Research Blog: Reflections on body hair and Januhairy

by Laura Hooberman

January of 2019 will be immortalized in my mind for a few reasons: it was a month marked by unbearable coldness, Nancy Pelosi’s triumphant outmaneuvering of Donald Trump (sidenote: for a master negotiator, Trump sure does seem to get pretty easily flummoxed, no?) and, lastly, the advent of Januhairy, a social media campaign spearheaded by 22-year-old drama student Laura Jackson, designed to encourage women to give up shaving their body hair for an entire month.

Depending on which corners of the internet you frequent, you may have encountered laudatory or critical takes on the campaign. But regardless of any individual response to Januhairy, one thing feels abundantly clear: women’s body hair, and what we choose to do with it, remains a highly contentious topic from where we’re standing in the dawn of 2019. Like many women, both trans and cis, as well as many non-binary folk, I’ve grappled with the acceptability of my body hair stemming back to puberty, when my feminist mother (resisting the patriarchy is hard work!) first handed me a razor and shaving cream, and showed me how to shave my legs.

I still shave my legs, but about a year and a half ago I stopped shaving my armpits. One piece of my decision was the conviction that it was an ever losing battle against my own natural hairiness, but another part was that not shaving my armpits felt like one tiny way in which I could resist accommodating myself to the absurd standards which women in our society are expected to meet in order to be considered ‘acceptably’ feminine. There are, I will note, lots of ways in which I feel unable to resist these expectations. Again, I still shave my legs, and I’ve spent too many years being told by the media that I look ‘tired’ without mascara and concealer to feel comfortable showing up to a formal event without makeup. But not shaving my armpits was something I felt I could do, and I’ve stuck with it as a practice.

Well, for the most part. I’m lucky that my (male, straight) partner thinks that me not shaving my armpits is both “fine” and “probably saving me a lot of time in the shower.” Moreover, a number of my female identifying friends don’t shave their armpits either, and among those who do, they themselves have either toyed with the idea of not shaving, or at least don’t believe that shaving should exist as a social mandate for women. By and large, then, my small act of resistance hasn’t met any real resistance from others, which has made not shaving a fairly stress free practice. But I’ll admit to managing anticipated negative responses to my armpit hair by shaving in advance of occasions in which I think my armpit hair might compel negative responses from others, like my brother’s wedding or poolside events with my partner’s family.

Recently, reflecting on both my own experiences with my body hair and the phenomena of Januhairy, I began to wonder about other women’s experiences with not shaving. Did they, like me, experience it as both a personal choice and something that inevitably involves navigating the opinions of others?

Research provides some answers to this. In 2011, Breanne Fahs published the results of a study in which she asked a group of 34 undergraduate cis women to stop shaving for ten weeks as an extra credit assignment in a women’s studies course, and to write about their experiences[1]. The focus of Fahs’ analysis was on how participants’ experiences in growing out their body hair reflect sexist and heterosexist norms – in other words, ideas about who does or should have body hair in the context of contemporary western culture (spoiler alert: it isn’t straight cis women).

Nearly half (41%) of those who participated in the study identified as women of color, and the remaining participants (59%) identified as white. Most (70%) of the women described having exclusively male partners, while 18% reported having both male and female partners, and 12% reported having exclusively female partners. Fahs instructed all the participants to write openly about their experiences as they grew out their body hair, and upon conclusion of the ten weeks, analyzed patterns across participants’ responses.

The results? First and foremost, the opinions of others played a big role in how these women experienced growing out their body hair. Nearly a third of the women either experienced homophobia or transphobia throughout the course of the study, or reported anticipating homophobia from others as a prominent aspect of their experiences. Participants also commonly reported that those around them expressed concern about their body hair, worrying that participants would be unattractive to men, or experienced concern themselves, wondering if their hair made them look like “circus freaks” to others. Lastly, nearly all partnered straight identifying participants reported that the first (!) question others posed to them by others, upon learning of the study, was whether their boyfriends or husbands approved of their body hair.

That women’s bodies are policed by both dominant social discourses and the male gaze (and what’s the difference between the two, again?) unfortunately comes as no surprise. For this reason, I’m grateful for Januhairy, and its commitment to normalizing women’s body hair. That hair grows on skin, after all, is a fairly normal event across the animal world. Not shaving my armpits hasn’t drastically upended my sense of self or my relationship to my own femininity (to be honest, that’s always been a bit fraught), but it has been a tiny bit liberating. And it does save me time in the shower.

 

[1] Fahs, B. (2011). Dreaded “Otherness”: Heteronormative Patrolling in Women’s Body Hair Rebellions. Gender & Society, 25(2), 451-472. DOI: 10/1177/0891243211414877

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