Leg Work: Body Hair Is Not Always A Statement

Illustration for article titled Leg Work: Body Hair Is Not Always A Statement

Apropos of Mo'Nique's legs and Amanda Palmer's pits, the Times has written a piece on what it means for women to be hairy. But does it mean anything at all?

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Catherine Saint Louis writes:

On the red carpet, if a woman has hairy legs or armpits, it is assumed to be an accidental misstep — a failure of time management, if you will. But that hasn't been true lately.

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Stop the presses! Women are actually choosing not to shave their bodies! Of course, women about to be photographed on the red carpet have probably already been subjected to enough appearance analysis that they wouldn't simply forget to shave (although it would be nice if we lived in a world where they could). But a choice isn't the same thing as a political stance, as both Mo'Nique and Palmer make clear. Mo'Nique quit shaving because she cut herself (a totally reasonable response), and Palmer says, "People assume you're making a statement, but I'm not." To explain:

For Ms. Palmer, the singer, the point is to free yourself from caring what others think. (Easier said than done, of course.) Still, she tells young fans who mistake not shaving for authenticity: "You know what's really cool? Wake up every morning, decide what you feel like doing, and do it."

But Palmer's Twitter tells a slightly fuller story. In response to our recent post on her, she wrote, "this jezebel-is-"over"-me blog just landed me an interview about feminism w the new york times tomorrow. life/lemonade!" And later: "just finished ny times interview re: feminism, choice,hair, the fuckin' paradigm. killed it. should apearr later this month in style section." Personally, I would have been interested to hear Palmer's thoughts on feminism, choice, and the fuckin' paradigm (especially since my criticism of her attracted plenty of criticism of its own). It's a shame that the Times chose focus on perhaps the least consequential part of the interview: hair.

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Not that this is surprising. Hairy legs, like bra-burning, have long been used as a metonymy for feminism by lazy social observers, and the mainstream media often seems more concerned with how women adorn — or don't adorn — their bodies than with what goes on in their heads. This isn't to say that not shaving can't be a political choice, it's just to say that there's a lot more to feminist politics than leg hair, or than appearance in general. Here's Palmer's final tweet about the Times interview, which is perhaps more apt than anything that actually made it into the paper:

my favorite quote from the interview, and i hope they use it: "i don't abhor shaving, I abhor rules."

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Unshaven Women: Free Spirits Or Unkempt? [NYT]
Amandapalmer [Twitter]

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DISCUSSION

Yeah I wish I lived in a world in which shaving or not shaving wasn't political. But it is.

Not shaving my legs is a political act because when people see my long-ass leg and armpit hair, their assumptions about women, beauty, norms, bodies, etc are challenged. I wish this was not the case. But it is. I know this because of the shit I do get when someone notices, or the approval I get from others. People are offended by my armpit hair—when someone gets offended by a person's choice to simply exist as herself without adjusting herself to adhere to standards (of anything), that choice becomes political. Not shaving isn't political in certain circles (like your average seven sisters college), but in mainstream society, it is.

Choosing to shave your legs is a political statement. It's just so normalized and naturalized that people forget that it's a political statement. Wearing a white dress at a wedding is political, getting married to a man is political, driving a car is political, getting a job at wal-mart is political. We live in a world in which women's bodies are fodder for politics, for power, for the enforcement of social hierarchies and privileges. Pretty much everything we do that has any impact on the world—passive or active—is political. That's what happens when you're an oppressed class.

The gay teenager on Glee? A political choice, to put a gay kid on tv. His friendship with an upper-middle class black girl? Political. The abstinence club leader getting pregnant? Political.

Just because we want to think that these choices are "personal" or whatever doesn't mean that they actually are. Whenever I leave my house, I'm a mashup of perpetuations and subversions of the normative paradigms of femininity, capitalism, race, whatever. Each choice I make, or don't make, or forget to make, has an impact on my world. Even my choice to stay inside and not interact with the world is political. Maybe it's not motivated by political goals, but it's effect is still political. When women say that they shave their legs because they're making a personal decision about their body, and it has nothing to do with politics, they're lying, naive, or willfully ignorant. Maybe they are doing it because it feels nice, or because they're Olympic swimmers, or because they have a weird disease in which they grow purple warts all over their knees if they don't shave. That doesn't make it any less political. When you adhere to the beauty standard, you are creating/perpetuating/complicit in the beauty standard. It sucks. I wish it wasn't true. But it is! And you can say that you don't care if other women shave their legs, and I believe you. I doubt anyone on Jezebel cares much about the state of my fucking armpit hair. If anyone out there cared, it would be weird. It is weird to me that people care about my armpit hair. But just because I wish they didn't, or I think it's weird, doesn't mean that the implications of my body hair go away. And just because a person who does shave doesn't care if I don't, it doesn't make her choice to shave (for whatever reason) (and thus, accidentally or not, adhere to the beauty standard/femininity standard) any less political, or have any less impact on my life.

The beauty standard is real, it exists, and if you don't adhere to it your life is harder. It's harder to get a job if you have hairy armpits and your job includes being pretty and wearing tank tops. I bet that you can't have hairy armpits and work at Abercrombie, and I bet if you're a lawyer and you have really visibly hairy legs, it's harder than if you shaved. But just because you have to shave in order to live, or because you have to eat food grown with pesticides/eat meat to live/wear clothes made by children in a factory/drive an SUV/live in the suburbs/walk around being caucasion, doesn't mean that any of those things are just "personal." Nothing is just personal.