Shaving Off Gender Norms: The Politics of Beauty and Body Hair

By Fauna Mahootian

Puberty is a very vulnerable time for many. We begin feeling self-conscious as insecurities start forming and intensifying. It’s also a time when our hormones cause us to grow more hair. The media perpetuates the expectation for women to be hairless, so it’s not surprising that girls start feeling self-conscious about their body hair and want to get rid of it. For some girls, this simply means shaving their legs and pits, as the rest of their hair is light and thin enough to go unnoticed. For other girls, however, this time is the beginning of a lifelong struggle with very thick, very dark, very visible body hair.

I have fairly dark, thick hair. I became self-conscious of it around the age of 12, when I noticed that I was hairier than the other girls my age. I voiced my concern to my mom, and although she thought I was slightly young to start shaving, she let me buy an electric razor. I was also concerned about my arm hair, but my mom told me not to shave it because it would “grow back thicker.” So I bore it. I wasn’t teased, but I felt out of place because no one else had hairy arms. I tried bleaching and waxing, but both were extremely painful so I just gave up and let it be. The issue really came down to my comparing myself to other girls: it was an issue of low self-esteem. My self-confidence grew over the course of high school and allowed me to be less afraid of judgement; by the end, I accepted not only my arm hair as part of myself, but also my armpit and leg hair. I stopped shaving when I stopped caring so much about what people thought of me and focused my attention on what I wanted for myself. Since I have a lot of hair that grows quickly, shaving consumes a lot of time. I didn’t want to waste so much of my time, and I didn’t want to deal with the irritation of the hair growing back, so I just stopped. In bigger communities like cities, most people couldn’t care less what personal choices you make, as long as those choices don’t affect them. I was lucky to be in such a non-judgmental community.

Nowadays, the no-shave movement is getting popular among women. I’ve joined their ranks, and so have a few of my friends. Unfortunately, not everyone has the ability to join us. Even in relatively accepting communities, women face the pressure to shave their bodies. Certain mentalities (e.g. facial and body hair on women is bad) instilled by their upbringing cause women to mandate their own shaving. They don’t feel comfortable with their hair, even if the people around them would be accepting of it.

Other women can’t survive in their communities unless they shave. For these people, it’s not a matter of “not caring what other people think.” Whether that danger is bullying, social isolation, getting laid off, or not getting hired, discrimination based on appearance is a huge problem, and body hair on women falls into that category. Choosing not to shave or choosing to keep unmaintained facial hair may seem like a simple decision, but for some people it’s an unaffordable luxury.

An especially strong pressure is for women to adhere to social norms of appearance by removing facial hair. This pressure is so strong that women may even lose employment opportunities or become social rejects because of hair. For some women, having a “clean” face is easy; for others, it is a lifelong struggle. People with sensitive skin have an especially hard time finding a technique that works and is not harmful to them. Some people carry scars from hair removal techniques they’ve used. Think about that! People harm themselves in order to remove their hair. They’re left with permanent scars. Some people intentionally self-harm due to bullying because of their hair. Many people advocating for no-shave say that you shouldn’t care what other people think, but it’s delusional to think that you never have to care.

It’s unfair that some people need to risk harming themselves to reach societal standards. Our society is conditioned by the media we consume to be more accepting of some appearances than of others. Just as the media has presented us with the “norm” of hairless women, it presents gender as a strict binary, with appearance standards for each side. We shouldn’t have such a rigid mold for people to fit into. For example, women should be able to have body hair—dark, obvious hair—and not be judged any differently for it. Some people in social media are standing up for this ideal of diversity in appearance. Take for instance the Instagram celebrity Harnaam Kaur.

Harnaam is a woman who maintains a thick beard—and she rocks it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes excess hair growth. Her beard started growing when she was eleven, and the resulting bullying at school caused her to self-harm. At the age of 16, with the aid of Sikhism, she accepted her hair as part of herself. She still gets stares on the streets and is mistaken for a man sometimes, but she’s learned to live with what she’s got. Her example emphasizes that ‘normal’ shouldn’t be so restrictive. In a time when the distinctions between the roles of the genders are becoming more and more blurred, shouldn’t the visual distinction be blurred as well, or at least not held to such a stringent dichotomy?

Arguing for this normalization through difference instead of through binaries is Alok Veid-Menon of the spoken word collaboration Darkmatter poetry. Alok is a gender non-binary and transfeminine public figure and performer who has been featured on major media outlets including HBO, Buzzfeed, The New York Times, TEDx, and more. In a post on their blog RETURNTHEGAYZE, Alok writes, “We should not have to approximate cis and white and binary standards of gender and beauty to be safe…What if we are never going to look like women or men? That means that the harassment doesn’t stop.” Using their media platform, Alok is increasing awareness of nonconformity to the gender binary and gender norms, as well as the resulting violence faced by those who choose not to conform. Right now, shaving or not shaving are rooted in specific gender stereotypes. In an ideal world, our ideas of beauty and appearance wouldn’t at all influence the way we interact with others. But this world isn’t ideal. Because of the way our brains are wired, we will always make judgements based on appearance which will in some way influence our treatment of individuals. We can’t really help that we make these judgements, but we can try to minimize the credence we give them and just let them come and go through our minds.

This article is not arguing for or against women removing their hair. It’s fine to prefer shaving. Personal preference is just that: personal. What I take issue with is when someone’s surroundings don’t allow them to make personal decisions. I’m not here to argue for or against shaving, nor having or not having facial and body hair. I’m here to argue for the agency of everyone, and for acceptance of an alternative choice that has been scorned for a long time. I’m here to advocate for openness to difference and variety instead of a cookie cutter mold for beauty.

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