Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Ah, the gift of hindsight...

A good friend of mine asked me recently why I don't shave my armpits. Hmmm. Here, with hindsight, is what I would have liked to say:

“It's funny, because whenever anyone asks me that question I can't help feeling a bit annoyed. Why not ask me why I'm wearing this jumper or these shoes? The question reveals that there's something surprising here, something unusual, odd, out of the ordinary, something curious that you want me to explain. If I say it's a purely aesthetical choice that wouldn't be entirely honest. I have always preferred a 'natural' look, but there's more than that. The remainder of my answer is in your question: I don't accept a 'norm', a set of 'rules' on women and their body hair. My body hair is mine, it belongs to me and I cannot feel that I am truly free and truly equal in this society until I can spend as little time, effort and money as I choose on my own aesthetics. My ideal is a society free of such norms. Fashions come and go; playing with different styles can be fun. The day no-one feels the need to ask me that question, is the day I'll feel free to have fun with my hair.”


  1. Well, the question will be asked .. again and again. And the reason why is - as you pointed out - because it is unusual. Though that shouldn't leave you feeling annoyed. It's just a fact, with no shades of judgement in it. And it is deemed unusual purely because the majority shave their armpits. It's numbers, that's it. And as you well know, everyone is curious to know why a person is not following the herd! The answer, "Just coz!" does not satisfy them. They are sure there is some reason for being different. People want to put other people in boxes and categorize them. Someone who doesn't fit a category gets pulled up and questioned and then filed under 'weird'. The point is: how does their opinion or their questioning of your motives affect you? Let it go. That's their choice - to lead a life within the mutually accepted boundaries of society. Just like it's your choice to do what you want with you hair. Being accepted is not the goal here, just being is.
    (Just some random thoughts put together as one comment. Hopefully it makes some sense when it's read together.)

  2. Are you familiar with Roland Barthes's notions of "doxa" and "ex-nomination"? They both work here. His argument is that when something becomes the norm (doxa) it loses its "nameability". It is only what's outside the doxa (unorthodox) that is likely to be named. So a question like "why don't you shave your armpits" is OK, but "why do you shave yours" is much less likely. When I was much younger people used to occasionally ask me why I was growing a beard. I would sometimes answer that men don't grow beards, they shave. In other words, shaving is something you actually have to consciously do, whereas a beard just grows (if you don't shave, that is!). On the other hand, no-one has ever asked me why I don't shave my armpits.

  3. Thanks for these comments. I've been mulling over a response for some time. I think the truth is that I find it annoying because I am an idealist: that is to say, I wish the world was different. In many ways, least of all to do with armpits! I think as human beings we all have a desire to feel connected with the world and I sometimes feel very cut off from "the rest" (if there is any such thing), particularly when I'm in a minority. Don't we all...? Or perhaps this is particular to me.
    I don't dress to fashion either, yet no-one asks me about that. I think there is an underlying assumption with hair that it can't possibly just be a preference. And I wonder if the same applied to beards in the past when they were more "politically" symbolic. Perhaps it's the same in other communities today where beards are religiously symbolic. I don't really know.
    Having said all this, Shilpa your advice is good. I was discussing recently with a friend what it is that is so special about some of the world's most admirable people (Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, that kind of person). We had both noticed that despite having clear convictions, they don't seem to carry an emotional charge or feel anger at the world. And she suggested that it is because they have an absolute belief in what is right and feel no need to convince either themselves or others...

  4. Hi SC. While I realise that this thread is more about personal freedom and the ideal of a society in which there are no particular norms the issue of body hair and its removal especially strikes a chord with me. As someone with a medical problem-induced excess of hair and the so-called 'Snow White Syndrome' (very pale skin and very dark hair) I spend a great deal of time pains-takingly removing hair not so much from my body, but from my face. So much so, in fact, that I dedicate very little time to removing hair from the rest of my body - this I can hide, but I cannot hide my face. I agree with you that your body hair is your own and you should be the one to decide what to do with it. While I hope that there will come a time when women can freely have naturally hairy bodies without anyone asking why I wonder if there will ever come a time when women can have beards and moustaches and sideburns because this is actually their natural state of being without anyone batting an eyelid?

  5. Hey Karen,

    Funnily enough, I was on the bus just the other day with a women who had quite a lot of very visible black facial hair. I would put her in her 30s. She was also wearing some eye and lip make-up which we cause me to deduce that she was conscious of wanting to look a certain way rather than being a person who was perhaps very unaware of her outer appearance in any major way. She was - I could add - very attractive.

    But you're right, of course, it is quite an unusual sight. This is a difficult if interesting debate. I guess there are times when we all "glam up", whatever that means for each of us. But what would be really nice would be if there was a feeling of true freedom around that. For me it could be summed up as follows: glasses or lenses, skirt or trousers, heels or trainers, curly or straight, make-up or none, push-up or no bra at all, these all feel very much like choices, most of them easy choices for me. Hair or no hair? We're into a different territory here. It's still a choice, that is of course the bottom line, but one that takes much more thought to implement. And, in the case of facial hair perhaps particularly, courage. I'm sure there are people out there in the world who feel very comfortable in their own skins no matter what. For most of us, I suspect this is not always the case and sometimes it's just too much to have to deal with other people's reactions.

    I agree with you, it would be just fantastic if there came a day when people's choices were just that: their choices, no more, no less.