December 12, 2014
This column covers both silly and serious topics about sex and dating from the perspective of a poetry-loving, feminist psychology major. For topic suggestions, questions or other perspectives on sex in college, please email email@example.com.
It’s that time of winter when a fuzzy layer of leg hair starts to seem extremely appealing. Add the bitter cold to the fact that no one sees my bare legs besides a chosen few (and the people at the gym, but hopefully my legs are moving too fast for them to notice, right?), and you get a girl who is not motivated to shave. My aversion to shaving was further supported by a traumatizing episode in a Dunham shower last week in which, leg propped into a plastic shower crevice, I attempted to shave behind my knee and accidentally gashed not one but two deep cuts into my skin. In pain, I asked a question (post-shower) that I had never really asked myself before: Why do I feel required to shave every couple of days while most men let body hair grow for their entire life?
My initial explanation was social. Every other woman I’ve ever known shaves her legs. Buying my first razor in middle school was a bonding experience with my mom and a sign that I was growing up. The same went for my first eyebrow wax. Perhaps even more convincing than close others’ influence is that fact that the images that I see of “sexy” woman are all hairless: perfectly plucked eyebrows, shaved legs, bare arms and never even a light shadow above the upper lip. Hairless=sexy. But how did the idea of a hairless woman become sexy? After all, hair communicates maturity and, evolutionarily speaking, a readiness to mate. Why does a sexy female body have the same amount of hair as a small child? With these questions in mind, I turned to the internet. Interestingly, my perusing brought to light a fact that I had not considered: the need for women to shave for the general public’s satisfaction came about fairly recently since women’s clothing throughout much of history has been extremely conservative.
With the emergence of the sleeveless dress in 1915 or so came underarm shaving. By the early 1920s, this trend of removing hair was stuck and has persisted ever since. Similarly, as hem lines rose, so did the amount of leg hair women needed to shave. By the 1940s, hair removal applied to pretty much the entire leg. In Islam, the removal of all body hair including pubic hair is religiously endorsed as clean and preferable. The roots of the bikini wax are likely here but have grown popular fairly recently in America. The attraction to removing pubic hair seems to me to arise from a desire for cleanliness and of course sexiness. Separately, having “down there” clean can also increase sensitivity during sexual activities.
But my brief (and I’m sure incomplete) history lesson did not answer my question of why most American women shave everything. Why is it that when I shave I feel more attractive and put together? Who decided that body hair is not attractive? Why don’t we braid our armpit hair and put little beads in it?
Apparently, social scientists have been asking these questions much longer than I have. A few years ago one scholar at Arizona State, Breanne Fahs, gave her female students extra credit if they didn’t shave anything for ten weeks and the male students extra credit if they shaved. The purpose of the assignment was to encourage students to question why they adhere to normative gender behaviors (i.e., shaving). Participating female students reported feeling “disgusting and unclean” which Fahs thought was due to internalized sexism.
Though the experience of the students was largely unpleasant, Fahs stands by her perspective that female students should try letting their hair grow, just in case it works for them. She seems to be operating under an assumption I agree with: There is no problem with adhering to gender norms if they work for an individual but there is a problem with adhering to gender norms without asking why you are adhering and if adhering is really what you want to do. Body hair does have some benefits in that it prevents chaffing and (in the case of pubic hair) protects important goods, something that non-shaving women can benefit from.
Curiously, body hair can also make someone more sexually appealing in that it more easily carries pheromones, which produce a person’s unique and sexually attracting bodily scent. One social psychological study found that we are attracted to specific pheromones because we are more genetically complimentary to the person producing the pheromones. In the study, girls people rated which sweaty t-shirt smelled the best to them. The men with the “best smelling t-shirt” to any given participant also best matched the girls genetically... weird!
As is often the case with feminist perspectives, I find myself adopting a live and let live mentality. If women shave because it makes them feel sexy and empowered... cool! If, however, they shave to be like a Victoria’s Secret model or please a partner, our hair-phobic culture becomes a bit more problematic. On the flip side, if women don’t want to shave something or everything, that’s totally cool too (maybe we can all start a club...?).
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