Earlier this month, while perusing the Guardian website I was startled to see an headline featured prominently at the top of their homepage: “Swedish model gets rape threats after ad shows her unshaved legs.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I never thought that societal pressures for women to look a certain way could lead to such violent threats. Rape threats over body hair. I reached out to a dear friend who, months ago, had shared with me a piece she’d written about her own experiment with keeping body hair. It could not be more timely, so I asked her if she’d like to publish it here and she agreed.
Due to our society’s intense judgement of women’s choices, my friend has asked me to publish her piece anonymously. I hope you’ll enjoy it – and share it widely. It’s a must read for all women and men, girls and boys.
“I haven’t shaved my legs for 10 months”
I have a confession to make.
I once didn’t shave my legs for 10 months.
I should point out that this wasn’t out of laziness, or because I wanted to ‘save time’. (I use my leg-shaving time in the shower to let my hair conditioner work its magic.) Nor was I trying to shun the beauty industry, or anything. I love expensive cosmetics; I grew up reading (and loving) Cosmo and Marie Claire; and as a teen I shrieked in horror over those photos of Julia Roberts.
I’m someone who typically buys into whatever the beauty industry suggests I should do (often despite my claims to self-awareness, and despite my protests of ‘But I genuinely needed those’). Often without even knowing it, I try to look conventionally ‘nice’. Hairy legs having never been promoted to me as ‘sexy’, I never ever considered them a lifestyle choice; I just thought that hairy legs was something you got when you hadn’t made an effort.
It all started with a last-minute ticket to a Caitlin Moran comedy gig with some friends and some beers (as indeed lots of good things in life do!). I had never read Caitlin Moran’s books, and I had never seen her speak before; but I love comedy, and I love girls, and I found myself really enjoying it. And when, in the interval, the (predominantly female, cool, nicely-dressed) audience spilled out into the outdoor bar area, I was keen to find out more about her from my friends.
Apparently, Caitlin Moran has this thing where she likes to say that if men don’t have to do a particular thing, then we women shouldn’t either. Journalists, my friends told me, have been quick to pounce on this and ask her how this applies to leg-shaving: ‘Men don’t have to do it – and yet YOU shave your legs?’ And apparently Caitlin Moran just sort of laughs it off and doesn’t really have an answer.
(Poor Caitlin, I thought, what a silly thing to ask. Much as we’d all surely like to live in a world where no-one gets judged anymore for their hairy legs, of course no-one would really want to be the first high-profile woman in their own circle to pioneer that look. That’s obvious.)
Naturally, our talk turned to shaving – and then to laser hair removal. ‘Oh God, since I started having laser, it’s just changed my life’, one friend sighed. ‘I can now do things I literally couldn’t do before.’
‘Like what sorts of things?’ I asked.
‘You know, like go swimming, without planning in advance.’
I was very struck by her choice of words: I can, I couldn’t before. Maybe I was reading too much into this, but I have a friend on Facebook whose partner has Lyme disease. I had been seeing a lot of her posts recently, and perhaps it was this which had affected the way I heard my friend’s words now. This Facebook contact is bedridden, seriously ill, asleep for most of the day, severely allergic to the slightest whiff of cleaning chemicals or fragrance, and in frequent pain. Now THAT’s a legitimate ’I can’t go swimming’. Compare that to ‘My legs are a bit hairy’. Really? Is that really the same ’I can’t’?
Emboldened by the gig and the girl-friendly ambiance, I decided that this would be a good place to air my views. I told my friends that I thought it was a shame that the whole laser industry encourages young women to spend their hard-earned cash on having hair stripped from their legs, when they could use that money for education, or holidays, or just for anything else they find enjoyable and lovely. I said all this, feeling pleased with myself, feeling pretty sure that here, at a comedy feminist gig of all places, my words would be met with a chorus of understanding.
It didn’t quite go like that. I was met with blank faces.
‘You say you’re against the idea of women shaving their legs – but YOU shave your legs’, pointed out one friend.
‘You know, I was raised in a Muslim family, and I already have enough hang-ups around the idea of covering up. The thought of having to cover up my legs all the time because they’re hairy is… not something I want to deal with’, said the other.
‘Anyway, you can’t really understand, because you’re blonde’.
In short, they didn’t exactly get the pitchforks out and chase me like I was Frankenstein, but our conversation ended on a discordant note. And I then had to go back into the comedy gig and sit through the second half and endure listening to Caitlin Moran make jokes for an hour about… yes, you’ve guessed it. Hairy legs.
But my friends’ comments gave me something to think about. I like to think of myself as someone who has relatively few hang-ups about her body; I like to think that I’ve got to the stage in my relationship with my body where I look how I want, and I don’t care what people think. And yet, that day at the Caitlin Moran gig, I wasn’t exactly flouting my two-week leg stubble like I didn’t give a damn; it was carefully hidden under a pair of long trousers.
Trouble is, we really could do with a role model here, I thought; what we need is a smart young woman to come out and publicly say ‘Look here! I haven’t shaved my legs! And I’m out and about with my bare legs and I don’t care!’ That’s maybe what needs to happen if we are all ever to relax and stop hiding our little bit of leg stubble. For obvious reasons – because women do get judged, and we judge each other, and ourselves – nobody wants to be that woman.
Well, sod this, I thought. I’ll be her. I’ll be that woman.
That was the day I decided on an experiment: could I cope with not shaving my legs all through the summer?
My hairy legs diary
Right; no more shaving until further notice. The dark two-week stubble which was already on my lower legs the day of the gig is having a ball. Outside it is lovely and sunny; tis the season when a young woman’s fancy turns to tiny shorts and nice skirts. I decide there is no point to this experiment at all unless I actually brave it out and wear the shorts. I go out for a long bike ride in my tiny shorts. Sitting down on a bench for a rest, I take photos of my legs, and their now four-millimetre darkish stubble, out of sheer fascination. I notice that the stubble doesn’t show up in photographs.
I go on holiday with a group of friends. I wear the tiny shorts. One day, as we sit down to have a picnic, my friend says ‘Guys, just so you know: I haven’t shaved my legs today, but that’s cos I forgot my razor at home. Okay? I just wanted to say, it’s not like I normally have hairy legs.’ I look at her legs, which have the teeniest bit of pale stubble on them, barely visible to the naked eye. For a moment, I am paranoid that she is making some kind of veiled comment about my own hairy legs. I consider pointing out to everyone that I haven’t shaved my legs for, oh, about five weeks now. I decide to keep quiet.
I attend my own graduation, where I get to pose for many photos in an amazing, bright, medievalesque gown, and I get lots of attention all day. I opt for a maxi dress to go with the gown.
Later in July
It’s the ultimate test: a wedding. I decide to wear a knee-length red dress. As I approach the venue, smiling, the sight of all the lovely girls I met previously at the hen party – who all now look impeccably groomed, waxed and plucked from their eyebrows downwards – makes me want to turn and run for the nearest razor. I decide to style it out. I come and stand dangerously close to them (they are sitting down on a bench and I am standing; their eye-level is not too far from my stubble-level) and say hello. Somehow, either no-one notices, or no-one comments on, my hairy legs. I end up having an amazing time.
This is not so bad. The stubble hasn’t actually advanced that much. The hairs are maybe 6mm long, darker around the ankle. (To my friends who accused me of ‘being blonde’: leg hair, and pubic hair, is actually very different to the shiny stuff on your head.) I’m surprised how quickly you get past the initial uneasiness around exposing your legs. I wander around in a floaty white dress, surprised at my own daring. I tell a close friend about the hairy legs experiment, and for some reason I feel compelled to ask a joking question: ‘Are you ashamed of me now?’ She says ‘Oh no, it’s OK. You can be my eccentric friend.’
I’ve been swimming a fair few times this summer. Note to self: you can have hairy legs when you go swimming and no-one notices what your legs look like. (And also, they are underwater for most of it.)
I meet up for coffee and a walk with a friend I haven’t seen for a long time. Over coffee, for some reason, I mention the hairy legs experiment. She says, gently, ‘Yes, I noticed that! But I don’t think anyone but a friend would notice, because no-one would have noticed unless they were sitting as close to you as I am right now!’ I explain to her about the ‘I can’t’ and about the reasons why I wanted to have a go at walking around with bare unshaven legs, just to see if I can do it. She listens to me intently. She says ‘I wish I could record what you are saying right now. There’s a feminist blog that one of my friends is running, I feel like what you just said should be on there’. As we sit in a park later, she tentatively rolls up her trouser legs (she hasn’t shaved either) and as we walk around the streets, she suddenly laughs: ‘This is wonderful!!’ I had gotten so used to wandering around with bare legs that I didn’t realise it could have such an impact on someone: yes you can do this, and no-one even cares.
Stubble is still prickly and growing (aargh!). I go to a Funny Women workshop in London, run by the legendary Lynne Parker, where I am going to be learning how to do stand-up comedy. As we sit together in a circle, she asks us to each tell a story which starts with the words ‘Something you don’t know about me is…’ Emboldened by the other women’s confessions, I suddenly find myself telling a room full of unknown women about my continuing hairy legs adventure. Afterwards, at the end of the workshop, several women come up to me. “When you were talking about the ‘I can’t’ – the “hairy legs versus Lyme disease” – I thought, yes! You may be onto something! You really made me think!” – one person tells me.
Later in September
Family weekend away, by the end of which, I am sure, my nearest and dearest have all glimpsed the now unkempt locks of armpit hair, and the thicket of hair on my legs. They are (diplomatically?) saying nothing. Only one family member eventually comes out with ‘You know, I have some nice creams in my bathroom that I’ve brought with me. Really nice beauty products, you know? You should come by and borrow them. And I have shaving creams. You make yourself beautiful for [your partner].’ I’m not sure what to say to that – it’s not like I don’t know what she wants to tell me – but I tell her thank you, I’ll have a look, and I have some nice creams she can borrow as well.
To be fair, at this point I meant to stop. I had done what I had set out to do. I had proved to myself that you can have hair on your legs and still wear shorts; wear tiny skirts; go swimming; attend a WEDDING; and not scare away your partner. I am jubilant at what I have done. I have broken through the embarrassment barrier of going out with really obvious leg hair. I have proved to myself that I am not shaving for anyone else. (And, similarly, I could just stop writing this article here. No one would ever know.)
So, October: For some reason (possibly just laziness; I mean, that hair is pretty long by now) I hold off shaving them.
It’s not just the legs, but the armpits, too. While the leg stubble is only slowly but surely getting longer, the armpit hair has taken on a life of its own. At first, it was little cute short wisps, sticking out in all directions whenever I lifted up my arm. Now the hair under each armpit seems to have morphed into a shape, twirled itself into a lengthy curl, like one half of a Dali-esque moustache. When I extend my arm to the side, ballerina-style, I notice that the curl points elegantly in the direction of the arm. There is a strange beauty to this mysterious lock of hair, and I am kind of secretly loving it.
Boyfriend’s office Christmas party, to which I am invited. I have a mini-meltdown as I contemplate what to wear. I WANT to wear the off-the-shoulder black number, which makes me feel hugely sexy but which risks exposing strangers (his co-workers) to a glimpse of my armpit; or I COULD wear something boring with sleeves. My feminist side is crying out: wear what you want!! I cannot compromise my integrity. I go to the dinner in the sexy off-the-shoulder number. I spend a large part of the evening with my arms and elbows plastered firmly to my sides, smiling at people, dispensing stiff handshakes like a foreign dignitary (no hugs for anyone).
The leg hairs have now lost their stubbly bluntness. They no longer feel bristly to the touch. They are soft, long, and wispy at the ends. Hair length: just about a centimetre (not that I’m measuring). I compare my legs with my boyfriend’s, and am surprised to find them beginning to look very similar. I tell him, proudly: See? This is what a woman looks like. He gets it, he understands why I am doing this crazy thing. He says, You should write about this. I feel like this should be published in a women’s magazine somewhere.
Hair ridiculously long now. Realise I haven’t worn a slinky dress without tights for ages (although this may just be because of winter). As I sit morosely stroking the hairs on my legs, I find myself occasionally missing the baby-smooth skin of bygone days. Not because of how they looked, but because of how they feel to the touch, under your hand, as you slather on body lotion. (I used to wonder, how do blokes manage to put sun cream on their hairy legs? Now I know. It’s really no picnic, ladies.)
On an unseasonably warm afternoon, I decide to leave the house in a skirt and no tights (because, you know: vitamin D). I’m walking past a building site – most of the path has been closed off and there is only a very narrow bit of pavement for everyone to walk through, with barriers on both sides. A gaggle of teenagers walking home from school appears out of nowhere, surrounds me, taking noisily. I have a moment’s absolute panic that they will spot my legs and start laughing at me. There is nowhere to run; the slow-walking teenagers impede fast progress. I keep walking; stay calm, I tell myself; I breathe. Seriously, that five-minute bit of building site is the longest walk of my life.
On a mini-break in a warm city, I have a sudden desire to bare my legs to the sun. I nip into a clothes shop and use their changing rooms to take off my leggings, emerging in just my dress. (Hair length: one centimetre and a bit.)
Amazing discovery: when you walk around with your legs bare and hairy, as they swish past one another you can feel the air gently ruffling your hair – down there. A lovely tickling sensation – my own hair caressing my legs – which I had never ever experienced before. It occurs to me that this is something men get to enjoy, and women don’t. We didn’t even know about it. There, in the European capital of fashion, I am at one with nature.
The sun is shining. As I contemplate another summer with The Hair, I realise the prospect is a bit depressing. There is a bit of a difference, it turns out, between three-month stubble and its ten-month equivalent. Three-month stubble is a joke – but leave it to grow some more and suddenly you find yourself wondering if you’ve become the Faun in Narnia.
And I realise that I’ve started to get a bit obsessed with it, and not in a good way. Out and about, in cafes and on the underground, I feel a bit grumpy any time I glimpse a nicely-shaved ankle (it’s cheating! it doesn’t really look like that!). The sight of an elderly gent, sitting across from me on a train, with a bald head and hair-free legs, fills me with jealousy. At night I start having dreams in which I suddenly find that everyone else has stopped shaving their legs, too, and I can heave a sigh of relief that I am no longer the ONLY one.
And my boyfriend, enlightened feminist and my all-time biggest fan, now occasionally looks a bit gloomy as he contemplates the tangle of our hairy limbs spread out on the bed.
I shave it all off. It takes a good ten minutes of gently hacking away at the leg hair before it’s all gone (I have to keep stopping to unclog the razor). Afterwards, my legs look naked and sad. I slather them in posh body oil, enjoying the baby-smooth skin. I actually feel a bit sad. Had I stopped my experiment back in the autumn, I would have had the illusion of some kind of triumph. Now I feel like I’ve let the side down: I shaved my legs because they weren’t sexy anymore.
So am I glad I did it? Yes, I am. Choosing to have hair on my legs has made pay attention to quite a few things. I realised to what extent how we feel about this part of our appearance is dictated by social pressures – and not necessarily by how we ourselves think we look. I actually found myself quite enjoying the hair. I found myself thinking, This is what I look like. This is what a woman is. I liked the physical sensation of walking around outside with hair on my legs. Yet the fact that I felt awkward at the idea of letting it be seen in certain social situations – that office party, for example, or a salsa-dancing class (where your armpit is only ever inches from a stranger’s face) – speaks volumes about the social pressures we put on ourselves as women. It also occurs to me that, as a writer and general arty freelancer, I do in fact move in circles where people are very open-minded, and where I am perfectly placed to wear more or less what I want. Would I have dared to bare my legs in a job interview, or in the first few weeks of a new job, say, or in a profession where people do scrutinise and judge you on your appearance? Would I have stood in front of all those giggly teenagers on a platform and dared to speak to them, in assembly, in a school, with the hairy legs in full view? No way. And maybe that would be the next step.
I realised, too, what irony there is in some of the double-standards we have here in our Western world. When I think of my friend’s words about covering up as a Muslim woman, it occurs to me that while in the West we are encouraged, even expected, to freely bare our bodies, this comes at a cost; the taciturn understanding is that female bodies are only acceptable ‘bare’ if they also conform to certain norms. We are free and yet we are not; we bare all, and yet we simultaneously shroud our real bodies in external ideals of beauty.
And yet I am really happy. For one thing: I’ll never forget that incredible sensation of the wind tickling my legs.
And another thing which is for sure – I’ll never worry about a three-week-old bit of stubble again.
Image Credit: www.ewaszypula.com