I am usually late to catch on to shifts in the zeitgeist; this one came to my attention just recently. While watching the HBO show High Maintenance, I noticed that Lee, the protagonist’s hip and beautiful love interest, was sporting hairy armpits.
“Look!” I cried to my husband, as though I’d unexpectedly spotted a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of my favorite obscure band. For the past couple of decades, I have seldom shaved my armpits. Now, all of a sudden, I was on-trend.
Among both celebrities and the masses, female body hair is sprouting all over. Ilana of Broad City has exposed her underarm growth; so have Jemima Kirke and Zazie Beetz. In January of this year, Laura Jackson, a British college student, ran a campaign called “Januhairy,” urging women to grow out their body hair and post selfies on Instagram.
In some ways, this phenomenon harks back to the second wave movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when feminists began to challenge restrictive beauty standards. At a famous march outside the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, protesters ceremoniously discarded their bras and stiletto heels; many feminists of that era also ditched their razors and tweezers. But today’s renewed enthusiasm for female hirsuteness comes with a distinctly 21st-century twist.
Unshaven women in 2019 often meet other criteria for traditional feminine beauty –they have sculpted eyebrows, wear lipstick or sexy lingerie – while proudly displaying their armpit hair. If the ethos of the 70s was a refusal to spend time and effort on cosmetics, the more common approach today is for women to curate different elements of their appearance, remaining conventionally attractive while deploying body hair as a feminist fuck-you: half-statement, half-ornament.
Enter Billie, a New York-based subscription service that sells “razors built for womankind”. In January, the company announced a $25m investment from Goldman Sachs and other backers.
Since its launch in November 2017, Billie has positioned itself as explicitly feminist. It denounces the so-called “pink tax” (the documented premium women pay for personal care products) and offers a “pink tax rebate” (a coupon toward a purchase). The company also says it donates 1% of all revenue to “women’s causes around the world”, including Every Mother Counts, a not-for-profit dedicated to global maternal health.
Billie’s most radical feminist move is to show, in its various promotional materials, women removing actual hair from their bodies: models dragging razors up shaggy, moistened legs. As the company’s web copy notes, “Commercials show women ‘shaving’ perfectly smooth, airbrushed legs. Strange, huh?” In a move that is either generously self-undermining or shrewdly opportunistic (or both), Billie also runs Project Body Hair, an image library of hair in all sorts of places it’s not supposed to be.
One of Billie’s models is Hale, a 19-year-old musician and student at Bard College. On Billie’s website, Hale sits on the floor against a bed, wearing a frilled white tank top. She is smoothing the hair on her head back with arms raised, revealing undisturbed axillary fuzz.
Hale hit puberty early, she told me, and her body hair was dark and noticeable. At one point, “I shaved literally everything,” she said. “I shaved my whole stomach when I was in elementary school, because I didn’t like my happy trail.”But in high school, she began to question the hairlessness ideal, and realized that “having autonomy over my body didn’t make me less attractive or less valuable”. Now, she sometimes, but not always, removes hair from her legs and other body parts, but never from her armpits. Until recently she waxed her unibrow, but as it grows back, she’s started to think it’s “really cute”.
Billie’s branding strategy may come across as fishy – they do sell razors, after all. But it seems to fit right in with the emerging ethos around body hair: celebrating women’s choices as a hodgepodge of individual decisions about how to adhere to or violate cultural norms.
As Georgina Gooley, Billie’s 33-year-old Australian-born co-founder, told me, “If you choose to shave, we have a great product for you. If you don’t, we have other products as well.” (The company also sells lotion and body wash.) With Project Body Hair, she says, “We weren’t sending the message that shaving is an expectation. We were saying shaving is a choice.”
Back in the 1970s, the conversation sounded quite different. As Rebecca Herzig writes in her 2015 book Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, two camps emerged in the second wave movement.
The very first full issue of Ms. Magazine, in July of 1972, featured an article titled Body Hair: The Last Frontier. It criticized the shaving norm as an “embodiment of our culture’s preoccupation with keeping women in a kind of state of innocence, and denying their visceral selves”. The time, money and psychological energy required for depilation were oppressive. Hairlessness was also infantilizing – it made women look like prepubescent girls. The social norm suggested, not very subtly, that there was something inherently wrong, gross and dirty about women’s bodies as they naturally were.
But another faction of feminists, led by Betty Friedan, had a different take. Friedan believed the preoccupation with body hair was counterproductive. She considered these concerns a trivial distraction from more important issues, such as professional opportunities and subsidized childcare. She also thought they harmed the cause of feminism by casting feminists as hairy, ugly, man-hating weirdos.
I came of age in the 1990s, a midway point of sorts. My two best friends and I stopped shaving in high school. For me, this decision was not explicitly about feminism, but about an allegiance to my idea of authenticity (not to mention my allegiance to laziness). It wasn’t that I didn’t care how I looked; I wanted to look like I didn’t care how I looked. I wanted to be attractive, but I did not want to invest effort or enlist artifice into making myself so. Any such measures, to my 16-year-old mind, would have been cheating.
At the same time, I usually felt self-conscious about my body hair, and often wore pants or long skirts. Displaying smooth, bald legs would have felt like selling out, but I felt a different sort of discomfort displaying hairy ones. I envied one of my friends whose leg hair was fine and wispy. Mine was not. (Later I resumed shaving my legs.)
Back then, in my recollection, body hair did not register much in the cultural conversation. The founders of Instagram were in middle school. Feminism was in something of a lull, with a few exceptions such as the Riot Grrrl scene. My favorite magazine, Sassy, did embrace feminism, but not in a way that involved challenging beauty norms very aggressively. As far as I recall, nary a patch of stubble could be found on the waifish bodies of their models.
It’s hard to say exactly when what Hale refers to as the new “body-hair movement” emerged – she describes it as “non-boys taking up space and deciding that they’re not going to adjust to the norms”.
But she remembers thinking something was afoot when dyed armpit hair became fashionable a few years ago. One of the pioneers of that micro-trend was Roxie Jane Hunt, a hairstylist in Seattle.
Hunt, 35, shaved as a teenager, but, she says, “I always hated the action of doing it. It felt like a big chore but also a little bit of violence against my own body.” When her daughter was about two, she saw Hunt shaving and asked her why. “I realized I didn’t have a good enough answer,” Hunt says. She grew out her armpit hair, and found it “much more sexy and natural”.
In 2014, on a lark, she and a friend dyed their underarm hair “ethereal blue”, and Hunt posted photos of the colorful pits on her blog. “The blogpost kind of went viral from there,” she says. She described the attitude with which they approached the exercise as “sort of joy. It opened up a little more imagination.” Many people have since posted pictures of their “unicorn pits”, dyed in all the colors of the rainbow.
If body hair has historically been invisible – too shameful to even show in razor commercials – this aesthetic makes it ultra-visible. In that sense, it takes the pro-hair ethos to its extreme. But in another sense, this practice is the opposite of the “let it all hang out” approach: it is, after all, hard to think of a grooming choice less natural, less laissez-faire, than polychromatic armpit hair.
The look is also highly social-mediagenic, destined for virality. And social media, for both dyed and virgin body hair, is obviously a key part of what makes this round of hair affirmation different from previous eras. Women are not only refusing to conceal their body hair; they’re flaunting it.
A long-running debate within feminism has been whether we should respect women’s choices – even if they seem to result from oppression – or whether only certain “liberated” choices merit approval. The new body-hair acceptance advocates land squarely in the former territory. When I was growing up, a common catchphrase was “I’m not a feminist, but …” followed by some statement of support for feminist principles, such as equal pay. Now, much more common is something like the reverse: claiming the mantle of feminism no matter how un-feminist the position may seem.
A theme that came through loudly in my conversations with young women was that we should judge nothing – except perhaps judgment itself. “I think the 70s wave of feminism was outright rejecting femininity. We don’t need makeup, we don’t want to be housewives,” said Ashley Armitage, a 25-year-old photographer who shot one of the Billie marketing campaigns. “Now it’s like, wait a second, you can be a feminist and a housewife. You can shave.”
Surveying this new world of body hair, I wondered: are women making these choices because they think body hair is feminine, or despite the fact that they don’t think it’s feminine? Is there ever tension between their aesthetic preferences and their values?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the prevalent reluctance to judge, no one wanted to say that they didn’t like any particular aesthetic choice. According to Gooley, the Billie co-founder, she found a range of attitudes in her focus groups and market research. Some women think “it’s a patriarchal view to force women to shave. Other women are like, ‘I just think it’s really cute. I like my underarm hair.’”
Just as there’s a mix of motives, there’s also a series of decisions – not a one-time resolution to always shave everything or never shave anything. “So many people, maybe sometimes they’ll shave, sometimes they’ll grow their hair out,” says Armitage. “Sometimes they’ll shave their legs, sometimes they’ll grow their armpit hair.” Considering this reality, Billie’s pitch starts to make a little more sense.
So far, this is all sounding very kumbaya: the shaven and the waxed and the hairy and the semi-hairy all getting along famously, showering each other with love and likes in a judgment-free festival. There is some truth to that: this discourse is refreshingly peaceable.
But of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. For all the love that the photos of body hair have generated, they have also, inevitably, attracted trolls. MaryV Benoit, another Billie model, told me about the comments on the campaign: “Seventy percent of them would be, ‘Oh, that is awesome.’ Thirty percent would be these weird men that would be like, ‘You girls need to shave.’” Some of the comments were nastier. And some came from women.
Posting a picture of your hairy self online takes guts. You know that not everyone will approve, and some will let you know it. Merely going out in public with female body hair takes a different sort of courage. You’re less likely to hear direct insults, but more likely to get funny looks, unmediated by a screen.
Female hairiness is still far from mainstream. But the more people who brave the all-caps comments and the whispers and stares, the less shocking it becomes. This is how norms change. And one of the few real upsides of social media, in my view, is its power to accelerate that process of dismantling dubious norms – not, in this case, in order to replace the old one with a new, equally unforgiving one, but to challenge the need for any norm at all.
Source: The Guardian