This summer, I waxed my legs. I spent two weeks in Spain staring at beautiful, shining legs and I thought, “Well, it is kind of itchy.” I thought, since I hadn’t shaved or waxed in a year and felt I had overcome the stigma, it would be a fun change. It wasn’t. It grew back quickly and prickly.
Last summer, for the first time ever, I didn’t shave my legs and I tried not to care. It was painful. It caused a lot of anxiety and negative thoughts. I wrote an essay on the topic, and never published it. I’m publishing it now.
Last summer, leg hair was controversial. There were articles everywhere. This year, I haven’t read a single piece on leg hair. It’s not trending this year. Why? What do you think about leg hair on women?
Summer 2015, for the first time ever, I have kept up my winter shaving routine, aka no shaving. I have been wearing shorts and flowery dresses that fall above my knees, with a dark brown curl on my calves. I look at the other legs, the shine from the sun on their smooth, sleek legs, and have to remind myself of Emer O’Toole’s interview in the Guardian,
‘Remember that you are doing the necessary and important work of challenging stupid, arbitrary gendered bullshit. And when you get to feminist heaven, Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir will be waiting with bubbly wine, a corn-fed organic roast chicken, Bikini Kill and the entire cast of Monty Python.’
I have condensed that motivating statement into a mantra:
‘It is only ugly because of marketing. It’s all in your head. It is beautiful. Feminist heaven.’
In fact, the shaving of leg hair was a need created entirely by marketing, at least in the Western world. European women did not have a tradition of shaving or removing their body hair. Their facial hair, yes – Queen Elizabeth I made that a trend.
But body hair? In the Victorian period, the fashion, at least for upper and middle class women, was a long dress that covered your skin from wrist to ankle. If you couldn’t see it, there was no need to shave it. The focus at that time was not on external beauty, but inward beauty. The perfect woman was expected to be moral and conservative with a strong sense of character and duty. Imagine Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti shaving their legs – not likely.
Western Europeans settled most of the East Coast, and they brought with them their mentality towards hair. In 1915 in Harper’s Bazaar, a fashion magazine for the elite, the first image of a woman in a sleeveless top, her arms above her head with no underarm hair appeared. Until that moment only men shaved, a tradition since the Neanderthals.
With the invention of Gillette razors in 1880, cheap razors became available for the first time, allowing men of all classes to shave their faces daily and efficiently. As is the nature of capitalism, they wanted to make more money and they needed to find another market for their product. In tandem with the ad in Harper’s Bazaar, the first female razor was produced. It is unclear whether this was released in response to a need by women, or if it was imposed on women by men to meet the male vision of female beauty. Either way, their marketing worked.
From 1915 until around 1922, the Great Underarm Campaign was underway; Christine Hope coined it in her article “Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture”. At the beginning of the campaign, even using the word ‘underarm’ was taboo. By the end, ladies’ and fashion magazines were publishing articles that said, “The Woman of Fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.” They had been convinced; armpit hair was ugly and must be shaved.
The next way to make money off of women’s insecurities was to make leg hair unattractive. They tried all throughout the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, but women did not have the same immediate reaction to removing their leg hair. It is thought that, even though hemlines were shorter, conservative sexual beliefs were very strong, and therefore, women did not want to bring attention to that area.
Kathy Padden, in “The History of Shaving”, marks the moment leg hair became unattractive as when the iconic pin-up image of Betty Grable with smooth, shaved legs was sent to soldiers during World War II. Betty Grable, known as “The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs”, became a symbol of beauty and a representation of the perfect woman. Women sought to replicate her.
Thus, like all the women after Betty Grable and a few before, I shaved my legs, until this summer. I wore my favorite summer shorts down sidewalks, I felt the tickle as the wind blew through my leg hair, and I laughed. No man had ever told me that the wind also blows through your leg hair! Do boys talk about this? I attended Naropa University Summer Writing Program, and despite my mother’s fears, I made friends.
When I felt nervous or scared of what they would think, a gush of excuses as to why I don’t shave my legs – the best one: shrug and say, ‘I’m a hippie?’ – would scramble into my mind. I would calm myself with my mantra, ‘‘It’s only ugly because of marketing. It’s all in my head. It is beautiful. Feminist Heaven.’
This fear of mine, about revealing my leg hair is not unjustified. In April 2010, the New York Times Fashion and Style Section published “Unshaven Women: Free Spirits or Unkept” by Catherine Saint Louis. In the article, Saint Louis responds to Mo’Nique’s appearance at the Golden Globes for her role in “Precious” where she lifted her floor-length dress to show her unshaved calves. The press was disgusted. Saint Louis states that not even A-Listers in Hollywood can make leg hair ‘palatable’. While she does provide good insight as to why Mo’Nique doesn’t shave her legs, in black culture shaving one’s legs is seen as a white-people thing, she seems to be confirming that leg hair is ugly, and that only free spirits, or girls who go to Berkeley, are able to do it.
The fact that in 2010, leg hair at the Golden Globes was worthy of a New York Times Fashion and Style section article is terrible. Even more terrible is the fact that this year, in 2015, Yasmin Gasimova published an essay in the Tab Liverpool about not shaving her legs and other body hair, and it went mega-viral. It was covered by Huffington Post, the New York Post, Cosmopolitan UK, Vanity Fair in Italy, Bustle, Metro, the Telegraph, Buzzfeed, and even the ABC News. She was simply expressing her personal choice, and instead, it became an opportunity for the Patriarchal news system to reassert their marketing campaign – that women need to keep shaving! I stand with Gasimova, I too, ‘dream of the day I can walk around in the summer in shorts, without being conscious of people judging me.’
It is not simply a ‘feminist’ choice. It is because I don’t want to spend 1,728 hours shaving my body! I could be fluent in another language, read all of Shakespeare and most of the critical essays in the same amount of time. It is because I don’t want to spend $10,000 in my lifetime on shaving equipment. I’d rather backpack around Asia for three months. It is because I am tired of being manipulated to spend money on something I don’t need.
When it comes down to it, I don’t want to shave because of how I want to spend my time and money. We are manipulated by society into thinking this has anything to do with beauty. We are manipulated by society into thinking this has anything to do with feminism. Leg hair grows naturally from our bodies whether we want it to or not, and whether we want to remove it is a personal choice. In recent times, it has become a fashion choice and a political choice.
But if one day, my daughter, or any female child, won’t have to experience the horrifying moment when you realize that the hair on your legs that has been growing for years is ‘disgusting’ and you need to shave every day for the rest of your life, then I’m not going to shave my legs. And I’m going to save a whole lot of money and a whole lot of time.
And I might also get to go to feminist heaven.
Samantha Emily Evans