Back in April Christina wrote a post about body hair and hair removal. At the end of the post she included a link to a short survey on the subject of hair and hair removal. She called this survey the ‘Questionhair’, because it was funny. You’re welcome.
Your dedicated corrhairspondent has just returned from a week in France spent variously frolicking in azure waters, wandering through hilltop villages, and wondering why the hell she ever thought that devoting a day a week unpaid to a survey about body hair was a normal or sane thing to do.
But stick with me, friend, for the end, now, is truly in sight.
You will recall that our last look at the Questionhair revealed an unduly large proportion of respondents who believed themselves to be more hairy than the average women. A significant number of women also commented on how difficult it was to accurately gauge their own hairiness in comparison to other people’s – although it didn’t stop them from trying.
I put forward a number of explanations for this phenomenon, but am still inclined to come down on the side of simple ignorance*. We live in a culture that can make it pretty difficult for women to be hairy, bald, fat, skinny, tall, short… when you think about it, disposing of hair is actually one of the more easy things we can change about ourselves when it comes to fashion and fitting in.
So we do. Most of us – a stunning 97.6% of the Questionhair sample – engage in hair removal of one kind or another to some extent. It’s no wonder we don’t know what ‘normal’ even means any more. How are we supposed to know what the average woman looks like if we never really see her? How are we supposed to know what the average woman looks like if we’re not even supposed to TALK about it?
One of my clearest memories from teenage years is from one of my family’s obligatory Sunday afternoon walks. I was about 14, I think, and rather unusually for that period of my life was talking to my mum. Though the finer details of our conversation have been deleted from my data banks, I vaguely remember that I was rather vocally struggling with the concept that women were expected to shave their armpits while men weren’t. So far, so friendless teen.
My parents had friends staying at our house that weekend, a couple, who were also walking with us in Richmond Park that afternoon. She was a thin, elegant, matching kind of woman who that morning had subtly yet firmly upbraided me for spreading butter as well as jam on my croissant. He was much older, softly spoken, and wore polo necks under tweed jackets. And now he chipped in: “You know, I don’t think it’s very polite for ladies to talk about that kind of thing in public.”
His tone was kindly, but essentially quite authoritative. I suppose on one hand I was being flattered – after all, I counted as a lady, not a child – but still it was clear that this was an admonishment, presumably offered by way of aid to my poor mother, who was clearly unable to control her wayward, fat daughter. The couple did not have any children of their own.
I’m 27 now, yet even the mention of the couple’s names brings the memory of that exchange and all the concomitant feelings of injustice, embarrassment, anger and, latterly, shame, flooding back. The event has become fixed in my consciousness as the moment I realised that, bums and boobs aside, there could be a whole OTHER set of bodily areas that it was unacceptable to discuss, let alone own.
Question nine of the Questionhair asked you how open you are about your own hair removal practices. 577 women answered the question. Here’s what they said:
I have to say I found these results really quite heartening. Many more people than I expected said they were happy to talk about hair and hair removal – if not to everyone, to their friends and relatives. And I was even more pleased to see the obvious delight that some women take in discussing these topics, whether because of personal pride –
I’ve got some boob hairs that are 3 inches long!
– or for the simple, childlike joy of making other people squirm with embarrassment:
I talk about removing leg and pit hair all the time, mostly jokingly, with my friends and sometimes boys to make them uncomfortable.
The question generally yielded a high volume of empowering comments from some kickass women.
I’m happy to discuss it because the only place I remove hair is my armpits and I like to show people my other body hair. Either it will disgust them and they lose at being good people or they will see that their own hair isn’t that bad.
I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to listen about my non-removal of my hair and how I’m happy with my hairyness.
It’s my way of coming to terms with the cultural imperative to a) REMOVE ALL HAIR, and b) PRETEND YOU ARE NATURALLY HAIRLESS: talk brazenly, and in uncomfortable detail, about every facet of the process.
I happily chat about my hairy pits and wave them around in public – it’s nice to normalise not shaving as an option!
My bro-in-law hates my hair and comments on it at every opportunity. Mostly, I just tell him to go to hell.
I’m not embarrassed and I’m sort of chuffed to get the opportunity to explain my choice to someone who may not have encountered someone who’s happy to discuss it.
Hair and hair removal (or lack thereof) seems to be quite an especially popular topic of conversation when it’s exclusively between women:
I have a lot of sisters, so it’s a fairly common topic of conversation in my family (though I’m quite sure I’m hairier than them).
I’d discuss anything with my sisters/mum (as they share the same issues!) but probably not so much with friends.
I went to boarding school and then an all girls college at uni – conversations about hair removal were pretty commonplace… in fact pretty much any conversation opener would eventually segue into tales of waxing.
Telling a room full of women I’d only met an hour ago that I don’t do anything with my pubic hair was probably a highlight.
The only person I’ll discuss it with is my mum – and that’s usually in an accusatory manner.
My 15yo baby sister gladly gave in my pro-hair propaganda, and now when we see each other we do a contest to see which of us have the most hairy armpits (what a lovely family, isn’t it?). My mom thinks I’m just a doodoo who reads way to much North American bullshit over the internet.
But of course, there’s another end to this scale of openness. Some people find it really, really tough to talk openly about hair and hair removal.
It’s a hugely emotional topic.
It’s all a bit embarrassing.
I’ll talk angrily about being required to remove hair, but I do worry people will think I’m weird and gross if they find out how little of it I do remove.
Only once has pubic hair come up – even between me and my closest friend – and, although we were being ‘jokey,’ it was quite awkward.
Basically, whenever we discuss body hair, we end up arguing and I feel attacked, so I avoid it.
Someone just came to my desk – a girl who I really like and have somewhat obscene conversations with – and I still had to minimise this window.
A lot of people were keen to make distinctions between the kind of people with whom they would and wouldn’t discuss body hair. This came over particularly strongly in comments relating to romantic relationships:
Of course it depends which hair. Pubic hair = different discussion levels. Then only close friends/lovers.
I am happy to discuss it with my female friends, but I would not discuss the removal of hair that I feel is unsightly with my boyfriend. He is aware I shave my armpits and epilate my legs but he doesn’t know about my damn chin hair!! [I hope? ha ha]
I try to hide the beard hair from my significant other…
I wax my nostrils (along with my upper lip) at least every 10 days (when my husband is out at work). Our honeymoon got extended and I had to confess I wax my upper lip – was v embarrassed but he said he already knew! I’d previously said I wax my eyebrows. NEVER told anyone I wax my nostrils!
I’ve had one or two conversations with my partner to find out if he has any preferences/issues with body hair. To be honest, the discussion made me feel better about it.
Many people also made clear distinctions not only between the kind of people they would discuss these issues with, but the kinds of hair and hair removal that they would be willing to discuss at all. It seems that for many, a conversation about hair removal is just too close to an admission that the hair exists in the first place.
On the whole, people were prepared to admit they get rid of the hair on their legs, bikini lines and underarms but were more secretive when it came to other parts of the body:
[I’d discuss] eyebrow/leg woes, not so much fuzzy upper thighs/parts of bum/toes etc.
I have no objection to talking about eyebrows, armpits, legs or pubes but I’d really rather not let the world know I have a hairy upper lip.
Depending on what area of hair removal we’re talking about. If it’s leg, bikini line, underarms, eyebrows I’m very open. But facial hair removal is something I feel very uncomfortable talking about (and never discuss it with anyone).
Trimming… down there *points* I just don’t think that is anyone’s business but mine.
Would talk about waxing with close friends but have NEVER discussed facial hair removal with a close friend other than the time I was in a Chinese nail bar in New York with a friend and the elderly Chinese lady asked me if I wanted a “neck wax”. I think I screamed.
Fewer people get to know I pluck the darkest thickest longest cleavage furs than the obvious “I shave my pits – do I actually need to shower or can I just dry shave?” skank convo.
I’m in the truly enviable position of having have access to oodles of data that proves I’m not alone in having hair on parts of my body that I’ve been conditioned over the years to hate. But the only reason I have this data is because it was given to me under the conditions of an anonymous survey. By and large, women are not willing to have this conversation in public. Remember this?
Ms X: I’m fine talking about periods, face boils (pain and pressure like I’ve never experienced), but I would never talk about facial hair to anyone.
Ms X: I guess that it’s just such an unladylike affliction and I want to be feminine. I wouldn’t even talk about it to my closest female friends.
Me: So you just deal with it quietly and hope no-one notices that you normally have hairs on your chin?
Ms X: Yep.
Obviously I and many of writers whose work I come across in my research** have no scruples of this kind. But still, for many people, the topic of hair removal is seen as thrillingly risqué or unnecessarily coarse. Think of all the things people say about women who don’t get rid of body hair – that they’re attention seeking, have some kind of political agenda, are unattractive, or worst of all, unfeminine. Yet it’s not difficult to imagine the exact same labels being slapped on the women who do remove body hair, but talk about it.
It’s a lose-lose situation: we’re undesirable if we don’t remove our body hair, and we’re undesirable and rude if we do but are open about it. Seemingly, the only way to be both desirable and feminine is to remove the hair but pretend you don’t: to sustain the illusion of being naturally hairless.
This, friends, is how sad stories are made.
When I was 12 I secretly bought some wax and put it on my stomach hair. I didn’t get it off properly and it left a nasty sticky brown mark for four weeks. I spent the entire holiday hiding so that no-one would know a) I had the problem with the wax and b) I had the hair problem at all.
Speaking as someone who, aged 16, glued their calves to the back of their thighs and spent half an hour flapping on the bathroom floor like a hairy, beached mermaid – I feel your pain. Let’s talk more.
* Plus ça fucking change
** Yes, I do research into this kind of thing – thank you, Google alerts