Should women shave their legs and under-arms?

Waxing, shaving, plucking and
threading – most women go through the torture. But there’s only one way to- find out whether you genuinely want to give up the razors for a week or two
Julia Roberts at the world charity premiere of
Notting Hill in 1999. Photograph: Mark Cuthbert/
UK Press via Getty Images

My sister and I are quite hairy, but this bothers her more than me. I shave my legs and wax my moustache but she’s gone for
full laser treatments. She came round to my flat the other day and was horrified to see I hadn’t shaved under my arms for a
few days. I say, if it’s good enough for Julia Roberts, it’s good enough for me! Who’s right?
Amina, London
You are, Amina, of course, but this is not to say that your sister is in the wrong. The issue of women’s body hair, and specifically the significance of divesting oneself of it or keeping it, has been in the news again of late, as it often is, sporadically. At Arizona State
University, Breanne Fahs, professor of women and gender studies, has been offering her female students extra credit
if they stop shaving under their arms for 10 weeks and write a journal about the experience. Male students, meanwhile, can earn extra credit, too, if they indulge in what magazines call “under-arm manscaping” (no explanation needed, presumably). According to Fahs, this is to help students “think critically about societal
norms and gender roles”. Meanwhile, there has been a sudden burst of coverage of the four-year-old Hairy Legs
Club on Tumblr, which is the Ronseal of Tumblrs, as it does just what it says: women post photos of their proudly unshaven legs.
Both the Hairy Legs Club and the
Arizona State professor are ultimately saying the same thing: not that women should universally stop with the depilation, but that they should question why they they think they should be
hairless. And maybe the best way to question it is to give up the razors and the wax for a while and see how it feels to be totally au naturel. There is, unquestionably, plenty of sense here. There is no reason at all, really, why women should be expected to shave their legs and under their arms and men not. Yet the link between femininity and hairlessness is so strong that even the most well-intentioned feminist can flinch a little at seeing photos of hairy gams and pits. There is a brilliant scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary (the book, not the far inferior film) in which Bridget spends an entire day “harvesting and crop-
spraying and farming” herself in
preparation for her date with Daniel Cleaver. “Sometimes I wonder what I would be like if left to revert to nature,” she writes. “With a full beard and handlebar moustache on each shin,
Denis Healey eyebrows, face a
graveyard of dead skin cells, spots
erupting, long curly nails like a
Struwwelpeter …” (This is one of the
many reasons why the book of Bridget
Jones’s Diary is so much better than the
film: the film merely reduces the story
to Bridget’s love life whereas the book
captures so perfectly the various
neuroses so many thirtysomething
women have, from body image
craziness to obsession with the tidiness
of their married friends’ homes.)
As Helen Fielding subtly – and maybe
not even all that intentionally – signals
here, it’s not that Bridget spent her day
tearing her body to shreds in
preparation for her date that’s the
problem, it’s that she feels she has to;
because she is so full of self-loathing
that she imagines that if she doesn’t
she’ll look like Chewbacca.
Like most women who have grown up in
the western world, I have spent a
significant portion of my adult life
torturing every single hair on my body,
from those on my head (blow-drying,
straightening, curling) to those
everywhere else (waxing, shaving,
plucking, threading). I could probably
have found a cure for cancer in the
amount of time I’ve devoted to all the
crop rotation I do on my body. And yes,
I know this makes me, to borrow the
title of Roxane Gay’s brilliant new book,
a Bad Feminist . “I shave my legs! Again,
this mortifies me. If I take issue with the
unrealistic standards of beauty women
are held to, I shouldn’t have a secret
fondness for fashion and smooth calves,
right?” Gay writes. But I feel that there
are more important things for women to
worry about than whether it’s right or
wrong to shave their legs, and one of
those things is for women to stop
beating themselves up so much. You
want to shave your legs and under your
arms? Great, do it. You don’t? Fantastic,
don’t. All that matters is why you’re
doing it and you’re making the choice
for you. Like Amina, you may find that
you can be bothered to shave some
things (moustache, legs) but are not
overly arsed about others (under your
arms), and that’s just fine. We’re
humans. No one can ask for consistency
Of course, the tricky part is parsing the
why. When you grow up in a society
that places such a value on female
hairlessness, it can be tricky figuring
out whether you’re shaving your legs
because you genuinely want to or
because the message is ingrained in
your brain. But the only way to figure
that out is to give up the razors and the
wax for a few weeks and see how it
genuinely feels and trust yourself to be
able to distinguish between “doing
something because you want to” and
“doing something because you’re
suffused with body disgust”. If you feel
that, actually, your hairy armpits and
legs are beautiful because humans are
meant to have hair and that’s the way it
is, then that’s just grand and, frankly,
lucky you. Think of the time and money
and pain you’ll save.
It is likely that some may question your
choice, and you may question others,
but the world would be a much better
place if we could all learn to stop being
so Judgey McJudge of one another.
Different things work for different
people: this is a universal truth, but it is
also a top secret and if it ever got out, it
would spell the end of all women’s
magazines, and we can’t possibly have
that, can we? In your particular case,
Amina, it sounds as if your sister is
taking out her anxieties about her own
body on you, because you’re her sister
and therefore she sees more of herself
in you than she does in other people.
Don’t sweat it. This is what being a
sister is all about (well, that and
complaining to one another about how
crazy your parents are). Simply smile
sweetly at her next time she does it and
tell her that you appreciate her input,
but what works for her might not work
for you and she can now shut the hell
up and make you a cup of tea. That, too,
is what being a sister is all about. And
then smile calmly at her back as she
switches on the kettle and enjoy the
gentle sensation of a breeze wafting
through your plush and generous under-
arm hair.
Post your questions to Hadley Freeman,
Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place,
90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email


Concerned about Ebola? You’re worrying about the wrong disease James Ball

Despite the terrifying headlines, almost none of us will get sick from Ebola – our fears often bear little relation to reality

    Leymah Gbowee: Ebola threatens to detail a decade of peace

Villagers in Liberia are made aware of the dos and don’ts when faced with an Ebola outbreak. Photograph: Eyepress/Sipa/Rex

A deadly disease is Despite the terrifying headlines, almost none of us will get sick from Ebola – our fears often bear little relation to reality set to hit the shores of the US, UK and much of the rest of the northern hemisphere in the coming months. It will swamp our hospitals, lay millions low and by this time next year between 250,000 and 500,000 worldwide will be dead, thousands of them in the US and Britain.

Despite the best efforts of the medical profession, there’s no reliable cure, and no available vaccine offers effective protection for longer than a few months at a time.

If you’ve been paying attention to recent, terrifying headlines, you may assume the illness is the Ebola virus. Instead, the above description refers to seasonal flu – not swine or bird flu, but regular garden variety influenza.

Our fears about illness often bear little relation to our chances of falling victim to it, a phenomenon not helped by media coverage, which tends towards the novel and lurid rather than the particularly dangerous.

Ebola has become the stuff of hypochondriacs’ nightmares across the world. In the UK, the Daily Mirror had “Ebola terror as passenger dies at Gatwick” (the patient didn’t have Ebola), while New York’s news outlets (and prominent tweeters) experienced their own Ebola scare.

Even intellectual powerhouses such as Donald Trump have fallen into panic, with the mogul calling for the US to shut off all travel to west Africa and revoke citizens’ right to return to the country – who cares about fundamental rights during an outbreak? Not to be outdone, the endlessly asinine “explanatory journalism” site Vox informed us that “If the supercontinent Pangaea spontaneously reunited, the US would border the Ebola epidemic”.

Ebola is a horrific disease that kills more than half of people infected by it, though with specialist western treatment that death rate would likely fall a little. It’s unsurprising that the prospect of catching it is a scary one. The relief is that it’s not all that infectious: direct contact with bodily fluids of a visibly infected person is required, meaning that, compared with many illnesses, it’s easily contained.

Even in the midst of the current outbreak – the worst ever – the spread of the disease has not been rapid in west Africa: around 400 new cases were reported in June, and a further 500 or so in July. This is a linear spread, meaning each person at present is infecting on average around (actually just over) one additional person.

Far more worrying are diseases that spread exponentially: if one infected person spreads the disease to two or more on average, the illness spreads far quicker and is a much more worrying prospect, even if mortality is considerably lower.

The 800-plus deaths from Ebola in Africa so far this year are indisputably tragic, but it is important to keep a sense of proportion – other infectious diseases are far, far deadlier.

Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.

The most real effect for millions of people reading about Ebola will be fear and stigma. During the Sars outbreak of 2003, Asian-Americans became the targets of just that, with public health hotlines inundated with calls from Americans worried about “buying Asian merchandise”, “living near Asians”, “going to school with Asians”, and more.

Similarly, during the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak, which had almost identical spread and mortality to seasonal flu, patients reported extreme fear, prompted largely by the hysterical coverage.

In the coming months, almost none of us will catch the Ebola virus. Many of us, though, will get fevers, headaches, shivers and more.

As planes get grounded, communities are stigmatised, and mildly sick people fear for their lives, it’s worth reflecting what the biggest threat to our collective wellbeing is: rare tropical diseases, or our terrible coverage of them.

    UK news,
    United States

Ebola outbreak: doctor who treated Nigeria’s first victim contracts virus

Doctor was part of a team that attended to Liberian-American civil servant who collapsed on arrival at Lagos airport last month


A doctor who treated Nigeria’s first Ebola victim has himself contracted the deadly virus, raising fears that the seven-month-long epidemic in three west African nations could spread in the continent’s most populous nation.

The doctor was part of a team that attended to Patrick Sawyer, a 40-year-old Liberian-American civil servant who collapsed on arrival at Lagos airport last month. Sawyer had flown from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, with flight stopovers in nearby Ghana and Togo.


“As at today, one of the doctors that treated the late Mr Sawyer has tested positive to the Ebola virus,” the health minister Onyebuchi Chukwu told reporters in the capital, Abuja. Officials said they had identified 70 people with whom Sawyer had been in contact, eight of whom had been transferred to isolation wards in Lagos.

The epidemic has killed 887 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The three country’s leaders held a regional crisis summit in Guinea’s capital, Conakry, last week.

The World Health Organisation said the outbreak was moving faster than efforts to control it, and warned that the more people were infected, the greater the risk of the virus evolving into deadlier mutations.

Authorities in Lagos have rapidly rolled out a series of preventive measures, including quarantining the hospital where Sawyer was treated, distributing protective clothing to health workers and screening airport and seaport passengers arriving from at-risk countries.

Information about the virus has been widely broadcast on radio stations, and some traders have begun cashing in with the sale of hand sanitiser branded “Ebola cleansing hand gels”. In the downtown business district where Sawyer was treated, a handful of traders could be seen wearing face masks.

On Sunday, health officials visited the church of the “super-pastor” TB Joshua, which attracts 50,000 worshippers weekly. “We asked that the church leadership be aware of the important role they have to play in preventing Ebola from spreading,” a member of the delegation told the Guardian. “Also we warned that they do not hold ‘healing sessions’ as we are concerned Ebola sufferers might travel from outside the country to the church.”

Attempts to contain the disease were hampered in Liberia and Sierra Leone as faith healers and crowded churches sheltered Ebola victims whom they claimed to be able to cure. Both countries eventually made such action a crime punishable with jail terms.

Passed on through contact with bodily fluids of infected patients, surfaces and bush meat, Ebola has no known cure, although chances of survival improve dramatically with early detection and treatment. It is contagious only once symptoms begin showing and can rapidly degenerate into external and internal bleeding.

The epidemic is already having an impact on Nigeria. A South Korean university banned three Nigerian students from attending a summit, and a Nigerian delegation attending a US-Africa summit is believed to have been screened on arrival in Washington.

Elsewhere, health workers and officials said they had been overwhelmed by the spiralling death toll amid a shortage of resources. The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontiers said there were critical gaps in tackling the epidemic.

“The current response to the Ebola outbreak is entirely insufficient compared to the needs, and there needs to be greater mobilisation on the ground. MSF does not have a clear overview of the most affected areas and it is believed that people are still dying in their villages without access to medical care,” the organisation said on Friday.

The US said it was sending a team of 50 specialists to the region this week. The British Red Cross has launched an

appeal to raise funds. The WHO has set up a $100m (£60m) fund to boost a regional emergency response.

Tags: Nigeria

,  Ebola,  Epidemics,  Liberia,  Guinea