If you know me at all, you probably know I’m a big fan of Amanda Palmer. That right there can be a pretty controversial statement. Most people either love AFP or they hate her. She takes a strong stance on art (and who can do it… she thinks anyone can), and her music is both revered and reviled, depending on, usually, what people think of her as a person. Me, I love her. We can argue all the details of what that means later. But for the sake of this post, what you should know that I admire about her most is that she lives wide open, that she is who she is with no apologies, and that in the process of being who she is and refusing to be pinned down by norms, standards, and expectations she changes what it means to be beautiful.
If you know me … at all … you probably also know I’m a feminist. I want to openly acknowledge here that I am not a perfect feminist (if that even exists). I often surprise myself when I recognize the filters of privilege and gender-normative behaviors that I make assumptions about in my every day life. If I’ve learned anything in the process of becoming a better feminist, it’s to question everything, especially if it’s put to me as something that always is, always was, or always should be. And I use that philosophy on myself… a LOT. My mental process upon discovering some of the basic expectations and assumptions I carry about myself and other women, even now, that are social construction and not laws of nature: How did those get there? and then, Oh, my gods, what was I thinking?
It was only a matter of time before my love of AFP and my feminism created a perfect storm in the form of a crisis of character for me. How can I break free of even a little part of the mindsets and the social constructions that hold me into the mold of who I am expected to be and allow myself to be who I want to be, or even better, who I naturally am? My solution, and the first step I took: Stop shaving.
If you think about it–and the point of a social construction is that you absolutely not think about it–shaving is not something natural to humanity. Having hair is natural. Having hair in certain places (facial, pubic, armpit, leg) is a physical sign of maturity which used to be a sign of desirability. Though even this scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing proves how problematic body hair has been throughout the centuries (for the appropriate line, skip to 0:00:58).
But over time, our society has come to equate beauty and youth, and therefore beauty and hairlessness. It wasn’t that big a push for razor companies to start selling that idea, preying on the fears of women that they will be less desirable to their partners if they don’t remove the hair from “inappropriate” areas of their bodies.
I had a shaming experience because of hair on my legs when I was 12 years old. Yep. That’s how young I was, and how young the boy who shamed me was as well. If you think about it, he’s just as much a victim of the social construct as I am, brainwashed from that young to believe that hair on a woman’s legs is unnatural instead of natural, and that it makes her less desirable. So even though he made me cry that day and I’d like for 12-year-old me to beat him to a pulp for it, I feel pity for him.
From that very young age, I began to submit to the idea that hair on my body must be sculpted to fit an ideal that was upheld somewhere outside myself. I couldn’t know what was beautiful (or what was comfortable, or what was natural) without the help of society. Really, what I was doing in those early days, though, was trying to conform so that I could keep from being ridiculed. But over time, the purpose of conformity moved from avoiding ridicule to becoming desirable. The emotional triggers that my early experiences had created were easily transferred to my understanding of beauty, making the leap to equate hairlessness with beauty, beauty with desirability without even having to think about it. Hairiness in inappropriate areas meant rejection and pain.
Fast forward 25 years. I’ve been an Amanda Palmer fan since 2003, and she just does. not. care what people say she should do to conform. She has hairy armpits and hairy legs, and she is not ashamed to be naked on film, in front of a crowd, or in private with an intimate partner. And one day it just clicked for me. If I want to break free of the need to conform and to reclaim the beauty of my own body for myself, the first thing I could do was stop shaving.
Why had I been shaving all those long years? Because I was worried about what other people would think. I was worried that my body would be offensive to someone else, to someone who has no right to my body, and no authority over what I do with it (that includes everyone, all of you, sorry, except my partner… and even, largely, him… and by the way, he fully supports my decision).
It took me six months to stop constantly wondering what other people thought when I wore shorts and my hairy legs showed, or wore a tank top in public and raised my arms. It’s been over a year, and I still wonder sometimes. But I’m moving past the hang-up of “I will be undesirable if I am not hairless.” I am becoming more comfortable in my own skin. And if I make someone else uncomfortable because I have body hair, I hope they’ll talk to me about it… because I’m happy to challenge their perceptions of beauty and what right it is they think they have over my choices about my body and how I present myself.
I shave occasionally now. But because I want to. Because I like how my skin feels when it’s smooth. And that’s the point of the exercise. I do what I want with my body because it’s right for me, not because someone else has picked an arbitrary ideal and forced me to uphold it. So DON’T SHAVE! if you want to. Or DO! It’s completely your choice, male or female. Having hair on your legs, face, pubic areas, under your arms, on top of your head… it doesn’t make you more or less desirable. If you do what you want, present yourself as you want because YOU want to, and not because of what someone else thinks or expects, it makes you MORE beautiful, in my opinion. It’s a work in progress. I am a work in progress. We are a work in progress. And we are beautiful.