be able to make that decision for herself? If she wishes to have her body hair taken off then that is totally her decision.”
My daughter’s autonomy or what they perceived to be an unacceptable lack thereof, was torn apart. Others explained that body hair has no function, is unhygienic, dirty and unnecessary that I was making my daughter’s life more difficult, ensuring her a future of unhappiness and opening her up to bullying and alienation. A lot of commentators assured me there is no pressure on women to remove their body hair and I should reconsider dragging my daughter into my feminist agenda.
I was pushed by many to let my daughter make an autonomous decision about her body hair, a decision free from my influence or the exertion of my will. I would argue that, without me, my eleven year old would still not be making an autonomous decision, she would simply be making a decision based on other influences and the exertion of someone else’s will. Where these influences come from and whose will is being exerted upon us are among the most important questions we should be asking ourselves everyday and before every decision. This isn’t just a battle for women or feminists, it should be on everyone’s agenda. The answers can be difficult and very complicated and I struggle with them, I know my daughter is not yet able to understand them and I feel reluctant to relinquish her to that at this stage.
Difficult answers got me thinking about easy answers. There is so much easily accessible, verifiable information on this subject and yet ideas like ‘women’s body hair is unclean’ and ‘there is no pressure on women to remove their body hair’ are widely perpetuated.
“I don’t think women are under any pressure to shave — it’s hygienic and genuinely gives a sensation of overall cleanliness”
“I don’t really like body hair and think it is more hygienic to have it removed”
Recent statistics are striking, a (2016) Mintel survey on grooming habits in the UK showed that almost three quarters (73%) of all UK consumers believe there is more pressure nowadays for women to remove body hair and a YouGov Survey (also 2016) for Cosmopolitan magazine found that 1 in 2 women under thirty remove all of their pubic hair. Brazilians seemed extreme when I was young but this my friends, is the age of the Hollywood.
With that in mind, how often do you see a mainstream movie, advert or image that shows a woman with any body hair at all? Even incredibly fine facial hair is removed for beauty campaigns. Never mind that, I basically never see women with body hair in my real, unphotoshopped, day to day. It’s not that there was no or is no pressure, it’s just that we’ve accepted this unofficial but absolute directive on hairlessness so completely. I ask anyone who would disagree to wear 6 month hairy legs, underarms and a full, proud and unruly bush to the beach in the summer, see if you feel any pressure or not. Let me know, but I’m preemptively putting you down as, ‘felt pressure’.
“A friend of mine told me about her young daughter who asked for a razor so she could shave all her body hair off. ‘Boy’s don’t like it’.”
Other women cited hygiene as a legitimate reason to berate body hair and my parenting skills. The truth is, body hair is not unclean, it’s as clean or dirty as we are. Washing regularly and using deodorant (if you want to) is enough to deal with any bacteria or odour. It’s worth remembering that men have body hair too, as much, if not more than women and although there is a huge increase in male body hair grooming trends (Mintel, 2016) I wonder how often men are asked to remove offending body hair because it is ‘unhygienic’. Would these women advise me that my 11 year old son should remove his body hair for hygiene reasons too? There is also an emerging connection between STI rates and pubic hair removal and with our younger generations exhibiting higher and higher instances of extreme pubic hair removal, I hope to make sure my daughter has a solid foundation of factual knowledge before she considers removing her underarm hair never mind her pubic hair!
“I just hope she’s allowed to use deodorant!”
“I had a friend at high school who wasn’t allowed to shave. She was bullied mercilessly. And eventually, decided to go against her Mum and shave at my house. I understand both arguments but, having witnessed this horrendous bullying for months on end I wouldn’t enforce a rule like this”
One thought that keeps popping into my head, what if I had posted about how my daughter’s classmates thought she was overweight and I had refused her permission to diet? It would be hard to convince me that I would have received a single negative comment about her autonomy and my decision to ‘just say no’. I don’t think anyone would have suggested that my daughter caved to the pressures from her peers had they wanted her to be thinner and the suggestion that I was making my daughter’s life more difficult and ensuring her unhappiness by not allowing her to meet the demands of her peers to be thinner, would of course be ridiculous. No one suggested I should speak to the school about the comments my daughter has experienced, only that she should remove her body hair to stop them. Why does substituting body hair into the mix somehow change everything?
My daughter was born able to bear children of her own someday but I’d like her to know, that in itself does not exempt her from being any other single thing she chooses to be. The choosing is the difficult part of course but I know that if my daughter shaves now and the motivation is pressure to shave, she will likely continue to shave as long as there is pressure and what will she do when faced with other pressures? I wanted to create a safe space for her to explore all facets of life and being a woman before she is shaped by time and the world around her. Just as our sons deserve more than ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘man up’, a life where my daughter feels she must conform and that this conformity was sanctioned by her mother, one of the people who is supposed to unquestioningly love her for exactly who she is, I want more for her than that. It’s so easy to participate unthinkingly in these feminine rituals, these constructs are powerful, they are handed down to us by our mothers and fathers and are perpetuated all around us
Anna is a well informed kid, she’s emotionally intelligent too but she’s eleven and would still ask me to shave the eyebrows clean off her sister’s face if her peers were pressuring her to. That’s a decision that is not specific to eleven as an age but to Anna at age eleven. Every child is different and that is the important thing to consider here, there cannot be a blanket approach to parenting just as there cannot be a blanket approach to body hair removal or gender. Once Anna has a clearer understanding of the structures that surround her, a clearer understanding of herself, a clearer understanding of the many ways a woman can choose to live her life (it’s true kids, you can do anything, be anyone) I will support her in whatever decision she makes about her body hair.
“I would hate to be pressured into this by my Mum. Pressure is pressure regardless of where it’s coming from.”
The biggest part of this for me is preserving my daughter’s right to a childhood, to avoid rituals that at their core are part of the continued objectification and degradation of women and their bodies. She literally has her whole life to deal with that shit, so, I am happy to delay the onset of ‘femininity’ as we know it for as long as I am able. As females we spend many hundreds of hours not only maintaining an acceptable form but worrying about our form being acceptable enough. I’m hoping I can simply present another option to my child.
“I admire what you are trying to do in terms of empowerment, but the societal expectations on women and what they should look like, are so great, I sadly feel you are fighting a losing battle.”
N.B Anna and I have spoken about the reactions to this image and she still thinks it looks awesome and is still happy for it to be out there and she hopes it convinces people to love their body hair and to be tolerant of other’s choices. She also still climbs trees, pretends to be a cat with her younger sister and spins until she is fall-over-dizzy, all while being hairy.