By: Sindura Vuppu
I was only nine years old when I first used Veet hair removal cream to get rid of the shame and insecurity that came with my “unwanted” hair. Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif, the face of Veet in India back then, said I’d feel more beautiful if I did so. Thick dark hair on my dark skin didn’t help meet the beauty standards of a South Indian. Ever since, I’ve tried various ways to “clean up.” I covered up most of the time and waited desperately to visit the salon and get waxed every month just so I could wear clothes that I liked. I felt less pretty. I felt less feminine. I wondered how femininity or masculinity had anything to do with how hairy one was.
Until a few decades ago, being hairy wasn’t so problematic. In fact, people saw beauty in facial and body hair. Indian Actress Kajol sported a unibrow in the 90s and was considered beautiful. Unibrows became trendy among Indian women. In the Middle East, as well as East and South Asia, unibrows were considered alluring in both sexes. Additionally, pubic hair is seen as a sign of sexual health and fertility In Korean culture, and many Korean women got pubic hair transplants. Similarly, many foreigners have reported that they are often surprised to see unshaved private parts in Asian bathhouses. The West, too, was comfortable with body hair until the 20th century. In the Middle Ages, Catholic women were expected to let their hair grow as a display of femininity. The only “requirement” was to keep it concealed in public. However, being hairy wasn’t that big of a deal for a long time. As we go further back in history, we can find the possible reasons why the obsession with hairlessness began.
Charles Darwin’s book “Descent of Man” (1871) associated hairy bodies with “primitiveness” and “inferior races.” According to him, having less body hair was a sign of being more evolved and sexually attractive. Not-so-surprisingly, these ideas targeted women more than men, establishing control over women’s bodies in the most misogynistic and heteronormative way and linking their femininity and sexual attractiveness to the lack of body hair. Scientists drew a clear distinction between masculinity and femininity based on body hair, calling this distinction “higher anthropological development” in race. At the dawn of the twentieth century, changes in fashion that exposed more skin encouraged less body hair. In 1915, Harper’s Bazaar, the first women’s magazine, launched the anti-armpit hair campaign, calling clean armpits a “necessity” for sleeveless clothes. The first Gillette women’s razor was also launched around the same time. Soon, middle-class white women desired smooth, “clean,” and white skin. Gradually, this influence spread across the world, combined with a development in various hair-removal techniques. Today, hair-removal has become so common among men and women, especially women, that most religiously opt for hair-removal as if they have no other option. As if it was a requirement to feel feminine, hygienic, and respected.
The way women are expected to have hairless bodies and smooth skins like children is a form of oppression. Making grown women feel pressured to remain young in the way they appear and behave makes it easier for the patriarchal society to establish control and dominance over almost every aspect of their lives. The term “pretty privilege” also applies to this viewpoint. While beautiful and attractive women who fit societal standards of femininity seem to receive more respect in their professional and personal lives, women who challenge these standards are often looked down upon. Recently, women letting their “unwanted” hair grow out has become associated with the desperation to be “different” and prove a point. While this might be true and is just a form of expression, rather than a personal choice, letting body hair grow has become a sign of “rebellion.” By mocking such choices, society increases the pressure on women to follow the norms and be more “modest and respectable.” Additionally, getting rid of body and facial hair has become so deeply associated with femininity that men doing so is often mocked. This stems from queerphobia and the desire to eliminate anything that isn’t heteronormative. This notion only strengthens toxic masculinity and the need to prove one’s masculinity or femininity. However, such ideas are now being challenged on a higher level.
Frida Kahlo exhibited one of the earliest and the most significant forms of defiance by growing out her facial hair and embracing it. More recently, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Julia Roberts, and Paris Jackson to name a few, are encouraging the idea of embracing one’s body hair by publicly displaying their unshaved armpits and legs. In addition to being the first razor brand to show body hair on television, Billie, an indie razor brand, has launched campaigns such as the Body Hair Project and Red, White, and You do You Campaign with ads and videos celebrating the choice to shave or not shave body hair. It is also the first brand to show pubic hair on its Red,White, and You do You Campaign. Januhairy is another campaign started by students Laura Jackson and Ruby Jones in 2019 that encourages people to grow out their body hair for the month of January and share images of themselves online. There are many more such campaigns that strive to normalize body hair and empower hairy people. As years pass, we can expect the world to be more tolerant of all body and skin types.
It’s time to normalize body hair. It’s also important that hair removal should remain a choice and should not be forced upon. There is nothing wrong if, as a feminist or a supporter of this movement, you choose to remove your own body and facial hair. It’s not hypocritical, but rather a personal choice. Having more or less body hair does not make one more or less feminine. Our body hair does not define who we are. Excessive or unwanted hair can occur because of several factors such as genetics or hormonal imbalance. It is normal to have more of it and it is equally normal to have less of it. The slowly fading dark patches in my armpits that came with hair removal creams, the bumps of ingrown hair that came with shaving, and the dreadful hot wax that burns my skin every month, continue to bother me. I’m still learning to get rid of my insecurity of having a hairy body, but it is sliding down the list of my priorities with each passing day. While it’s not easy to readjust a brainwashed mind, it’s never too late to try. Let us learn to embrace our body hair, slowly and gradually. Let us appreciate what we have and be kind to ourselves.