I remember the first time I ever shaved. It was my ninth or tenth Easter. The day before, my stepdad had given me a piggyback ride while I was wearing shorts, and I guess he told my mom that I had too much hair on my legs. On Easter morning, she approached me with a razor and made me shave my legs.
Well, maybe made me wasn’t the right choice of words. I’m sure that if I resisted she (maybe) wouldn’t have insisted. But at that point I had no concept of shaving—until I was told about my apparently unsightly leg hair, I wasn’t even conscious of the fact that I had it. Up until I was told to shave my body hair, I wasn’t even really conscious of other people’s, either. It just wasn’t something I thought about.
The way my mom explained it to me, I was under the impression that it was “just what women do.” I didn’t even realize it was an option not to. I thought that it was women do in the same way that wearing bras or having babies was “what women do.” As you can tell, I’ve been enlightened to more than a few things about womanhood in the years since.
Anyways, so I shaved. When the razor first touched my skin, I almost started crying. I had been told not to touch them my whole life, so I thought they must have been dangerous unless handled by a grownup. I was so shocked when it didn’t hurt me at all. I shaved my legs and under my arms and called it good, amazed at the amount of hair on the blade. I didn’t even know I had that much.
So, I went to Easter at my Aunt Candy’s house and all my female relatives “ooh”-ed and “ahh”-ed at my newly shaved legs. I personally didn’t notice much of a difference—my genes are made up of every kind of European imaginable* so my body hair is thin enough that it’s only sort of visible in the first place. But the grownups liked it and told me I looked very pretty with my clean legs and my black skirt. So for a long time, I associated a lack of body hair with femininity.
Over the course of the next few months, I accidentally nicked myself with the razor—a lot. I thought it was annoying and inconvenient, but I saw it as an unnecessary part of a necessary process. I didn’t really get the connection that if I stopped shaving, I would stop being nicked with the razors, because I didn’t think stopping was an option.
Fast forward a few years when I got into social justice and feminism. I didn’t just associate shaving with feminitity—now, I associated it with (what I thought was) the right kind of femininity. I thought I only crazy radical feminists shaved their legs. And oh, how I hate the radical feminists. I learned a lot of what I know from the fabulous website Womanist Musings, and one of the most popular posts over there is all about how radfems hate all men and the women who have sex with them. I had read somewhere else that radfems don’t shave, and just like that I associated female body hair with hatred and stupidity. I made sure to keep shaving. Not everyone needed to know that I was a feminist, but everyone needed to know that I was not a radfem.
I’m not sure when exactly I started to not shave, although I know it was in the past year. I’d forget here or there. In the winter it was especially easy, since I was almost always wearing jeans and sweaters. If I had forgotten to shave the night before a gym class, I would just wear sweatpants instead of shorts—it was hot and uncomfortable, but hey. At least they couldn’t see my leg hair.
Then, this year, I had swim class instead of gym. I couldn’t wear sweatpants in the water if I’d forgotten to shave, and whether or not it was winter didn’t matter anymore. I was also going to dance class and wearing shorts almost every time. Shaving my underarms is easy, but shaving my legs is time-consuming and I forget to do it a lot. I was worried other people (more specifically, other girls) would judge me and my body hair and think I was gross. Or, worse, think I’m some sort of radfem freak. But then something kind of amazing happened.
Other girls stopped shaving their legs too. They were vaguely apologetic about it (“Oh, I know it’s gross, I just didn’t feel like it last night”) or making excuses (“I just didn’t have time with all the homework that we had for geometry”). But apologies or no, girls still just simply weren’t shaving. It became kind of a solidarity thing: We were, in a sense, among our own; we all knew body hair existed; and every person in the class knew that every other person had it to at least some extent. At some point, most of us just sort of stopped caring about it.
I started shaving again this year once it came time to wear shorts. But I get lazy in summer—I kept forgetting to shave my legs until I eventually just stopped. My leg hair is soft like a bunny, or maybe like a baby hedgehog. I’m not sitting here stroking my leg hair or something like that, because that would definitely be a little weird on my part. But ever since that Easter, I can’t not be conscious of the hair on my body or lack thereof. It just isn’t an option for me anymore. Some girls shave their leg hair specifically because it’s not soft and therefore uncomfortable to the touch. I just happen to be the opposite, and I’m aware of my body hair whether I want to be or not.
I do, however, continue to shave my underarms. I think underarm hair is kind of gross, no matter what the sex or gender of the person posessing it. To be clear, I also think that babies are gross but that doesn’t mean I think other people shouldn’t have them if they want them. My disgust for armpit hair has got less to do with feminism (who knows, maybe less than it should) and more to do with personal preference.
Because of this year’s swim class (and a healthy dose of internet social justice, of course) I learned something very important. As with many things in feminism—at least, the kind of feminism I want to be a part of—it’s not a case of “women must do” or “women must not do.” Instead, it’s “women must have the choice to do” and “women must have the choice not to do. Some of those girls still shaved their legs and arms every day. I’m sure more, probably including me, will start again once we return to co-ed gym class in the Fall. But they have the option not to, and that’s what matters.
*The Italian in me, for anyone who’s wondering or cares, is so small as to be negligible, which is why my hair is able to be so thin regardless.
Also, fun fact, the idea that women have to shave (among other things) is actually a really recent concept which was invented by the advertising industry. Click the link, it’s worth a read.