Can body hair be apolitical?

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Words: Sophie Hannam (She/Her)

If I am going to fall into the gaping mouth of stereotyping, I would state the key difference, other than the obvious, between males and females can be found within their hair. I would argue that men are some form of unkempt yeti, resembling the clump of hair I just pulled out of the shower drain far more than they would an actual human. Women, on the other hand, are as smooth as the tiles that surround my shower drain. They are all placed in a perpetual state of prepubescence, failing to grow even a stray eyebrow hair for fear they could be classed as … ADULT! I shudder to think. Of course, this stereotype is 1000 percent false, rooted in sexist and frankly bizarre conceptions of what gender is supposed to look like. 

Why the hell is it so important? At age 10, I was gifted my first razor. She was from a Superdrug pack of disposable pink razors, so cheap that she never failed to leave a fiery trail of razor burn all over my underarms and legs whenever used. Despite all of the cuts, burns and painful attempts at shower yoga, my razor was my most prized possession. I am sure I speak for the universal experience of girls with dark body hair: there is no hiding it. So when 9-year-old me developed armpit hair, everyone at my school noticed. At first, I remember thinking it looked really cool, that I looked like a grown-up. Unfortunately, not very many of my friends saw my newfound body hair in this “progressive” light. Frequently, my male classmates would come up to me in the playground asking to see my hairy armpits before shrieking and running away in disgust. As such, a new insecurity was founded; little did I know this self-consciousness of body hair was an even stronger marker of growing up than my hairy pits. After a year of begging and pleading my mother caved, and bought my first razor. 

I often think about this initial interaction with body hair. How before external attitudes infested my self-image, I was proud to have hairy armpits. And why not? Frankly, it looks cool: you can plait it if it gets long enough and it serves as an extra layer of warmth against the freezing Glaswegian air. To a 9-year old, the hair on your body is not a political statement. It’s not a stance against “the system”. It’s just hair. At what age does it become something other than that? Why did the 9-year-old boys in my class see female body hair as disgusting? This notion is conditioned in them, as I highly doubt a vendetta against female body hair is ingrained in their genetic makeup.  

In her paper, ‘Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture’, Christine Hope states that 1915 was the pivotal point in which female body hair became something people cared about. All of this was thanks to a series of adverts placed in Harper’s Bazaar for hair removal creams. The advert tagline: ‘The Woman of fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face’. Who would have guessed it? The fashion and beauty industry is at fault, shock horror. This campaign set the wheels in motion to market hairless skin as the standard, feeding immense money into the hair removal industry. Male body hair is not without scrutiny, however. Facial hair is a defining feature that most men have to deal with every day and trends in “manscaping” fluctuate rapidly. Yet, for the most part, women deal with the brunt of body hair stigma. 

I would argue that body hair itself is not a political statement. A woman or female-presenting individual can grow armpit hair without the desire to spark some form of rebellion. After all, hair removal takes more effort than it’s worth. As nice as freshly shaven legs are, the majority of the time I just cannot be arsed. It is the attitudes of society that push a political narrative onto a basic feature of the human body, motivated by cosmetic companies’ desire to maximise sales in hair removal treatments. There needs to be a cultural shift away from the demand for a persistent removal of undesired body hair, regardless of whether the owner of the hair wants it. This is something which I don’t see on the horizon any time soon. But for those of you who like hairy legs or don’t have the energy to wax your upper lip, remember that it’s your hair and your choice. You don’t have to make a political statement to feel comfortable within your own body.


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