To shave or not
A self-experiment by May Dittel
Edited by Alaya Purewal
Friday, the 13th is known to be bad luck - and it indeed was; the COVID-19 outbreak in combination with my mother’s stubbornness and worries forced me to pack my bags in half a day and take the next bus home. Leaving friends behind abruptly, staying in quarantine for god-knows how long, it was hard to see any kind of positivity in these dark times. Naturally, I started to look for positive things to hold on to and I would find positivity where I didn’t expect it - my body hair. But before I was able to find this positivity, let me tell you about the complicated relationship I’ve been in with my body hair.
Feminists often focus on the direct effect of how parents raise their children on the internalization and perpetuation of gender stereotypes. Way too often the effect that society has in shaping mindsets gets ignored because it is not as graspable, visible or obvious. But regarding body hair, society is what shaped me, not my parents.
My mother never shaved - I must admit: she never had much hair anyway - and she told me that I didn’t have to shave either; that I should not shave, because it would irritate my skin and because it would be unnecessary. Rather, puberty, sports practices and other people around me made me feel ashamed of my body hair and I felt the need to get rid of it. My mother helped me buy a hair removal cream because she said it would be better for my skin than using a razor (and honestly I was too scared of shaving because I thought I might cut myself), so that’s what I did every two days for the next five years. On a class trip in 11th grade, I learned how to use a razor and that’s what I used every two days for the next three years and what I still use. It’s a petite, travel-size razor that sits in my hand perfectly - a symbol of self-empowerment or of the trenches of societal pressure?
You might not believe how much getting rid of my body hair started to dictate my daily life. With water polo practices sometimes thrice a week, where I was brutally aware everyone could see anything that would grow under my armpits simply when throwing a ball, I had to plan my shaving. I usually shaved the night before a practice - regardless of whether I only had stubbles under my armpits or hairs that already grew up to 1cm - just to make sure I wouldn’t feel ashamed the next day when throwing a ball. Sometimes I forgot to shave and I would come late to practice, so that I could get a shave in before presenting myself to my teammates. In these times, I hated shaving because it felt forced upon me - for no obvious reason - and I wouldn’t do it unless I was sure anybody was going to see my armpits.
I was often envied because my Asian genes gave me virtually no hair on my arms nor my legs - but I could only see the hairs that I did have - under my armpits and on my pubes. I knew people that shaved their arm hair, their leg hair, their pubic hair, their armpit hair, hell even their eyebrows! Some of it I thought was unnecessary, some of it seemed natural to me, but I realized at some point that I didn’t really know what I thought of removing body hair. Society had taught us: shaving armpit hair - natural; shaving pubic hair - natural; shaving leg hair - also natural because you would otherwise look like a monkey. But eyebrows? I feel the patriarchy had found better ways to “perfect the woman” than to shave them off - instead: plucking them, filling them out, redrawing them; shaving eyebrows - unnatural. I didn’t know if I was just shaving because society said that way I was more beautiful; I didn’t know if I would stop shaving whether that would just be a social justice warrior act and not really what I wanted; I didn’t know if I continued shaving if it was because I wanted to or because I had internalized the patriarchy so much. I didn’t know what to do and that posed to me a rare sensation of losing part of my personality - I am not used to not knowing what I want. Not knowing what to want, felt like losing myself.
So, that was my stance on body hair for roughly the past four years. I knew my own conflict, but I continued with the habit - shaving out of societal expectation, but secretly hating it - I had created, feeling lost in regards to this admittedly miniscule problem.
Three days after I arrived back home, I went into the shower after a morning workout session. I had shampooed my hair and was about to grab my shaving cream to shave my armpits. I stopped and wondered: Why? Why should I shave? I wouldn’t go outside, even less so in a tank top that would make the stubbles visible. So I didn’t. And with this I unintentionally started something that turned into a self-experiment of me, by me and for me.
Every morning after my workout, I shower and I look into the mirror, at my armpits. What I see now is already a small bush and I think it’s the longest I’ve ever had my armpit hair and perhaps the longest it can get. It looks weird, strange, awkward. I feel the same way as when I see pictures on social media by feminists who promote not shaving; I feel that I support them, but I also feel disgusted and the need to shave it all off. I don’t have an issue with leg hair - never did - probably because mine never proved to be an issue, so I didn’t mind other people’s leg hair either. But seeing people on social media that let their armpit hair grow out just to be feminist, that seemed kind of far-fetched to me and frankly not something I needed to see on my feed. Ironically, this is what I am doing now - showing you my armpit hair because I’m a feminist. It is daunting to see that as someone who’s self-identified as a feminist took this long to unlearn what had been taught by the patriarchy.
It is then, at that sensation of disgust vis-à-vis my own armpit hair, that I decide to properly make this into a self-experiment, a self-exploration if you will, of my wants and needs. This experiment makes me feel empowered and I play with my armpit hair as I play with the hair on my head - I feel it and I discover it and that is fine. It’s an absolutely new sensation and honestly, I’m proud of myself for taking this step.
It has now been almost a month since I unintentionally started this quarantine experiment. Today, I went outside in a tank top - nobody saw my hair, but I felt weird and watched. I feel the desperate need to shave my armpits. When I look into the mirror, I don’t see something interesting, mesmerizing anymore, I see an annoyance. I wanted my sister to take a picture of me and my growing body hair today, but when instead she started taking a video using her phone, I panicked. I felt like my trust had been broken and I was worried anyone would see me like this and think: “That's’ unhygienic.”, “That’s ugly.”, “Why isn’t she shaving?”. I was surprised by my own abrupt reaction in that moment, but it proved to me that I am far from self-assuredly marching through the streets with my armpit hair out. This situation made me feel both angry and determined. Angry about still subjecting to idiotic and sense-less patriarchal standards and determined to keep going with this self-experiment to perhaps overcome them. The only thing that stopped me from shaving was the thought that perhaps this is what it takes to get over it, to reverse the process of internalization. I made this plan and nothing is keeping me from sticking to it, so that is what is guiding me right now: Until quarantine is over, I am not touching my razor.
Today will be my last day documenting this experiment, because I have come closer to inner peace in regards to this miniscule issue. I still am not comfortable with my body hair, I still do not think it to be beautiful, I still feel that shaving would make me look less flawed, but I have decided that my hair is staying on - at least as long as I can withstand societal pressure to shave (hopefully that’s longer than until the next water polo practice...). A conclusion that I’ve come to with this experiment is that I may never be able to know what I really want to do with my body hair, just because I have internalized the patriarchy with all its societal expectations so much. While for some this might be frustrating (... why did I start reading this article, if there’s no conclusion?), for me it provides further determination to withstand these expectations as long as possible to at least try to arrive at a destination on this journey of self-experimentation.
One thing I’ve definitely discovered through this self-experiment is that it is an exploration of self on a deeply personal level - any interference, any intervention by others will disturb the process. Therefore, note to self: Do not comment on the way others choose to deal with their body hair; it’s their personal choice and perhaps just like me (and you?) they are struggling with this choice and your comment could be the tipping point of them giving up and surrendering to the patriarchy. Don’t assume this responsibility, don’t be that person. Speaking from experience, it is greatly empowering when a guy decides not to comment on how “you’ve let yourself go”, or to have him suggest “you better shave and take care of yourself”. Be the person that doesn’t comment, that doesn’t suggest, that doesn’t act like they know better, but that does make their partner one hundred percent comfortable by accepting all of what they have to offer.
If you feel just as lost as me in the deep sea of patriarchal standards, perhaps try out this experiment, perhaps challenge yourself on another societal expectation, perhaps just continue with your habits as usual - but definitely find your own way of confronting your miniscule problems and then lay them to rest, because in the end, they’re just that: miniscule problems. Whatever you decide to do about your body hair won’t define you as a person, won’t define your presence, nor your future, so enjoy the reality that you can worry about such a miniscule problem and go on to worry about something more important.