Feminism, Body-Hair Activism and Anti-Capitalism

December 31, 2012

Bodyhair

Over the past year there has been a resurgence in body-hair activism and discussion within the feminist community. From the appearance of Those Pesky Dames – a video-blogging collective – on Cherry Healey’s ‘How to Get a Life’ on BBC3, to Emer O’Toole’s spot on This Morning, to the Armpits4August campaign launched over the summer which encouraged women to stop shaving in order to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome charity Verity, the image of the hairy-legged, bushy-pitted feminist has returned unapologetically.

However, it is still the case that whenever an unshaven woman (this term includes both cis and trans women as well as non-binary people) ‘dares’ to show her body hair in public, she is met with a barrage of criticism regarding her appearance. See, for example, Pixie Lott’s ‘fashion faux pas’ of attending a film premiere this summer without first having waxed her armpits. Amidst these hysterical cries which denounce body hair on women as dirty, unhygienic, ‘unnatural’ or ‘unfeminine’, there are two recurring themes, both of which centre around the notion of ‘free choice’: firstly, the claim that a woman is free to stop shaving her arms/legs/pubic area so long as she ‘accepts’ the fact that no man will ever find her sexually attractive again; secondly, the statement made by some women who say ‘but I choose to continue shaving as it just looks and feels better!’

The first is perhaps easier to refute, in that it is patently untrue: I know plenty of women who are hairy and have successful relationships with men. Furthermore, it is likely that not all of these women are attracted to men and so couldn’t care less whether they are attractive to them or not. Finally – and most importantly – the act of choosing to stop shaving is and should be made, first and foremost, for the woman herself. Of course, no individual exists in a vacuum, and we are all subject to structures of oppression such as patriarchy, capitalism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism and so on; these structures manifest themselves not only via state apparatuses and institutions such as the media but also crop up in our interpersonal relationships and influence our individual choices. Nevertheless, there remains space for resistance and autonomy.

Secondly, many women ‘choose’ to continue removing their body hair, but to what extent can this be considered a free choice within a patriarchal, capitalist society? When every single media image we see of women is hairless and shaved, waxed or photo-shopped to perfection? When hairy women are derided both online and offline for the state of their body? When waxing salons offer their services to pre-teens, and firms such as Gillette spend millions of pounds every year on marketing?

My intention is not to shame women who continue to shave, and I am aware that when it comes to embracing one’s body hair the stakes are different for all of us; it is probably much easier for me as a white, middle-class person to do this than it might be for a trans woman, a working-class woman or a woman of colour. Even so, I think it is still useful for us to question why it is that many people believe that hairless women are inherently more desirable.

Body hair removal did not become a widespread practice in modern Europe until the 1920s, when hemlines rose and sleeveless dresses came into fashion. Razor manufacturers at the time saw this as an opportunity to create a new market, and soon started putting out adverts to stimulate demand for hair-removal products. Patriarchy and capitalism worked (and continue to work) together in order to foster insecurities in women and thus encourage them to buy more products. And because the idealised image of a hairless woman is impossible to maintain, women are encouraged not only to perpetually spend money on depilatory practices but also to participate in a never-ending, time-consuming cycle of hair removal: just one aspect of what Naomi Wolf has termed ‘beauty work’, or the extra labour that women are expected to perform in order to look even half-way respectable.

It is clear, then, that the act of hair removal is not simply influenced by patriarchy but also by capitalism and its imperative to consume endlessly. This is why for women throwing away the razor is still a radical act of both feminism and anti-capitalism. If the personal is political then the act of not shaving can be seen as an example of direct action. Refusing to depilate is a step towards body positivity and self-love whilst sticking two fingers up to the ad-man. It is a fuck-you to gender-policing homophobes and transphobes and a rejection of the anxiety-inducing, body-shaming messages of the beauty and fashion industries. Until every woman has the real choice to leave her house hairy and unshaven and not be subjected to harassment and criticism, there is a need for body-hair activism. As Janet Fraser once said, “all that time I save in body hair removal, I devote to revolution.”

 

By Tasha Skerman-Gray. Tasha is a co-founder of the Armpits4August campaign and an activist. They blog at The Fat Duck and can be found on Twitter @thefactduck