5.25.2006

Hairy-legged feminist

It’s summer now, which means that it’s time for the yearly ritual of unveiling my legs. A few times lately, people have complimented me on my brand of feminism—on being passionately feminist as well as charming, engaging—and they’ve said things like, “You know, because you shave your legs and everything.”

I’ve just smiled and nodded, but in fact, I don’t shave my legs, and haven’t since the spring of my first year in college, 15 years ago. I remember the decision as a real moment of clarity; I think I’ve always been someone who questions assumptions, and I’d begun avidly questioning gender role expectations. I realized, this shaving thing doesn’t make much sense. Men don’t shave their legs. What does it mean? Is it some kind of symbol of infantilized womanhood? So I stopped. And let me just point out that me not shaving is actually quite noticeable—I’m not one of those girls with diaphanous blonde leg hair who stop shaving but no one can tell. It made an impact.

The response of some of my friends was interesting. Several of them stopped shaving, too (although I believe they all eventually returned to it). Two friends—fairly thoughtful, culturally oppositional people—felt uncomfortable about this decision. They said, “Well, you’re just doing it because you’re not so good at shaving, right? It’s not political, right?” Of course it was political. Several people also pointed out that I might limit my potential dating pool, to which I responded—and I stand by this—that hairy legs are actually a great litmus test. Any guy who wouldn’t find me appealing with hair on my legs is not the kind of guy I’d want to hook up with anyway. And about eight months after that decision Walter Biffle bounced into my life, guitar in tow, and found me incredibly appealing, hairy legs and all (and has, in fact, never seen me with shaved legs).

But that’s not the moral of this story. There is no moral to this story. To tell the truth, since coming to Charleston I’ve seriously considered starting to shave. Every woman in the lowcountry shaves her legs—I think I am the only one who doesn’t. Sometimes it seems almost embarrassingly retro not to shave. I’ve even entertained the thought that shaving would better suit me for my job, make me appear more mainstream so that I can be a successful stealth feminist. But honestly, all of that sounds to me like a rationalization to make me feel better about fitting my body to some sexist societal norms. It would be so much easier to have shaved legs; I wouldn’t have to be the recipient of the sidelong glances, the widened eyes. Hairy legs have a kind of iconic status—they represent people’s stereotypes of feminists. In many ways I am that kind of feminist—as Paul Dehart said on seeing a photo of me in a sleeveless shirt with my arms raised, “This is what a feminist looks like!” (I don’t shave my armpits, either.) But sometimes I do get tired of carrying around those expectations.

But I don’t think I can do it. I get to a point where I think, “Hmm, yeah, maybe I should just give up the fight and shave,” and then my analytical brain kicks in. Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo says, “The difficult issue, for me, is figuring out the meaning and consequences—both personal and political—of my actions. In having a face-lift or in having my ‘Jewish’ nose bobbed, what norms would I be servicing? What effect would those actions have on my sense of who I am? …On the values I am communicating to those who look up to me for guidance? On shaping, in my own small way, the culture of the future?”

And then I envision the actual process of shaving. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve done it, and the thought of buying a razor and getting in the tub with it and then scraping all my leg hair off just seems ridiculous.

33 comments:

claire said...

The only good part abut shaving....doing it before you go to bed and then letting your legs slip and slide under the sheets. So other than that and being anonymous there isn't much for it. I do shave, thoughtlessly (in all meanings of the terms) and in fact only do so in the spring and summer, so it is all about performing the unhairy girl. But if you shaved for the job what would be next??? hose? a pocketbook? lipstick? Stick to the hair and make the rest of us rethink why we keep following the man.

mary said...

I don't mind shaved legs or un-shaved legs. in the winter I never ever shave my legs, reallly just because I don't think about it. I do shave my legs when it gets warm outside (not all the time mind you...just like once a month or so) just because it feels almost cooler when the wind blows. I think it's cool to be able to pick. it makes me think of when I shaved my head and how good it felt to be (almost) hairless. I would never shave "for" something like my job or someone. that's silly.

Katie Mills said...

Too bad you don't live in Portland! It's totally hip for ladies not to shave. I've seen more female hairy armpits out here than I have in my previous entire 25 years of living in the south. And I think it's also hip to not bathe.

daniel said...

reading this post this morning I was actually struck (unbidden) by memories of two songs:

1. Almost Cut My Hair, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Deja Vu. What does hair mean?

2. The Ideal Woman, by a guy nobody remembers (Adrian Belew) off a great early 80s album everyone's forgotten (Twang Bar King). In it, Belew goes around asking people on the street to describe their ideal woman, and then lays these snippets down on a free-form music track. The star of the man-on-the-street subjects is this very streety dude with an enthusiastic, gravelly voice who replies: "PRETTY WITH HAIRY LEGS!"

Must have been Biffle.

Anonymous said...

I rarely shave my legs -- about once every 3 years I get the urge, do it once or twice, then forget it again. It's a matter of it being too much maintenance for me, not any political statement, though.

As for the pits: they're shaved 2 or 3 times a year.

I do feel awkward when another woman notices my legs -- just ask her husband or SO to feel her legs vs mine. Unless she's religious about it, she'll have icky stubble and I'll be smooth. Makes 'em shut up.

Gena

Heather said...

Honestly, I feel it's one of those things I chalk up to each their own. I shave because I don't like the feeling of MY unshaven legs. It's kind of like the reason I wear socks to bed. I don't like the feel of the sheets on my feet. Perhaps I started shaving because of societal pressure, but I continue mostly because I'm neurotic.

Charlie said...

I'm tired of shaving my face. But I don't want face hair where it isn't already. I'm not mocking you; I'm completely serious.

This post also resonates with me because you use the word "scrape" in the last sentence . . . that's really all it is, isn't it? My face hates me when I shave, because I have to go against the grain or I can feel the little nubbles. And I HATE the nubbles.

Maig said...

I've never shaved my legs very often. Simply because I didn't like doing it.
Once I saw my best girlfriends armpit and she hadn't shaved in a noticable while and at first I thought ewww. (this was 8th grade) -then I thought HUH! I've never seen that ( armpit hair on a woman) and we all have it. That's kinda weird. So I've always been curious about it. The thought of not just taking on an activity in assumtion that that's what I should do seemed right even though "weird" or scary. Later down the road a I met an older girl who I'd danced with back in the day and she didn't shave her armpits and I thought it was SO COOL. I still think she is so cool and have become friends with her. When I was growing up I totally wanted to be just like her. Armpit hair and no inhibitions. Then more and more of my role models and influential women in my life didn't shave. Then me and my friends would talk about and consider it. But I never really quit till Senior year in high school. I tried to get dared to do but no one would because thet knew I'dlet it grow out. I wanted to see if it'd gross out my boyfriend. It's didn't and I got used to it and liked spending less time in the shower. I have was hairy head to toe teaching dance my first year. I was self-conscience but determined to do it and I never got questioned. Now I shave. Just cause I like it better. At least for now. I treat it like a choice of having a beard or not. Right now I'm shaven maybe later I'll have a beard again.
I'm so glad that my life is full of supportive openminded people who question life. With that it can sometimes be easier to be me.

Anonymous said...

I'm a non-shaver too. I never really wear shorts or skirts (and definitely not above-the-ankle) to work, and I don't care what people I don't know think abouy my body, so shaving is hardly ever an issue for me.

I did shave back in Sept. for my cousin's wedding because I was wearing short, wide-legged pants and sandals. I looked at it as a trade-off: I could skip the dress if I shaved my legs. I was willing to be only partially nonconformist. My family is very ... um ... tired-making.

I also remember shaving for my interview for my current job 6 years ago. Then I showed up for work the first day with flaming red hair and an eyebrow ring. Bait-and-switch!

--Mel

Miss Meghann said...

ALMOST CUT MY HAIR IS MY FAVORITE CSNY SONG EVER!!

I am making soup with Jamie right now, but we will both comment soon :)

My parents are coming here in early June -- will you meet them?

Let's go to NY the 8th through the 14th?

A. said...

I was very happy when I finally had more leg hair than my big sister...

That's the weird feminist world that I grew up in.

Anonymous said...

Alison - I love that you don't shave. You are my hero because you don't shave and you inspire me to go against society's version of beauty and just be myself.

Bit of info - I looked up the history of shaving. Pretty interesting - apparently goes back to prehistoric times.

Check out this link . . .
http://www.quikshave.com/timeline.htm

Heather Bailey said...

i read your post and it's been on my mind since then. i don't wear make-up because i don't like the idea of loading gunk on my face (that's damaging to the skin) only to be a painted doll for men. heck, i barely brush my hair. i'm just not very high maintenance.

but i shaved my legs as a hold over from being on the swim team. i don't swim for sport anymore, so extra traction isn't a problem, but it got to the point where i could feel the water make my leg hairs wiggle and that weirded me out. so when the hair made my skin crawl in the shower, i shaved.

i also am meticulous about my toe nails as a hold over from being a ballerina for years.

but after my realization that women's business suits are designed to be functional like men's suits and that to me, the suggestion is that i'm just playing at being a professional and that my primary purpose is still to be decorative...that pissed me off. and it got me to thinking about my legs.

i know that american women were suckered into shaving their legs because of advertising campaigns. i know that ancient roman women shaved and pumiced their skin...but even they did it to seem pre-pubescent. and that wigs me out worse than feeling the hair.

i'm a woman and i'm tired of living up to the role of being a confection.

i'm also dealing with skin issues right now and i think that shaving is only exasperating some of that.

so i'm not going to shave anymore. i don't plan on being a professional swimmer, so i don't need to do it. and when i get enough money, i'm going to have a tailor make me a flashy but functional suit. :)

Duke said...

Shave them. As a guy I often think about shaving them in this heat. However, if I shaved my legs, my friends would die of laughter. I don't want to cause death to friends, ergo, I don't shave them.

Matthew said...

Don't do it! Let your freak flag fly! ... on your legs! And on your head! Also, in your pits if you like. And maybe that space between your eyebrows. Up to you. let it fly.

Alexandrialeigh said...

I completely understand your point. COMPLETELY.

However, I don't like the way my legs feel when they're unshaven (or my arpits, either), so...I shave them.

It's not political. It's just my preference.

HowEVER, I do NOT wear pantyhose. Ever. And that is political.

The Mom said...

I, on the other hand, remember being thrilled when pantyhose came out, because then I didn't have to wear a girdle! They made me feel liberated. It's all relative to your perspective. On the other hand, now that I am actually able to get a bit of a tan on my legs, in the summer I almost never wear them, which is (of course) even freer.

conseula said...

Don't doubt yourself. There's something about Charleston--the pretty people, the pretty buildings, the beach, the palmetto trees, yadda yadda yadda pretty ad nauseum--that makes you feel stupid and ugly. My first semester here I walked around constantly feeling dumpy and plain. But then you start to notice something else about Charleston--the messed racial politics, the obsession with the mythic Old South, the class warfare--and you realize, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with me. This place is messed up." Wear your shorts. Bare your hairy legs to world. How can we fight the good fight if we spend all our time shaving?

Anonymous said...

Hope you didn't shave-there's something awesome about a woman with hairy legs. 20 years ago they were common- now the're almost non-existent which is sad!

Anonymous said...

I'm just 16 years old, and i stopped shaving about 6 months ago, and within that short time peiod I have been hugely ostracized. I think that people are so caught up with making themselves look good (according to the societies standards) that they descriminate agains other people in order to draw attention away from themselves and to 'fit in'. The whole act of shaving is a ridiculous act that society has conjoured up in attempting to please an opposite sex. I refuse to conform to these stupid standards or to submit to mens expectation of what "sexy" should be.

wwjt said...

This comes a year later, but I came across your post after surfing the web about hairy-legged women. THANK YOU for your affirming words! Just the other day a young woman in my building was staring hard at my fuzzy florescent leggies as I was coming down the stairs of my apt. It sort of took me by surprise as it's been awhile since they've been stared at so intensely (!), but I had to remind myself that these were MY legs! And plus, hubby loves them (and me!) just they way they are, so there!:-b I haven't shaved since the end of high school, 20+ yrs ago...and I'm pale with dark hair! From time to time, I am tempted to shave, esp. in summertime. But I can't bring myself to do so. I accept myself--my fuzzy legs in particular; I've got better things to do with my time. And I'm sure you do, too!:-)

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's nice to know I'm not the only hairy girl. Reading a lot of these comments I felt like I was reading my own thoughts.

Don't give in to society's pressure - but I do know how you feel. I've been questioning the decision recently. Because hair shouldn't be such a big deal! But it seems that to a lot of people, it IS a big deal, which makes no sense. Why is it "ew" on a female, while perfectly natural on a male?

One thing I like to do is paint my toenails bright pink. With the thick dark leghair, people would love to dismiss me as butch, or whatever, but that makes it too easy for them, I think. So I like to mess with concepts of mutually exclusive femininity and masculinity.

Anyway, I like your thoughts.

Elise said...

I, too, just ran across your blog and appreciated the thoughts of another leg-hair-growing lady.

I stopped shaving my legs last winter. It was quite easy to do in the winter, wearing long pants all of the time. I am a feminist, but mostly I'm just about creativity and following your own path (for example, I enjoy pantyhose and wearing skirts. on the other hand, I wear sensible, comfortable shoes).

I did love the feeling of smooth legs when I used to shave, but I hated the feeling of stubble even more. When I came to question, "Why do I do this?" the answer "because I'm supposed to," mostly for the sake of appearances, just wasn't enough.

I had thought I inhabited fairly progressive circles: the women I know and love advocate tolerance, civil rights, justice and peace, and feminism (apparently only to a certain extent). Yet when it came down to the question of leg-shaving, it has become so ingrained in all of them, that they are disgusted by the thought of hairy female legs. Even though I have had rational discussions with friends and family, they're not convinced. Even if I'm right, they say, it's not that important. Why make such a big deal out of it? I ask them the same thing. But to them it somehow "just feels wrong."

Another argument: boys won't like it. Not having a boyfriend, it's difficult to refute this argument. I'm glad to hear there ARE boys out there who don't-mind/like leg hair.

And in fact, I've become rather attached to my leg hair. I like hair in general. I love the hair on my head. I've been growing it longer and longer. And I love the hair on my arms. That was another thing that always threw me: arm hair is totally normal on males and females alike. What is different about my leg hair? And lately it seems that criticism of my leg hair is resurfacing. It's hurt my feelings some, now that I'm attached to my leg hair. Since humans are social creatures, it can be hard to continue this behavior that seems to get in the way of peaceful relationships. So I went searching the web for some validation and renewed motivation. I definitely found it-- thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm a sophomore in college and I decided about 6 months ago to stop shaving my legs, I got tired of having to take extra time in the shower just to shave my legs. It's been cold out, and I never wear shorts or skirts anyway.. so why shave? My boyfriend doesn't mind one way or the other, and it doesn't bother me, so I plan on keeping the hairy legs ;) haha

Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to find out there's at least one, more than that judging by the comments, woman who doesn't shave her legs besides me out there.

I shaved my legs once or twice when I was around thirteen/fourteen and decided it was a waste of time.

As someone who wears shorts pretty much year-around, it soon became obvious to everyone in my conservative, bible-belt town. I've had people tell me that I had to/needed to shave, mock me, and try to use reserve psychology on me. Even some of my own family got in on it.

Despite all that, I've always remained firm in my decision not to shave and wear makeup.

Although, it's not really political in my case. The makeup thing is a combination of I'm a vegetarian and most makeup either comes from and/or is tested on animals, and the fact I just don't like the way it feels on my face. The not shaving is just because, like I said, I find it a waste of time.

However, I have wondered every now and then if I'm the only woman who doesn't. Television, both live-action and cartoon, women both in my town and out, even female characters in books have shaved legs.

So, not to sound strange, but thank you for posting this. It's nice and a little relieving to know I'm not a complete abnormality to the female gender.

Anonymous said...

I kind of stumbled upon this blog, and would like to share a few things about my own experiences, if I may?
In my teens, I was the type of girl who just had to be like everyone else and of course, that included shaving. All the girls shaved. So, I went along with that routine beginning when I was about 12 years old. When I got to be in my early twenties, I was getting pretty tired of shaving every day or two. I had to shave often since my hair grows back quickly and OMG, to be caught with even a slight stubble of hair on your legs or elsewhere was unthinkable especially since I was usually dating some boy or another. To let one see me with hair anywhere on me - well, it just could never happen. It was like an unwritten rule we had to follow very closely.
What changed it all for me was meeting another girl who was working at a local deli I used to go for lunch a couple times a week, She was new there, and she took an interest in me in a way that no other girl had ever done before. It wasn't long before we became friends - very good friends. We ended up sharing an apartment together within two months after we first met.
Laura was someone who had never bought into the whole girly girl routine like I had done for so many years. She was her own person. She lived her life the way she chose to live it. And that made her a free thinker, a free person who wasn't out to impress anyone. I admirsed that in her. She had a truly natural way of being beautiful both inside and out.
Anyway, being that we spent so much time together from sharing an apartment, we quickly became close friends. We would talk for hours on end, never getting bored with each other's company. Laura would tease me a lot about my girly ways, and shaving was one of those things. She would often come in and talk with me while I was taking a bath, many times offering to wash my back and my hair for me. I wasn't used to having anyone do those things for me, but it felt so right and I really enjoyed her company anyway so why not? When I would reach for the razor, she would usually chuckle and tell me I was wasting so much time shaving and that began to make sense to me after a while. And that was my inspiration to stop shaving completely. Once I stopped, I never shaved again from that day on. It took me a short while to get used to going out with my fully grown in hair like when I would wear a skirt, short, anything that showed my legs, or my underarms. I never knew just how hairy I actually was until I stopped shaving. What a surprise that was!
Well, there isn't much else to say. Oh, except that Laura and I are still together five years later - and counting. It's funny how people change, and how our lives also change as time goes by. I grew up knowing deep inside of me that, someday, I would meet Mr. Right. And we would fall in love, get engaged, have a wonderful, and romantic wedding, buy a house, have children - the whole nine yards. Well, that's what I thought anyway.
My entire life changed the day that I met Laura. She is THE love of my life and I have never been happier. I never dreamed I would fall so hard for another woman, but I'm so glad I did. Just like any other couple, we have ur good times, and bad too. But, thats all part of sharing life with that someone special. Laura gave me a diamond ring on my birthday this past June. It's a symbol of our comittment to each other. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Oops, I guess I got a little sidetracked from the topic of shaving, LOL. I apologize for that. Thanks for listening!

Maddie said...

Thank you so much. I've been thinking about stopping shaving. It's a tough decision: You want to be and feel sexy. You don't want to give people any more excuses to call you're anti-establishment antics that befitting a "femininazi." You don't want to turn people off (of you or of feminism.)
But I can no longer reconcile my desire to fight beauty standards and my shaved legs.
No more shaving.

Anonymous said...

I was in an international human rights class - note I'm 50 something and everyone is half my age - when someone passed a comment about feminist rights not having a place because of the connotations earned by the old feminists.... I piped up..."What connotations?" I was informed that the old feminists (gulp, me) had burned bras and earned disrespect by having hairy legs and armpits. Wow - I thought - 'honey what if you knew what was hiding under flower power style leggings?' Maybe the comment was directed at me as a 'stupid older woman'. lol. In any case it inspired me to google up 'hairy legged feminists' to find out if anyone else what the hell happened to the whole idea of just being who we really are. shaved legs OR not.

ashley124 said...

I just went to a rainbow gathering (welcomehome.org) and before I went I hadn't shaved for about a week... now its been over 3 weeks since I've shaved my legs... and I'm actually really enjoying it.. think I am going to stop completely. I mean who the hell decides that women are "supposed" to shave their legs anyways?

ashley124 said...

I just went to a rainbow gathering (welcomehome.org) and before I went I hadn't shaved for about a week... now its been over 3 weeks since I've shaved my legs... and I'm actually really enjoying it.. think I am going to stop completely. I mean who the hell decides that women are "supposed" to shave their legs anyways?

balamor said...

Thanks for writing this! I've dealt with the exact same thing. In fact, I found your blog via a Google search for "hairy legs job interview feminist" after an interview yesterday which felt like it went very well, except for when the interviewers stared at the hair on my legs.

I have shaved my legs maybe three times in the last nine years. Sometimes I forget what it felt like, the itchy stubble and razor burn, and feel curious. But every time, I feel a little sad, and every time I remember why.

Nearly EVERYONE has hairy legs once they hit adolescence! It's completely ridiculous that so many people modify their bodies to conform to a lie about what their bodies look like. It's so delusional and creepy that so many people are "disgusted" by hair on women's legs and arms.

I was twenty-one when I finally realized how grotesque grown women with the hairless underarms of toddlers looked. It took that long for it to sink in how utterly creepy the expectation of prepubescent hairlessness on women is.

Thankfully, I also have an amazing sweetie who respects me and my body. I finally know what it feels like to be loved by someone not for the creepy fantasy they project on me, but for who I am, regardless of what my hair looks like. I feel sad that girls are taught from such young ages to settle for so little, such disrespect.

For me, not shaving my legs is an act of self-love. It means that I love myself as I am, as I have been since I was a child, as I would look in a society where people's bodies and relationships develop naturally, without shame, insecurity or fear.

Anyway, reading these comments definitely felt like reading some of my own thoughts, which I think is a good indication that we're fighting a very real kind of indoctrination.

Anonymous said...

For me, shaving my legs is an act of self-love. It means that I love myself as I am, as I have been since I was a toddler. I was twenty-one when I finally realized how grotesque grown women with the hairy underarms of children looked.

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