Body Hair: The Last Beauty Taboo?

by | May 3, 2015
filed under Feminism

Images of 3 women from Lane Bryant's #ImNoAngel ad campaignIf you’ve been online lately, you’ve probably come across some of the campaigns or online movements encouraging women to embrace their “natural,” “real,” or “authentic” beauty.  Hashtags like #iwokeuplikethis, #nofilter, and #girlyouneednomakeup, accompanied by women’s selfies, continue to trend widely across social media.

Recently, Lane Bryant joined the growing list of corporations marketing an alternative look to the dominant images of female beauty that saturate our culture. Their #ImNoAngel campaign directly targets Victoria’s Secret through their now viral tagline. The use of so-called plus-size models in mainstream advertising is still quite rare, and the campaign has received much praise from women frustrated with the lack of diversity in images of women in the media.

Of course, the campaign has its critics. Accusations of thin-shaming have been raised, as have the obvious limits in the choice of models to those who are able-bodied and youthful looking.

This campaign is nothing new. In fact, over the past few years we’ve come a long way in terms of seeing diverse images of women in prime-time advertising. We’ve seen women with different body sizes; we’ve seen women with disabilities; we’ve seen scars; and we’ve even seen tweens talking openly about menstruation! But there’s still a line that Nike, Dove, Lane Bryant and others can’t seem to cross: women’s body hair.

For instance, a statement from Lane Bryant on the new series of ads put it simply: “Our ‘#ImNoAngel’ campaign is designed to empower ALL women to love every part of herself.” Yet, every last hair from their models’ arms, armpits, legs, and “bikini area” is removed, just as it also is from almost every other non-comedic image of women we see in the media.

We live in a culture where more than 99% of women have removed some or all of their body hair (at least in the U.S.), so this shouldn’t be surprising. And if it was simply a coincidence that most women prefer to remove their body hair while most men don’t, I’m not sure I’d care. But it isn’t.

Women are conditioned over their lifetime to reject body hair on female bodies as “dirty,” “disgusting,” and unnecessary, while accepting hair on male bodies as a sign of strength and virility. It’s time that our feminist critiques of unrealistic beauty standards actually revisit what “natural” and “real” bodies look like!

I don’t expect brands like Dove to embrace body hair in the way they have freckles or women over forty — nor do I care if they do. And I understand that dismantling ideal female beauty standards may be a long process of very small steps in the right direction. However, I think it is important for women, perhaps particularly those women confidently posting makeup-free selfies, to think about just how powerful contemporary beauty standards are in shaping how we feel about our own, natural, bodies.

How is it that when it comes to body hair, we’ve become so accustomed to an altered state of women’s bodies that to see a natural one seems so strange? What is it about hair on an adult woman’s body that makes so many of us uncomfortable?

What better time to bring this issue into the conversation than now? Beauty standards and women’s beauty practices are being discussed by women of all ages on various online and offline communities. Why not push our own (dis)comfort further when it comes to the beauty standards that dominate our media-driven culture, and challenge each other to unlearn what we’ve been taught about body hair, beauty, and women?

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