For the month of August, women in the UK and all over the world (like me for example) are abandoning razors. Armpits 4 August is raising awareness and funds for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and sparking a larger conversation about gender norms and beauty practices, specifically with regards to underarm hair.
The reasoning behind it is pretty brilliant. A common symptom of PCOS is hirsutism, or excessive hair growth. So in addition to PCOS’s invisible symptoms like migraines, pain and infertility, many sufferers also have to deal with visible symptoms like hair growth, hair loss, weight gain and acne. By swearing off shaving for a month, participants demonstrate solidarity for some under-discussed problems– both PCOS and social pressure to conform to a standard idea of what is beautiful.
As is often the case, the political is personal in this campaign. A few of my friends have PCOS. And while I’m having fun rocking out my armpit hair and raising money for a good cause, my favorite part of Armpits for August is that it gives us a platform to discuss topics we might otherwise hide. As the A4A slogan suggests, it’s time to get our pits out. I’ll go first.
In the fifth grade, my teacher separated our class by gender and showed us a terrifying video about things that were going to happen to our bodies. We got some samples of maxi-pads and a little book about the whole process, which I put in my sock drawer and forgot. I was busy. I had important 11-year-old things to do.
One day, just as the video foretold, I noticed hair in my armpits. I hadn’t been spared. Everything in the video was going to happen to me– blood and microscopic eggs, breasts, acne, the whole package. I was scared, but excited that a grown-up thing had happened to me. I proudly showed my mother, who matched my excitement. I figured there was something people did about this, or next steps to take, but I wasn’t very concerned about it.
Later while I was playing in the yard, a grown man pointed out my underarm hair. This was the first time a man had ever expressed an opinion about my body to me. This incident, and not the appearance of the hair itself, is where I actually started to feel my transition into womanhood. It was an innocuous comment, but I felt so embarrassed I wanted to die. At eleven, I began to hate and resent my body.
It was clear that I had stood out in a socially unacceptable way. I asked my mother to help me get rid of it. She loaned me her electric razor, but even that was too shameful. The damn thing was too loud. I thought the whole neighborhood would hear me dealing with my disgusting underarm hair. I asked for disposable razors, and I shaved my underarms (and eventually my legs) for over a decade without another thought. This marker that I was becoming an adult was something I learned to dislike and conceal.
I always think back to that day when I have conversations about double standards and social norms, or when someone asks me why I don’t shave my underarms. Or, especially, when other women tell me they just happen to like the look and feel of shaving. I really liked it too – because I had been taught very early to see underarm hair as disgusting and embarrassing, and because shaving conveniently protected me from criticism and ridicule. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to avoid those things.
I hold a lot of privileged positions, so while I do get a lot of judgements about my body, I acknowledge that feeling safe enough to grow my body hair (and rant about it) is a privilege. While we’re on the subject, I hereby co-sign A4A’s amazing diversity statement on their “about” page. Here’s part of it:
We acknowledge that not everyone has the same opportunity to take part in Armpits4August and that in a racist, sexist, classist, disableist, trans*phobic and lesbophobic society, some women, trans* and non-binary people may simply not have the option to grow their body hair as a political act without it having personal consequences, such as increased harassment, having treatment withheld whilst transitioning, being questioned about their ability to self-care, etc. We hope that, if this and similar campaigns are successful in changing social attitudes about body hair and femininity, it will become easier in the future for more and more people to participate.
We also recognise that attitudes towards body hair vary from culture to culture and are often influenced by religion or local custom; we do not wish to replace the oppressive beauty standard of hairlessness – which is particularly resonant within the West – with a similarly all-encompassing demand for everyone everywhere to stop depilating forever. However, we do think that having a go at letting it grow can be a fun and empowering decision for many people, and so we strongly encourage anyone who is interested to take part in Armpits4August 2013!
But let’s be honest. If you’ve seen the #hairypits tag on twitter, it’s pretty clear that most women who shave do so because they think hair is gross.
Ladies, friends and peers, I am in no way judging your aesthetic preference or questioning your ability to make decisions. I would not, even if I had the power, forbid you from shaving anything you please. And I would never label someone who chooses to shave as less of a feminist. But questioning (and being honest with) ourselves about why we do the things we do is an important piece of dismantling oppression. Anyone who refuses to even entertain the question of why we are pressured to shave when men are not is probably afraid of the answer. And that’s ok. We should talk about it. I’m not upset with any person’s individual grooming habits. But I’m furious that it’s socially acceptable to shame women for those habits. It’s not you; it’s patriarchy.
We live In a society that tells girls and women simultaneously to hate our bodies and to use our attractiveness as a measure of our worth. In such a society, the choices are simply not weighted equally. It’s not a decision of “to shave or not to shave,” in the same way that it’s never a simple decision of whether or not to follow any other established social convention. It’s a decision of “do I want to fight this particular battle and stand outside of this particular line right now?” and “Am I prepared to deal with the consequences?”
While shaving my underarms a few years ago, I stopped to think about how much time it took. Let’s estimate five seconds. (Legs take longer. So do tons of other things about which I am ambivalent. Do your own calculations on those.) So, five seconds, roughly every other day, and let’s measure it over ten years. 10 years is 3,650 days, every other day is 1,825. At my conservative estimate of 5 seconds, that’s around 2.5 hours of my life spent “fixing” my armpits.
It might not sound like much, but I didn’t want to waste another second. Not on that, or shaving my legs or any other things I hated that were not absolutely mandatory. I thought of how that combined time could be better spent. It’s time that we could use sleeping, laughing, thinking, reading, getting things done. And don’t get me started on the money! The cost of razors added up over time, even though I bought the cheapest blades and stretched them to last until they were rusty and dull. That money could have been spent on tuition or cheesecake or bills or music or any number of more useful things. Just like that, I was officially sick of it.
I don’t shave, and I don’t miss it. This is how my fascinating adult body, that I earned and grew into, naturally looks. Anyone who thinks it looks manly is wrong, because most adult women naturally have at least a small amount of body hair. Men don’t get to have a monopoly on something women can also do.
I knew at 11 that my hair had the power to make people uncomfortable, but it is only recently that I have come to see this as an advantage. This one simple change has given me more than a trophy to prove I survived my childhood. These soft little hairs (pit kittens, as some call them) are a litmus test for detecting misogynists. No, seriously. To test this theory out, try letting your underarm hair show on a date. How someone reacts to this may save you time trying to figure out if they’re a sexist dirtbag, and how highly you should regard their opinions before you take the trouble to get to know them. Just last month I was raising my fist at a Gogol Bordello show and some troglodytes in front of me snickered to themselves about my hair as if I couldn’t see them. A woman with underarm hair! Hilarious! Truly they struck comedy gold with that observation.
Years ago this would have crushed me. I have since learned that any man who feels entitled to an opinion about my body isn’t telling me about myself. He’s telling me about himself, saying, “I am threatened by adult women with bodily autonomy. A woman who does not conform to arbitrary patriarchal beauty standards makes me fearful and insecure.” At least, that’s what I hear when they talk. My Ignorant-Sexist-Dirtbag to English translation is a little rusty.
There is immense pressure on women to be pretty at all times. No matter which rules we decide to follow, society and the media (and even our fellow human beings) tell us we’re not good enough. We are sold ways to make our eyelashes longer, our elbows softer, our wrinkles smoother, our butts, arms, thighs, stomachs, chins, you-name-it, smaller. Even if we follow the rules and shave that insignificant little strip under our arms, there’s a deodorant for sale that claims to change the color of the skin underneath, skin that is irritated by shaving, because our underarms will never be pretty enough. Not a single inch of us is expected or allowed to be clammy or irregular or sweaty or purely functional. The idea that even our armpits must be attractive is an attack on our humanity.
I can’t go back in time to comfort my 11-year-old self and tell her it’s going to be ok, or that her body is nobody’s business but hers. (Don’t worry, she eventually got over it and turned out alright.) What I can do is make a fuss about this before my nieces and my Little Sister and any other girls find out how jacked up and unfair these double standards are. I can be a big ol’ hairy role model and show them that yeah, some women have body hair and grow it out, and that’s alright. There’s nothing wrong with letting your body do its thing. Maybe someday, if we make enough of a fuss, the decision of whether or not to shave really will be just a personal choice.
In the meantime, if you want to validate my hairy rage against PCOS (and sexist crap) with your hard earned money, you can do so here. To learn more (or sign up! There’s still time!) check out http://www.armpitsforaugust.org