I recently read the article in Vagenda mag about female body hair, specifically about not removing it. I feel for the author. In the face of hegemonic gender norms, it’s hard to be the voice of dissent, crying foul play. We don’t like body hair in mainstream western society and I wouldn’t have the guts to fly in the face of that heavy, if ridiculous, disapproval. I am weak.
It’s because I don’t agree with gender norms that sometimes I lack the conviction to say what I really want to, for fear of opposition. That opposition is so entrenched and so ignorantly accepted, without deference to gender ideology. So sometimes, when I catch a dirty look from another woman – and all women get those, no matter what – sometimes, it affects my ‘fuck gender stereotypes’ conviction. ‘The Look’ can bring you down from the giddy heights of happiness, or it can throw you over the edge just when you’re keeping it together. On a really good day, I can shake it off completely, but The Look is powerful, because it speaks to so much more than a nose-wrinkling distaste for your outfit choice.
For the author of the Vagenda article, it is probably down to her hair in places that are unacceptable for woman to show hair in public. (Which is pretty much anywhere but our heads.) I put the looks down to my dishevelled appearance in comparison to the onlooker’s attempt at airbrushed perfection, or my ‘quirky’ attire. At those moments, I crave a stamp on my forehead that says ‘Fuck you, I’m a feminist! I don’t subscribe to your value system!’ My value lies in more than the clothes I wear or the way I look. It’s hard to be defiant all the time though.
Defiance is hardest when those you’re defying are the majority and misunderstand your defiance. Beauty is so omnipresent and omnipotent in our society. But most people don’t analyse their beliefs for long enough to realise they may be indoctrinated by a dominant cultural mindset, reminiscent of the here and now, the particular zeitgeist of the moment. They don’t think about their treatment of beauty as political, cultural or historical. To be curvaceous used to be considered beautiful. Now we favour the emaciated look. Most models have a BMI of 15-16, which counts as ‘starving’ by the World Health Organisation’s standards. To be hairy in places where you’re naturally hairy used to be ‘normal’. Now it’s not. And to go against this norm apparently warrants a torrid reaction nowadays. Just ask Vagenda.
For the moment, a mindset dominates. Female body hair is gross. Women must be beautiful to be worthwhile. That mindset sees women from the male gaze. It has made women see themselves from the male gaze. If our bodies were functional and not aesthetic, why would we remove hair? It’s costly, annoying and time-consuming. It’s also there for a reason and bites back hard when you try and remove it. Persistent bastard, it is. But my conviction that there is more to life than beauty is automatically trumped by prevailing messages running through all parts of society.
Advertising. Pornography. Fashion. Diets. Lapdancing. Music videos. Shop windows. Cosmetic counters. Magazines. Page 3. Girl talk.
Why do they win? Because I am an individual. I am fragile. The above are (almost) all connected to huge corporations. Mostly the same few corporations at that.
And all of this analysis I can get, yes, just from a casual caustic look. A throwaway bit of malice from a passerby. I am empathetic. I want to understand other perspectives. But it seems Aryan to me, the superiority complex of The Look. It’s screams ‘my idea of beauty is right because I say so, because I think so, because I feel so.’ I think, therefore it must be. This is alien to me, the unquestioning, unconscious decision-making process based on personal convictions. Because I am constantly questioning feminism as a whole, my feminism and feminism’s various forms. Because not all of it is right. Not all of it I agree with. This can make me feel like I lack conviction, but really it’s because I want my conviction to be genuine. I can’t assert something without thought it through properly, without research and bouncing off other people, without question.
The Look, however, is self-justifying. And The Look makes me wonder how we will look back at this time, right here, right now, in decades to come. You know when you look back at a photo of yourself from years ago and you look so different to how you perceived you looked at the time? The whole world around you looks a bit old-fashioned and like something you’d rather forget happened. It’s like the feeling we get when we look back at the treatment of women in the 1950s, where women were encouraged to find fulfilment only in domesticity and marriage. ‘How quaint’, we think. Or when we watch Mad Men and think how hilariously funny it is that men routinely went unchallenged when they treated women as inferior. How men felt they could talk to women as lesser beings and use them as objects for their sexual gratification, without any sense of wrongdoing.**
**I don’t think this is funny ha ha or funny strange, but I hear a whole lot of people do because we’re supposedly so far from the Mad Men model of gender now. If only.
It’s hard being a feminist in the current climate, where women compete in a beauty war and feel pitted against each other in some sort of imaginary femininity stakes, even when ‘beautiful’ and loved. I put beautiful in inverted commas because beauty is subjective and cannot be stated as a fact. (Naomi Wolf captures this more astutely than I ever will in the excellent book The Beauty Myth.) Women are so often comparing their outward selves to other women, but only in relation to the discourse of mainstream society. Not in relation to their own version of ‘beauty’ or success’. But that’s the problem with continually checking yourself against the male gaze.
If I go against what is now the accepted norm of femininity and go to a party with hairy pits on show à la Julia Roberts and no attempt to cover up my various human imperfections, no attempt to airbrush myself into an idealised version of a woman, then I am made to feel I am less worthy, less ‘beautiful’, less valuable. Because I’m more me and less Barbie. And that’s hard to accept and hard to go brazenly go against. Especially when the company around you largely fails to understand just what it is you’re going against and brands you as ‘ugly’ or ‘lazy’ instead. How often do we hear things like she ‘could have made more of an effort’ or she’s ‘letting herself go? Too often.
Because opting out of beauty isn’t a choice. Just ask these guys:
It’s a slippery slope, this beauty war. But I am gradually finding strength in my ‘weakness’.
- Hair! (Not the Musical) (vagendamag.blogspot.com)
- Is Not Shaving Your Armpits A Form Of Protest, Or Just Laziness? (refinery29.com)
- Woman Hasn’t Shaved Armpits in 18 Months to Challenge Social Taboos (odditycentral.com)
- Can it EVER be socially acceptable to have hairy armpits? Woman who gave up shaving debates prickly subject on This Morning (Mail Online)