I used to shave my legs. Badly. I still have a scar in my knee from a particularly nasty incident. I wear glasses and I have terrible eyesight without them, so shaving in the shower was dangerous. I’d nick myself and bleed, and then shave again, and bleed, and the results were pretty unpleasant. When I’d take a longer break than usual between shavings, my leg hair made me self-conscious.
I was tired of being a mess, and of participating in the consumerism around shaving-razors, lotion, shaving gel, all of which was pink. I thought about the consequences of not shaving-people staring, people calling me a lesbian (!). I thought about the beauty standards that call for women being smooth. Body hair is messy, cluttered, wayward and masculine. Women who don’t shave their legs are subverting a norm that at its heart is about the gender binary- they’re punished not just for not conforming, but for refusing to rid themselves of a quality that’s seen as specifically masculine instead of basically human.
And who else is smooth? Babies, little girls, pre pubescent boys-those who aren’t grown, who haven’t developed the thick skin that’s necessary to survive in this tough, ugly world. Demanding that women be and maintain hairlessness keeps us vulnerable, bare, childlike. Once I had that thought, I couldn’t do it anymore.
In her April 13th piece in Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory discusses the recent debut of two hairy-legged female celebrities-Mo’Nique and Amanda Palmer, who both claim that their decisions not to shave were based on personal choices, and not because they were trying to make feminist political statements.
I have some news for everyone involved in this situation: not shaving your legs is making a political statement, and being able to go out in public—as a celebrity no less—is a direct benefit of work done by feminists. Part of feminism is about exercising choice, being able to control your own body, life, actions, etc, but another part is about having an analysis around gender and power (and race, and class, and sexuality…). To pretend that subverting any norm is not about making a political statement isn’t doing anyone any favors, even if everyone sees your hairy lady legs.
I have some privilege in my situation I’m deeply confident in my politics, but I’ve worked in very casual environments. My leg hair isn’t thick or unwieldy. I spent four years in Oberlin, a community of strident anti-shavers. Of course, it’s not just about our legs (it’s not hard to imagine what my opinions are regarding the bikini wax). I certainly behave differently towards the hair on my face-a difficult reality for a lot of women-which I feel great shame and frustration around. I won’t even go into the lengths I’ve gone in order to remove it, and I’m sure a lot of readers would recognize themselves in my confessions. There are so many levels to this madness, but the most glaring for me is how we’re made to feel shame about our bodies, how hard it is to fight our way out of that, and to give credit when credit is due-to other women and our allies.
You can check out Chanel’s other work at her blog, idiverge.