The Politics of Not Shaving in This Patriarchal Dystopia
In December after the 2016 presidential election, I ran my hands over my legs in the shower to find two cactuses of prickly black stubs and decided they suited my mood. I hadn’t shaved since the results came in. At first I just kind of forgot. I was grieving the loss two feminist presidents in a row — in favor of an alleged sexual predator. The winter was unseasonably warm, so in January I wore skirts with ankle booties that revealed my calves and noticed both men and women staring at them on the subway. I wasn’t ashamed; I found it empowering. I had no idea my nearly comb-able lot would command so much attention.
As an act of defiance, I decided to keep them that way. Using personal grooming to make a political statement wasn’t exactly new, but drawing from second-wave feminist ideology seemed fitting — given that a self-professed pussy-grabber elected president had promised to overturn the very Supreme Court ruling they’d fought for (Roe v. Wade in 1973), which protected a woman’s right to choose. Such a personal affront required a response in kind. Flooding congressional phone lines and protesting in the streets, for me anyway, simply wasn’t going to do. I had already found a daily regimen — or lack thereof — that brought me even more satisfaction.
To be fair, body hair has made something of a comeback in the last few years, gracing the red-carpet armpits of Miley Cyrus, Jemima Kirke, and Madonna — although fewer celebrities can be found donning truly visible leg-hair stockings. Framing my endeavor as transgressive would be an oversell. Still, I can’t dismiss the effect the Trump brand of sexism was having on my moral. Whether by requiring female staffers to “dress like women,” the minimizing by Melania of her husband’s behavior, or the deafening silence of Ivanka, the message was clear. In the Trump world, beauty is merely a tactic used to obtain a mirage of influence — one that hinges on proximity to male power. What better way for women to resist than with outright defiance of everyday oppression?
The practice of women removing their body hair can be traced back to ancient cultures. In Egypt and Mesopotamia, honey and lemon were heated with sugar beeswax until the mixture caramelized — a method still used today called sugaring. Since women began shaving their legs in the modern era to accommodate fashion trends in the 1920s, hair removal has steadily become just another way to commercialize gender constructs.
The beauty and personal care markets are posited on convincing women that we must be cleansed, deodorized, depilated, moisturized, and made up to be deemed acceptable. Companies reinforce these social norms by creating brands we trust to fix our perceived imperfections. In 2000, Gillette reportedly allotted $100 million dollars in advertising to launch a new three-bladed razor targeted at women — named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus, who has been depicted in as hairless for centuries, perhaps most famously in Botticelli’s renaissance painting.
What may seem like a minor matter has become so ingrained in culture that mainstream habits are practically compulsory. A 2014 study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly explored the impact hair removal has as an invisible social norm on women. It found that although most participants said they believed it to be a trivial personal choice, they refused to voluntarily grow their own body hair — and even expressed disgust at other women who did. Of a group required to grow their body hair over several months, many who had originally framed the issue as insignificant changed their views after experiencing anger from partners and family members, encounters with homophobia and heterosexism, or internalized feelings of being “dirty” or “disgusting.”
As someone who surrounds herself with feminists, I was a little surprised by the reactions to my own hairy resistance army. Being thirty-five and white with light features but black leg hair, I managed to raise a few eyebrows in my office. I work mostly with other women in the fashion industry, so the risk of it negatively impacting my professional standing was low. Still, one colleague I told about the project uttered an immediate “ew” in response. Another met the news of my new routine with laughter, followed by complete silence.
And then of course there was my husband, who doesn’t normally seem to care what I look like. While lying in bed one night, I threw my bare leg across his body. When my calf brushed against his, our legs sparked like kindling, and he abruptly pushed me off of him.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“I feel like I’m lying in bed with another guy,” he answered.
What struck me about this interaction was that for years, I’d had a recurring dream in which he is unfaithful and tells me he’s leaving me for another woman. I always assumed it to be manifestation of my insecurity. That night, I had the same dream, but for the first time, our roles were reversed: I was the one leaving him. If feminine grooming is about achieving an ideal — and masculinity ensures power as a birthright, maybe part of me wanted to level the playing field. It’s pretty patronizing to have to jump through hoops just to be allowed into a game that’s rigged against you anyway.
Femininity has always been defined by a narrow set of guidelines that many of us follow our whole lives without ever questioning. As a teenager in the 1990s, I shaved my legs and bikini line until I reached my early 20s, when I began going to a Polish woman named Marta for Brazilian waxes. Because it hurt so much, I would take shot (or two) of tequila before my appointments. There was something shameful about this quick buzz followed by an intimate encounter with a stranger. It reminded me of drunken sex, but with the anticipatory excitement swapped out for anxiety — and the pleasure for pain.
Laser hair removal, I learned in my early 30s, was also painful but not to the point that it required anesthetizing — and the results were, at least, semi-permanent. In a kind of purifying ritual, I would lie on white paper in a sterile room, trying not to flinch as a woman used a laser to zap the dark roots inside of the follicles along my bikini line. I’d emerge from each session feeling cleansed — absolved of all my bodily imperfections.
A few years back, while getting a trail of lighter hair on my abdomen permanently removed via electrolysis, it occurred to me that depilation was all about control. Picking off vulnerable strands of keratin one by one had become almost like dieting: a compulsion that allowed me to retain some semblance of mastery over my body. If I gained a few pounds, in a twisted demonstration of self-dominance, I’d just rip out a patch of unwanted body hair. Until recently, I never considered the radical notion of simply yielding to my body in its natural state.
It stands to reason then, that when a president comes into power planning to legislate our bodies, limit our access to healthcare, and shame us for having sex for pleasure, we might want to take control wherever we can.
About a month after the election, NYMag’s The Cut reported on a phenomenon they called the “Post-Trump Haircut” — women chopping off their hair and dyeing it in the wake of the election. I asked my hair stylist shortly after what he thought about me taking a similar plunge with my long locks. He suggested I stay the course — why get stuck with a bad haircut and a bad president? In retrospect, he was right, but a few days later, he shaved both sides of my husband’s head, just for fun. It was yet another reminder that maintaining the status quo for a woman is far more important than it is for a man.
I’ve known this double standard my whole life, but it culminated for me this past February. My husband and I spent our Valentine’s Day evening in couples’ therapy talking about my leg hair. We’d been working toward becoming an “optimally erotic couple” for months, but I’d inadvertently thrown a wrench into our progress by letting my political views into our bedroom. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had assimilated centuries’ worth of images about what a sexy woman is supposed to look like.
Although my husband supported my cause, he couldn’t help the fact that my hairy legs were a turnoff. I’ll admit I was torn — removing my leg hair to appease a man would be directly at odds with its raison d’être. Still, my commitment to my marriage outweighed any short-term political statement. So I agreed to set a “shave date” for International Women’s Day on March 8, which allowed me a full four months of luxuriating in my natural outrage.
I ended up participating in “A Day Without a Woman” strike — and put off shaving my legs until the following weekend (women on strike definitely don’t depilate). I still believe symbolic acts of resistance are important in the struggle to be heard, especially when we feel voiceless. And that beauty routines can be both silencing and empowering. In the end, I was actually kind of ready to say goodbye to my furry little companions. For the first time, I experienced shaving my legs as a choice — not a requirement. Afterwards, although my new, smooth legs felt alien and unnatural, I’ll admit they looked physically more attractive. Or at least, I thought they did.
Sarah Kasbeer’s writing appears in Elle, Jezebel, Vice, and elsewhere. Read more on her website.