Walking down any British high street on a warm summer’s day, one would be hard-pressed to spot a single woman or post-pubescent girl with visible leg or under-arm hair. The sight of a woman with such body hair might cause a moment of confusion, shock, revulsion, judgment, anger or even aggression. This woman might be assumed to be unfeminine, ‘inappropriate,’ unclean, or just a bit batty. She might even be labelled a ‘lesbian’ or a ‘feminist’ – especially if her penchant for body hair stems not from inattention, ignorance or poor hygiene, but from a deliberate choice. Indeed, not only strangers, but also a woman’s friends, family and partners may likewise find the presence of her body hair disturbing and undesirable.
In contemporary, late-capitalist, Anglophone societies, adult feminine body hair removal is a near-universal practice. The small collection of social scientists (especially in psychology) studying this topic since the late 1990s have consistently found that over 90 per cent of their participants remove leg and underarm hair, with slightly lower levels removing pubic and facial hair (often eyebrow hair)1.
Indeed, in these countries, women’s body hair removal is “so socially normative as to go unquestioned” (Tiggemann and Kenyon 1998: 874), despite the time, effort, expense and pain women must often expend in order to maintain a largely hairless body, and the often harmful beliefs and attitudes which underlie hair removal practices.
Academics researching the issue often assume that feminists are more likely to resist the hairlessness norm than the general population2. In the literature this connection has not yet been convincingly tested, preventing researchers from making a clear connection between hair removal practices and feminist beliefs. For my doctoral research, I interviewed 40 feminist-identifying women, aged 18 to 35 years and living in the UK, in order to shed light on these questions and explore why there might be a link between feminist identification and resistance to the hairlessness norm.
My argument about body hair removal and intimacy is that the social norm for feminine hairlessness creates the conditions for an artificial or false intimacy between strangers, or for violent intimacy between individuals already genuinely intimate, in order to facilitate the policing of women’s bodies. We must also consider the issue of body hair removal and intimacy within the broader context of gender equality, and to address what implications it has for the ways gender inequality is expressed on women’s bodies.
A note on intimacy
There are three notable characteristics of intimacy, and intimate relationships, at play in the context of women’s body hair removal: voluntarism (choosing to enter into a relationship), consent and vulnerability. These are difficult properties of intimacy to manage consistently in relationships, even in the best of circumstances – that is, forgetting for a minute the vagaries of institutionalised, intersecting inequalities (gender, race, socio-economic status, sexuality, and so on) and assuming respect, care and goodwill from the people engaging in intimate relationships. Intimacy is always difficult, constantly under negotiation, and potentially harmful. It might be argued that intimate relationships are optimal when they manage to maximise the pleasures of trust and equality, and mindfully mitigate the inevitability – and the inevitable risks – of vulnerability. Now, bringing back to the table the aforementioned social inequalities, and individuals’ personal histories, inclinations and (not always good) intentions, the situation becomes even more delicate and fragile. These fragile privileges and ever-present risks of intimacy are vital to keep in mind.
The hairlessness norm and false intimacy
The hairlessness norm includes several components crucial to our discussion. There is an expectation that all women will engage in the practice as a ‘normal’ part of womanhood. The presumed universality and normality of women’s hairless bodies causes alternative forms of ‘hairy embodiment’, such as having hairy legs, a mono-brow or a slight moustache, to be immediately dismissed as undesirable, socially disruptive and even perverse – and, especially, ‘unnatural.’ The association of hairlessness with ‘normal’ (read: acceptable) and ‘natural’ femininity enables people to police women’s body hair as a matter of course – that is to notice or stare at a hairy body part, comment on it, ask the woman to shave, command her to do so or even attempt to force her. It is these aspects of the hairlessness norm that I will examine in relation to intimacy.
So, what do I mean by ‘false intimacy’? If one considers the characteristics of voluntarism, consent and vulnerability as constituting intimacy, a falsely intimate relationship of the kind relevant to this discussion is one that assumes the privileges of intimacy without there being an existing relationship, and without assuming the responsibilities inherent in intimacy. To put it a different way, when a passer-by on the street, fellow passengers on a train, an online troll, or casual acquaintances assume the ‘right’ to police a woman’s body according to their assumed ‘standards’ of femininity (often couched in terms of respectability, hygiene or attractiveness), they are assuming a false intimacy with that woman.
This is not to say, of course, that those in genuine relations of intimacy with a woman have a right to police her body (indeed, that is the topic of the next section), but that in adopting the mantle of intimacy, these individuals create a certain legitimacy for themselves: in telling a woman what she should do with her body they are helping her, being caring, they know what’s best for her, she doesn’t want to stand out, she wants to be a real woman.
And if the individual assuming false intimacy is a man who is heckling this woman about her body hair, telling her no one will want to have sex with her, that she is undesirable, he is still acting under the rubric of false intimacy with her by assuming the privilege of sharing his desires or their lack for her body and, moreover, assuming she wants or needs to hear it.
This kind of false intimacy (as well as the hairlessness norm itself) is also highly heteronormative. The assumption that all women are straight and can only occupy public space to please men, or that all women want to be sexually pleasing to all men is vastly problematic in a variety of ways. In this context it highlights continuing gender inequalities by showing how women are often dependent on men, and at risk of male violence if they stray away from the ‘normal’ path of femininity.
It is worth reiterating the point that within an unequal, heteronormative social system, men and women commonly police women’s bodies differently when it comes to body hair. My research shows that women inhabit women-only bodily spaces for much of the time, in which mothers, sisters, friends, beauticians and schoolmates inhabit a privileged position. These are the people primarily involved with a girl or woman’s ‘hairy’ life, who encourage or initiate involvement with body hair removal, help her hone her technique and try out new products, and police her for not doing it properly or enough. For example, Alex recalled her time at school:
“I think it was something that we all used to obsessively talk about as well, at school, all the time. I went to an all-girl school, so I think it kind of consolidates that sort of, uh, weird thing, like, girls being very, very good friends and stuff. So. But it was like, lunchtime conversations largely removed (sic) around how you removed body hair for, like, quite a long time.”
Conversely, women-only spaces, such as feminist communities, can also be a safe route for women out of the hairlessness norm, providing support, encouragement and alternative visual role models to the usual hairless images relentlessly pushed on girls and women through advertising, magazines, films, TV, and art. Kim explains that she would not have stopped removing body hair if it weren’t for her feminist community: “I don’t think it could have happened, really, without the feminism, because – well, partly I wouldn’t have had the confidence in myself before… You know, lack of caring what the people think. Um, what other people think about it. Like, to know that – to know securely enough that I’m right about this and they’re wrong, so. Body hair removal is just a stupid arbitrary rule”. Lexi told me, “I took a break [from working] to have a sunny picnic with my friend… and the friend had armpit hair. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s an option!’ And until that point, I hadn’t realised it was an option. And once I realised it was an option, I was like, ‘Well, that’s much easier! Why don’t I do that? That’s no effort whatsoever!’ It was pretty much a turnaround moment.”
In addition, women notice and experience the implicit racial hierarchy inherent in the assumed universality of the hairlessness norm3. Many of my participants mentioned wishing they were blonde and pale-skinned, or were grateful that they were and didn’t have to worry as much about hair removal as their less fortunate darker haired, darker skinned friends. Aurelia, for example, told me, “I’ve always been quite conscious of, um, body hair, so I remember from primary school being quite aware of it, um, and I think I was more aware of it because it felt like a comparison and I felt a lot more hairy than a lot of people when I was at school, and partly because I’ve got dark hair and Asian ethnicity, I think it was quite noticeable.”
One of the less well thought about aspects of body hair removal is that it consists of a set of learned technical skills: which products to use and when, how to avoid injury and maximise results, and how to negotiate setbacks such as infections or allergies. One woman’s body hair will be very different from another, in colour, length, texture, and distribution, and her skin vary in sensitivity. The hairlessness norm easily hides, through its assumption of universality, the differing amounts of physical and emotional labour, skill and pain required for different women to look hairless to the same extent.
The point here is that my research shows that women will often police women they are in relationship with – the aforementioned mothers, sisters, friends – while men tend to be conspicuously absent in these spaces apart from popping up occasionally to make often highly damaging comments about how their body hair is “disgusting,” strange or otherwise undesirable.
So why call this phenomenon ‘false intimacy’ rather than something else, such as street harassment, peer pressure, the enforcement of unfair beauty norms, or simply leaving it at ‘policing women’s bodies’? Of course, it is all those things, but it is also crucial to position these forms of policing within the realm of intimacy because they serve to delineate and control not only women’s bodies in public, but the ways that women can be embodied in private, in intimate relationships, even when by themselves. The false intimacy fostered by the hairlessness norm furthers the intrusion of sexist bodily norms into women’s psychic lives at the same time that it lets women know in no uncertain terms that their bodies are public property, that intimacy is not a privilege that is theirs to negotiate with people of their choosing, to choose and consent to, but that they must always be on their guard.
Another example we may use to illustrate the idea of false intimacy in the context of women’s embodiment is that of pregnancy (and then, motherhood). Many women when pregnant feel that their bodies become, in effect, public property, with strangers constantly touching their ‘bumps’ and offering unsolicited advice about pregnancy, birth or mothering4. Although some of this is undoubtedly good-natured and in the spirit of solidarity or shared experience, there is nonetheless a highly condescending and infantilising aspect to this false intimacy. Thus, although the example of the pregnant body is arguably one in which the policing aspects are (sometimes) more muted than when policing women’s body hair, both are examples in which women’s embodiment is created and continually reinforced as constricted, publicly available and subject to the systematic appraisal of falsely intimate others.
Violent intimacy and body hair
So what happens when a woman is in relationship with another person or persons, in a state of genuine intimacy as elaborated at the start of this discussion, and those intimate with her also police her body? I argue that such a situation is violently intimate. That is, the conditions of intimacy – voluntarism, consent and vulnerability – are violated in a situation where the privileges of intimacy are abused in order to control or command another person.
Intimacy with another person, whether in families, friendships or romantic relationships, comes with certain privileges that are ideally reciprocal, but often asymmetrical. The ability, or perhaps right, to tell the other person what one wants, needs, or desires; the ability to make the other person aware of aspects of their behaviour or personality one considers unhelpful, undesirable or perhaps hurtful; and, physical intimacy – these are often key privileges within intimate relationships.
Any or all of these privileges may be used to police a woman’s body hair by her partner, parents, siblings, or friends – and others beside. I call this ‘violent intimacy’ because it is a way of using force against another person’s agency, and moreover a person over whom one has more power because one is intimate with them. Some relationships are asymmetrical in power from source, such as parent-child relationships, certain friendships and many romantic relationships. Indeed, heterosexual relationships, insofar as they emerge from unequal social conditions are more likely than not to be unequal, but this is not to say that homosexual relationships are free from inequality.
Lexi, whom we met above, and Lucy both related to me how their mothers tried again and again to persuade them to go back to removing body hair, with tactics such as buying their daughter razors, attempting to ‘educate’ them about the social stigma surrounding feminine body hair, or simply stating that it is disgusting, ugly or unfeminine.
However, powerful social (often gendered) norms, such as the hairlessness norm, can add another layer of power imbalance into a relationship. To give another example, the masculine norm for stoicism can allow a friend or romantic partner to impose undue force over a man if this man were to show ‘unmasculine’ emotion, such as being overly expressive of their feelings, or crying. Research shows that women often police their men partners by telling them to stop crying, or calling them weak or unmanly for expressing emotion5. Male friends, it is well known, often call other men “pussies” or “bitches” in response to the same behaviour. Such responses to male emotion are meant to elicit shame, embarrassment and to cause the recipient of such abuse to avoid emoting in the future – with great success. Although such behaviour from female partners or male friends is often considered ‘normal’ (in the same way that policing women’s body hair is considered normal), it remains, I argue, a violent abuse of intimacy.
The situation is further complicated when a participant’s behaviour changes during a relationship, for example when a woman decides to stop removing hair altogether and wants to gauge her partner’s reaction, or when a daughter decides likewise and is relentlessly pressured by her mother to start again. This last example was a particularly common story in my research: women who had started removing body hair as girls and then decided to stop as young women, only to be faced with ruthless parental (especially maternal) pressure, bullying from siblings, with some mothers even buying the rebellious family member razors or other hair removal products to encourage her.
Obviously, such everyday impositions of one’s will onto others in relationships are a common and perhaps inevitable facet of relationships (“Turn the music down,” “Why don’t you try harder at school?” “You need to do this for me”) and not necessarily linked to social norms. However, this type of violent intimacy is a crucial driver for reproducing and maintaining sexist social norms (amongst other harmful social norms).
Why would a mother, for example, be so invested in her daughter removing her body hair as to buy her razors and demand that she shave her legs? On the face of it, this is a deep denial of her daughter’s bodily agency and an obviously harmful gesture. But, as we all know (pardon the cliché), parents want ‘the best’ for their kids – and, in this case, ‘the best’ for a girl in this society might not be for her to have an expansive and agentic sense of her own embodiment if this involves flouting numerous social conventions for her to look and act a certain way that are meant to safeguard her personal safety and desirability. In other words, if a girl faces the best chances for social and personal advancement by wearing make-up and feminine clothes, being thin, and shaving her legs, a mother might consider these attributes more important than encouraging her daughter to choose her own individual way of living in her body. Presumably, as a woman she would have faced similar pressures to conform to specifically constrained forms of embodiment.
The hairlessness norm remains insidious because it remains largely invisible as a genuine equality issue. It is often assumed to be unimportant or trivial, but actually fits within a broader context of gendered bodily practices. It was estimated by Euromonitor that the UK depilatories sector would reach sales of £137 million in 2012, a “slow performance” due to the uncertainty created in consumers by the economic downturn (Euromonitor 2013). This industry is embedded in huge advertising campaigns, cosmetic surgery and the skincare industry. The idea that what women do to their bodies plays a large part in their broader social position has been a key idea in feminist analysis from Mary Wollstonecraft to Judith Butler. Perhaps the most famous formulation in recent years remains Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, in which she argues that the intensification of strict and unrealistic beauty norms in recent years is implicated in the backlash against feminism: what better way to limit the advancement of women than to keep them occupied with expensive, time-consuming and relentlessly repetitive beauty procedures?
Indeed, non-compliance with the hairlessness norm still often relegates women to the realm of ‘hairy lesbian feminists’ in popular parlance and media accounts. Perhaps this has to do with the well-examined association of femininity with hairlessness and masculinity with hairiness in our culture, which many argue or assume to be natural, but which the severity of the hairlessness norm shows up to be artificial. Examining body hair removal and intimacy together exposes the lingering association of feminism with a sort of ‘extreme’ feminine agency within mainstream discourses more commonly associated with masculine agency. It also highlights how the hairlessness norm powerfully enforces the gender binary and keeps women ‘in their place’ by constructing ‘real or ‘acceptable’ feminine embodiment as inhibited and strictly controlled.
3 Obviously, these implicit racial hierarchies are not exclusive to feminine beauty and bodily norms. However, my research only concerns women, and as thus I cannot speak to masculine body hair norms.
4 Just one example, from The Guardian.
5 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly.