SUNY Stony Brook
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” my partner asked me, after I finished my practice presentation for an academic conference. “Won’t they dismiss you as biased if they see your body hair?” I had to think about this for a moment before replying very slowly, “Overweight women who research fat stigma cannot conceal their bias so why should--and how can I ethically--conceal mine?” I was on my way to report my findings on the stigma associated with women’s body hair, along with the potentially liberatory implications of feminist “strategic outness,” and yet here I was, considering passing (Orne, 2013). By sharing my experiences with body hair, I hope to encourage scholars to expand their definition of feminism beyond the invisible realm of labels and ideology, so as to acknowledge corporeal expressions of feminism as well.
When I choose my clothing in any given day, I must consider the risks associated with my embodied deviance, which are highest when I enter a professional setting. On the days when I go to work or a conference, I must consider the reactions I will generate if I wear a pencil skirt with bare legs or a cap-sleeve dress that exposes my underarm. These are clothes that hairless women wear regularly without comment, but my exposed body hair seems to render these same garments obscene. Theoretically, eroticized gender capital should be irrelevant within a professional field, yet Title VII protects employers’ rights to hire and fire based off of employees’ conformity to the company’s desired image, including gendered grooming regulations. Even when conformity is not explicitly enforced, it is implicitly encouraged. Women’s shaving is neither a free choice nor a personal choice, given these systematic and institutionalized disincentives.
I used to shave. I began to remove my body hair at age 11 when a female bully chased me around the tennis court, threatening to beat me up for looking like a man. Santa Cruz was a relatively safe haven for adult hairy women, but within the angst-ridden peer culture that is Junior High, my body hair had compromised my safety and diminished my gender capital. By dutifully removing my masculinized and pathologized “excess,” I transformed my female body into a feminine body.
I continued to shave until I moved to Portland, Oregon to attend college. Although the political climate of Portland is similar to Santa Cruz, I discovered that the radically different weather required a new wardrobe. Concealed by clothing and rendered celibate through the 40:60 male:female ratio, most members of my peer culture transitioned towards lower-maintenance body projects, rejecting conventional grooming standards in favor of ragged beards and hairy legs. Once I discovered that I did not have to shave in order to be accepted, I realized that I actually did not enjoy shaving. I had only shaved in order to cultivate gender capital, erotic capital, and cultural capital within a peer culture that had become irrelevant (Hakim, 2010).
When I returned home for summer I became aware of the sexual fields within Santa Cruz that value women with body hair. However, it is possible that my hyperfeminine aesthetic decreased the threat that my body hair might have otherwise posed to my erotic desirability. If my appearance had deviated from the feminine beauty ideal in any way other than through body hair, my dating success might have diminished when I eschewed the hairless norm. Moreover, as a cisgender woman who is white, middle-class and heterosexual, I do not pose a stereotype threat to any marginalized group… except for feminists.
The hairy feminist icon of Women’s Liberation has rendered body hair a stigmatizing marker of “man-hating” (Herzig, 2014). This may not be the only reason why 97% of Western women regularly remove their body hair, but it is one of them (Toerien, Wilkinson, and Choi 2005; Tiggemann and Hodgson 2008; Terry and Braun 2014; Boroughs 2012). Men are also removing their body hair at increasing rates, but the social acceptability of body hair on men is significantly higher than on women (Terry and Braun, 2013).
Feminism is not over, though the stigma surrounding the label pressures its proponents to remain invisible. By retaining my body hair, my body has come to symbolize feminism, reminding those who would believe in the postfeminist myth that feminists are actually all around them. By practicing “strategic outness,” by reclaiming my body hair, I practice a form of “embodied feminism.” “Embodied feminism” must be remembered alongside “nominal feminism” in future debates about the stigma associated with feminism, in recognition of the very different stigma management strategies that we practice. Not all feminists choose to “pass” within antifeminist spheres and we pay a considerable price.
Boroughs, M. S. 2012. Body Depilation among Women and Men: The Association of Body Hair Reduction or Removal with Body Satisfaction, Appearance Comparison, Body Image Disturbance, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder Symptomatology (Doctoral dissertation, University of South Florida).
Fahs, B. (2012). Breaking body hair boundaries: Classroom exercises for challenging social constructions of the body and sexuality. Feminism & Psychology, 22(4), 482-506.
Hakim, C. (2010). Erotic capital. European sociological review, 26(5), 499-518.
Herzig, R. M. (2015). Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. NYU Press.
Orne, J. (2013). Queers in the line of fire: Goffman's stigma revisited. The Sociological Quarterly, 54(2), 229-253.
Terry, G., & Braun, V. (2013). To let hair be, or to not let hair be? Gender and body hair removal practices in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Body image, 10(4), 599-606.
Tiggemann, M., and Hodgson, S. 2008. The hairlessness norm extended: Reasons for and predictors of women’s body hair removal at different body sites. Sex Roles 59(11-12): pp. 889-897.
Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S., and Choi, P. Y. 2005. Body hair removal: The ‘mundane’ production of normative femininity. Sex Roles 52(5-6): 399-406.