Cutting through the hair hysteria

WOMEN’S body hair, and what we choose to do with it, seems to provoke a lot of debate. It’s curious really, because no matter where you are from, what your skin type or hair colour, all of us have it. Yet, instead of providing common ground, our attitudes to body hair (keep it, keep it in line or be gone with it) seem to be a great divider.

The Sun knows where it stands. The paper recently ran a story about the insanely beautiful and talented Beyoncé at the premiere of her Life is but a Dream documentary with the headline: “If I were a boy — Beyoncé shuns shaving her armpits on the red carpet”. Even in a society that fawns over the famous, it seems that the world’s most famous pop star can’t get away with a “grooming gaffe”. In case you haven’t seen the picture, there was only the slightest hint of underarm stubble, helpfully zoomed in on so everyone could gasp in horror.

Beyoncé is not alone, poor Pixie Lott was taken to task by The Daily Mail for another “armpit faux pas” while attending a film premiere in London. Of course it all started with Julia Roberts’ Notting Hill premiere moment in 1999, when she lifted her arms and sparked a media frenzy. Roberts’ armpit hair was described as both “revolting” and “cringeworthy”, not the words you would associate with a beaming Oscar-winning actress, happily waving to fans. More recently Twilight actress Kristen Stewart told US Weekly she was bullied in school for not shaving her legs, and with reports that salons in America and the UK offer bikini waxes to girls as young as 11, what are we all losing our hair about?

Hair is everywhere. On our legs, underarms, private parts and anywhere else it may choose to sprout (see toes, feet, arms, upper lip, temples and chin). While some are happy to go au natural, the majority of women see unwanted hair as a curse to be waxed, plucked and shaved into submission.

One US survey carried out last year says the average women shaves 12 times a month and spends $10,000 (over €7,500) on shaving-related products in her lifetime. But by picking up the razor, or booking a wax, are we undoing years of the feminist fight, or just exercising our equality and freedom of choice?

American Sarah Murphy has lived in Dublin for nine years and is well placed to weigh in on the debate. A few years ago, she decided to stop shaving altogether, going two years without shaving or waxing any part of her body. “I had a normal dating life and eventually met a long-term boyfriend. None of them were ever grossed out. The only person I ever scared was my mother when we went to the beach. She did not appreciate my ‘experiment’,” she says.

Feminism, she says, was a factor in her decision not to depilate and while she still doesn’t stress about hair, she has since had laser hair removal on her legs. Murphy explains: “I don’t think women should be hairy if they don’t want to be, I just find it offensive that huge swathes of society assume leaving well enough alone, as the vast majority of men do with their body hair, makes us repulsive.”

For Maeve Kearney, a 31-year-old senior recruitment consultant, being feminist and pro-waxing are not mutually exclusive. “I prefer being as hair-free as possible. It’s purely a personal preference and not a result of bowing to any kind of societal expectation.” Waxing, she says, makes her “cleaner and more hygienic”.

Just as hair is nothing new, nor is trying to get rid of it. The fashion for women’s sleeveless dresses in 1915 kickstarted a new trend, aided by the introduction of female razors and hair removal products. The practice of depilating dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians, but it wasn’t until the ’70s that body hair was used to make a feminist statement. However, salons today report that more women than ever are choosing extended waxes, Brazilians and Hollywoods, and popularity of IPL hair removal treatments for lip, chin, bikini and underarms are all on the rise, so where does that leave feminism?

In The Whole Woman, Germain Greer says: “Bleaching moustaches, waxing legs and plucking eyebrows absorb hundreds of womanhours.” The US study quoted earlier shows women spend an average of 10.9 minutes each time they shave, but regardless, I don’t see that how long it takes to shave has any relevance. For example, shampooing and blowdrying our hair eats far more of our time over the years, but no one is encouraging women to stop doing that. Another point that is often overlooked — less pubic hair can increase sensitivity during sex, so can it really be such a bad thing?

I have to admit the whole debate makes me feel a bit hair brained. When it comes to my own hair maintenance I decided long ago that my eyebrows and upper lip are non-negotiable. In the past unruly facial hair made me feel self-conscious and unattractive, so now I show it who’s boss. As for armpits and legs, I am much more lenient and often happily go through winter wearing 60 denier tights and long sleeves without giving shaving a second thought.

As for my private parts — even in my impoverished student days I did what I had to (Immac at home, or volunteering to be a guinea pig for trainee waxers) to keep it in check. Nowadays, it’s a neat landing strip all year round. Even in the long months (ok, years) of singledom, I have persisted in this. It has nothing to do with men’s ideals of sexiness and everything do with what makes me feel attractive and comfortable when I look in the mirror. When I do have a boyfriend I consider taking care of business ‘down there’ as a courtesy to him, as well as to myself.

I don’t want to support any patronising view that women should be sugar and spice and all things nice; I not ashamed that I have pubic hair or that I sweat, but the same way I use deodorant to deal with the latter, I use my razor to deal with the former.

When I get confused about feminism, I revert to its basic tenant — equality. Men also have to shave and surveys by shaving brands show time and time again that the huge majority (some say 99%) of men view shaving as a chore. Still, they do it, for professional and personal reasons, or to save their partner from beard rash. Salons too are also reporting rises of up to 60% in male waxing, although Brazilians for men are still very rare.

In the end, it all comes down to making a choice. Hairy can be hot, as Patti Smith proved beyond doubt on the album cover for Easter, but if Barbie’s more your type of girl, then who is to stop you waxing away to your heart’s content — but whatever we decide, it’s time to stop splitting hairs.

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