I’m a feminist but… I shave the body hair on my legs, armpits and bikini line. OK, OK! Stop interrogating me. I admit it, I only do my bikini line when I’m going to wear a swimming costume. The rest of the time, who can honestly be bothered? (If you can, hats off to you.)
Until recently, I’ve rather guiltily brushed my hair removal habits under the carpet. Choosing not to think about it too much, because honestly? The ritual of leg shaving and armpit shaving is just so deeply ingrained, it would take a lot of work to reset myself.
But deep down, I know that I remove this body hair because I want to conform to the beauty ideals that the culture we live in has set. I’ve grown up being told – and seeing with my eyes – that women should have smooth, hair-free skin in order to fit in. Men, on the other hand, can be as hairy as they like. In fact, men often have even more hair than women – armpits, chest, legs, groin, tummy, back – but it’s generally viewed as acceptable for them to be hairy and even show off this hairiness by walking down the street on a hot day, with their top off, hair billowing in the breeze.
In contrast, when there’s even a sniff of a warm day coming up, most women make a mental note to shave, so that they don’t embarrass themselves with a flash of a hairy leg or armpit when they wear a dress or t-shirt. The fear of this happening is so deep in my subconscious, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a ‘stress dream’ which involves me being out somewhere, wearing a dress, looking down and realising I’ve forgotten to shave my legs. The horror. In fact, I feel a bit nervous about publishing the photo that goes with this post because it was taken after a few days of not shaving my armpits. It’s just a bit of hair, though, right?!
As the mum of a ten-year-old girl, I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking around this subject. Because I just know that one day soon, she is going to bring up body hair with me, and I want to say THE RIGHT THING.
But what is the right thing?
Do I hand her a Bic razor and with a wink say, “Sweetheart, I’ve been wondering when you’d ask. Let’s have a lesson in attacking that leg hair!”
Or do I give her a lecture on feminism, equality and the patriarchy, telling her she should just leave her body hair as it is (and wait for her to point out I’m a massive hair-free hypocrite)?
Because as much as I want her to grow up as a feminist who questions the stuff that the patriarchy chucks at women, I also want her to be comfortable in her own skin. I know that tween/teen girls can be the harshest critics and I’d be heartbroken if she came home from school upset because she’d been teased about her body hair.
So, in a bid to get to the bottom of all of these conflicting thoughts, I turned to Molly Forbes – author of Body Happy Kids – and asked her for her views on this. Here’s what she said:
“When it comes to helping kids navigate body and beauty ideals I think it’s important to be open and honest, as well as really neutral if you can. So, acknowledge that some people choose to shave their body hair because this is often held up as ‘the standard’ (and maybe you do this too, and this is a personal choice) but that lots of people choose not to buy into these ideals.
“Looking up accounts together on Instagram such as @januhairy can be a good way to talk about this and allow your children to see real body hair – particularly if you choose to remove your own. You can also acknowledge that there’s actually no hygiene reason why we need to shave our body hair (despite what advertisers might tell us!). The most important thing is for children to know that their bodies are their own, and it’s up to them what they do with their bodies. But also, that we don’t comment on or judge other people’s bodies either. When in doubt, an affirmation my own kids like to remind me of is ‘my body, my rules!’. They get to make choices about their bodies, and how they define their bodies is only up to them.
“There is obviously a safety element at play here too – so being very neutral, but creating an atmosphere where your kids feel able to approach you to talk about this is really important, because if they secretly decide to shave themselves that could actually lead to an accident and be unsafe. So saying something like ‘Some people choose to shave their body hair, some people choose not to – and it’s completely up to you what you decide to do. But if you do decide you want to explore shaving it’s really important to come to me first so we can learn about it safely.’ This will mean children are a) aware that these pressures can exist and some people subscribe to them b) that they do have the choice to opt out and c) if they decide they want to shave then they won’t try to teach themselves how to do it.”
This, to me, feels like a good solution and THE RIGHT THING. I’d be wrong to tell my daughter to shave AND I’d be wrong to suggest she doesn’t shave, in the name of equality. It’s up to her what she does with her body, and it’s up to me to support that.