What the conversation around gender inequality is missing

The topic of female body hair removal in today’s world has been simultaneously normalized and pushed to the margins of societal debate. It comes from a winding, gendered history. And upon close inspection of it’s propagation, disturbing parallels are drawn to issues facing gender inequality today.

A small minority of women in today’s world are reclaiming what it means to be a women, to be feminine. Some women feel comfortable in their natural selves, some feel that they are returning to and addressing the shame they felt as growing girls — and some just feel that it feels right. And while I do see some of my favorite celebrities occasionally sporting the tiniest tuft of underarm hair…it is not nearly enough representation of the true female body. Why this representation is important is a question with a multitude of answers, the most concerning being gender inequality in today’s world.

Halsey poses for the Rolling Stone with underarm hair.

 Hairlessness did not become as mandatory as it is now until the early 1900s. Before this, from as early on as the Stone Age to ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire, body hair removal via seashells, beeswax, and other methods was done because hairlessness was seen as a means of keeping the body clean and in Ancient Rome it was associated with social class. Smoother skin was equated to purity and superiority.

The face was where hair was considered unattractive for Catholic women in the Middle Ages. Elizabeth I made eyebrow removal fashionable in the mid-1500s. Scientist Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection depicted body hair as primitive, a return to “less developed” forms. Having less body hair was seen as a sign of being more evolved and sexually attractive. As Darwin’s ideas entered the mainstream, other scientists and medical professionals began relating hairiness to extremes including lunacy and criminality. These connotations were applied primarily to female body hair, one reason for this being “gendered social control” on the increasing influence and equality women were gaining at the time.

Placing hairlessness as an expectation on women made it so that their bodies were being controlled — controlled by society, and by themselves, through shame. In the first decades of the 1900s, the introduction of sleeveless dresses, shorter hemlines, and a shortage of stockings during World War II led to more women shaving — the introduction of bikinis in 1946 in the US further led women consumers to focus on the removal and shaping of pubic hair. 

It seems men were left out of this false idea that hairiness is unhygienic and unsightly — and this was intentional.

Women are left, years later, with horrific body image and an extent of self-consciousness that no man could match perfectly. Every single leg hair, underarm hair, the list goes on — these are not common issues on the male side of things.

Breanne Fahs, a professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, organized an assignment in 2008 in which she asked the females in her class to grow out their body hair and write about their experience. Fahs cited “gender roles,” the “dangers of patriarchal power,’ and “fundamental inequalities” in the introduction of her paper. Later, she connects hairiness to gender, claiming that hairlessness is associated with “manliness and virility,” while hairlessness denotes, “womanliness, youthfulness, and passivity.” Girls overwhelmingly reported feeling shameful, unconfident, and even socially ostracized.

When women talk about beauty, about all the primping, we often say “I’m doing this for myself.” There is an undeniable extent of ignorance and weight carried in that sentence. Our gender has normalized a phenomenon that has rendered us fundamentally inferior. We make ourselves fundamentally more vulnerable. Physically and emotionally. On a typical day, a woman could spend multiple hours removing their body hair, a task that men are not socially obligated to. A male student in one of Fahs classes, Sergio, corroborates: “I slowly began to realize what women go through just to fit in.”

If women are perceived as people who spend forever primping and making sure we look like the societal norm, not only are we sexualizing ourselves for the benefit of men, but we are giving unconscious permission to not be taken seriously. If body hair removal was not a gendered choice, then saying “it’s a choice I make for my body” would be feasible. But it’s not. Any women who says this is a part of the problem. We need to change the dialogue around this and be honest with ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we messed up. Men are not the only ones to blame.

And now we live in a world where men are paid more than women for the same job, men in government positions are trying to pass policies around abortion, men speak condescendingly to women in the workplace, and men feel the right to assault and rape women. Us women’s response? “Stop controlling our bodies,” “#metoo,” “my clothes don’t mean my consent,” “no means no.” We are contradicting ourselves by disregarding our history. It is time that we reclaim our bodies and accept femininity for what it truly is. If we continue to give up our womanhood willingly, rendering it’s true meaning a mystery, how can men be expected to treat us like women? We are not infantile, hairless girls. We are hairy women!

The gender pay gap in the US depicted above. Body hair removal is an ignored factor in the gender inequality surrounding this much more well-known issue.

There is still hope. Recently, the media has begun to expose us to hairy women. One just needs to know where to look. Bittersweet but fortunately, the first ever razor ad to actually feature the star of the show (body hair!) was created….in 2018. The most notable component of this ad was not the underarm hair or the unibrow, it was the dialogue. Billie, the razor company behind the ad, laid it out plain and simple: “the world pretends [female body hair] doesn’t exist…whenever, if ever, you want to shave, we’ll be here.” There is no pressure or assumption, but rather observation and acceptance.

We did not initially choose to be like this. The men that have controlled the making and telling of history have chosen this. They have chosen how we treat our bodies and have convinced us through time that this is what we want. Our bodies are sources of enjoyment and perfection, not stories of our struggle and human nature.

And we continue to respond with complacency at the expense of ourselves and our women nature.

It is a sad truth, that everytime women think that we are altering the natural state of our body for ourselves — hours of primping, shaving, waxing, plucking, and pain — mental and emotional, we are merely making an excuse at the benefit of men.

Some may argue that body hair removal should not be treated as a hot topic in gender equality — but men are not held to the same standard with their body hair. This makes the topic of body hair gendered….and anything that has been gendered that involves both sexes ought to be treated as a factor in achieving gender equality.

The famous Frida Kahlo sported a unibrow. There have been debates around the accuracy in it’s portrayal.

It saddens me how much women have allowed body hair removal to be normalized. It is to the point that even I, a person who wishes to encourage acceptance on the idea of a hairy woman, cannot manage to apply this to the few hairy women I see — not even myself! But it is not just me. We women have let ourselves and each other down. The surprised “oh, you look good”‘s are heartbreaking to hear as a sixteen year old girl. The comments from my friends in elementary school on the hairiness of my legs, the realization that my body as it is was not deemed enough for society — these moments and feelings of utter terror towards my body will stay with me. These are not moments that I can forget. I fear my inability to relate to the women and girls I am surrounded, all because no one is willing to acknowledge their — our fundamental truth: we are hairy. We are all hairy. I look forward to future days of hairy ten year-old girls playing at the park in their summer clothes, with not one care in the world. Models with bushes, underarm hair, unibrows, and millions of followers on Instagram. So that I can finally exhale and know and claim: I am hairy and I am enough.

Author: Ishnaan Kaur

Ishnaan Kaur is currently a sophomore and this is her first year working for The Eye. She has been living in Singapore for one year, and prior to that she was living in Maryland. Her interests include politics, music, reading, writing (especially essays), and socratic seminars. Ishnaan hopes to pursue a career in the communications field. She can be contacted at kaur776430@sas.edu.sg.

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