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

static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/8/4/1407151762477/Julia-Roberts-011.jpg
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
here.
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
ask.hadley@theguardian.com

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