Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Real Body as Radical

Plucking, dissolving, pulling, sugaring, threading, shaving, epilating, depilating, waxing, laser-ing, zapping, dyeing, trimming, bleaching--

Sound familiar? Does it make your skin crawl? Of course it does. If you are like most American women, you have been subjecting yourself to irrational pain as the seemingly nominal cost of beauty. The pressure to remove body hair is an omnipresent phenomenon in America, and these days neither gender is immune from attack. Last year, the shaving and hair removal industry made $1.8 billion dollars. Cleverly using ad campaigns marketed at both men & women, the hair removal industry wants to believe that the American public can be convinced to shave just about anything. We have to be attractive, right?

Exposing Hair Discourse

Hair removal has been a prevalent practice in many cultures over time, yet there is very little explanation for the American beauty norm of feminine hairlessness. Ultimately, we tend to collectively blame the fashion industry (short skirts & bare legs of the '20s), technology (invention of the disposable razor & nylons), popular media (pornography & celebrities), the male gaze (beauty defined by men), and the hair removal industry itself (lasers & fancy razors) for compelling women en masse to remove most body hair.

America's body hair ideals support the pervasive idea that women's bodies in particular are unacceptable unless they conform to the gender norm of hairlessness as feminine. Though hair on a woman's body is a sign of sexual maturity, the feminine norm that has evolved requires women to appear pre-pubescent, as this 1980s commercial very precisely conveys:

We culturally accept a gender binary where body hair on women is "gross" and "manly." In contrast, body hair on men's bodies is acceptable as the demarcation of virility and masculinity, and shifting norms for men (i.e. "the metrosexual") are arguably not as closely monitored or criticized.

Ad campaigns have a field day with portraying body hair on women as animal-like and offensive, particularly a recent campaign portraying women with body hair as gorillas. The ensuing debate on a popular magazine website offers a sampling of common public perceptions on hair removal. For example, many women refer to being “fortunate” if they have lighter hair, feeling “sexy” when they have hairless legs, or accepting that their male partners “prefer” them to be entirely hairless.

A radical feminine body is one that has all of its natural hair intact. When it comes to hair, women have no problem judging one another. We even scrutinize and chastise celebrities for "keeping" facial, underarm and leg hair. Adherence to this beauty norm is protocol, rather than choice. We are in dangerous territory when a photographer's work chronicling women with facial hair is radical subject matter, and a "woman with a beard" is a full-on news story. We continue to normalize the notion that meticulous preparation and alteration is an unquestionable requirement before women can expose their bodies in public: A woman's body is a body that needs work. The feminine body, in its unaltered state, is unacceptable.

The Cost of The Hairless Feminine Body: Appearance Discrimination?

By normalizing the work and cost of body hair maintenance as inherent to femininity, we are quietly waging a war in the workplace that puts women on unequal footing. Our society places great weight on appearance, and employers are largely free to discriminate on the basis of appearance with seemingly no consequence. According to feminist legal theorist Deborah Rhode, the impact of appearance discrimination in the workplace needs more discussion in order to "expose the price we pay for undue emphasis on appearance."

Being well-groomed is an element of attractiveness, and in the workplace attractiveness is disproportionately rewarded by promotions, higher pay, and job security. Rhode argues that bias based on appearance is for the most part lawful in the United States, and the egregious lack of a legal remedy for discrimination based on appearance demands closer scrutiny. When individuals are fired from jobs or being discriminated at work because they are overweight or not groomed according to societal standards, what protection do they have?

In considering appearance discrimination, to what extent does our acceptance of body hair norms complicate the treatment of women in the workplace? Can hair removal be considered a viable "grooming" standard for women without violating antidiscrimination laws? With the exception of a 1994 case where a hotel employee claimed she was fired because her employer did not approve of the dark hair above her upper lip, case law on women and body hair is scarce. This is likely because the burden of proof for appearance discrimination is high: how can you prove that an employer fired you because you are unattractive or unfeminine?

Currently, grooming codes are permissible as long as they involve no immutable characteristics, no fundamental rights, and no greater burden for one sex than the other. If courts have found that putting on makeup is not considered an undue burden to a female employee because it does not discriminate against her on basis of immutable characteristics of her sex, then is it possible for courts to find that hair removal (i.e. facial, underarm, and leg) in workplace grooming policies are similarly permissible? Already, we accept dress codes requiring skirts and/or hosiery as not being problematic, so where do we draw the line when it comes to our perceptions of feminine beauty burdens and how those translate into legal constructs of femininity?

Radical Acts At Home

When I was an undergraduate, I would shave the hair on my head to demystify feminine norms. Somewhat of a reversal has happened after becoming a mother to a young daughter. I had no reasonable answer for my daughter when she asked why I shaved the hairs on my legs, underarms, or tweezed my facial hairs. Let's not even talk about what a fool I looked like when she walked in on me bleaching the hair on my upper lip. Not thinking too deeply about it, I tried to explain to her that some women make the "choice" to "take away" hairs sometimes.

One day when my daughter was three-years-old, she was worried about the hairs on her legs, and I told her that every hair on her body is beautiful. The next time she saw me in the shower with a razor, she impulsively exclaimed, "Mommy don't take away your hairs, they're beautiful!" I realized that I had never conceptualized my own body hair as beautiful. In fact, I had spent so much of my post-adolescent life deftly removing my hairs that I had never even seen my body with all of its hairs--unaltered.

For the past year, my husband has supported my new vow to cease from cutting, shaving, plucking or bleaching any of my body hairs. My daughter, now five-years-old, has no memory of my body being any different. I am oddly satisfied to know that she thinks of my ever-present jet-black body hair as entirely normal and feminine. What began as a semi-political experiment transcended into a newly realized sense of self (although, I confess I still tweeze by eyebrows when my daughter is not around, as I am by no means perfect in my vigilance to remain unscathed by beauty norms).

As I traipsed around town with my family, confidently with all of my body hair intact while wearing sleeveless dresses, short skirts, and shorts -- there was no public outcry, no chastisement, no burning at the stake. I have been fascinated to notice that nearly every woman I pass by has clean-shaven legs and underarms, from the very young to the very old. What I find the most moving, however, is that no one has criticized or questioned my "natural" appearance (except for my mother, of course) -- leaving me still without an answer to tell my daughter the reason why women have to "take away their beautiful hairs."


Erin S. said...

I absolutely love this. I was shamed into shaving by peers as a young adolescent (my mother never shaved nor suggested it to me). Ever since, I've felt compelled to depiliate any skin I plan to show, even going so far at one point as to shave my arm hair. Body hair on others doesn't bother me as a general rule--but I still shave, and I appreciate it when my partners shave. Despite intellectually questioning the basis for this measure of attractiveness and social acceptability, it's a custom I'm uncomfortable breaking, so you have my sincere admiration for doing so.

samina hitch said...

Thanks Erin. I think it is interesting that you wrote the word "shamed" -- because I feel that many women feel inexplicably compelled or embarrassed into hair removal. In my case, it was both female peers, family members, and especially men in my past who "shamed" me into changing my body accordingly. Often it struck me that those changes were not for their own preference, but because their popular concept of a woman's body was to be "clean" and hairless. I think that we internalize these experiences, and then become comfortable -- such that, like you said, it feels "uncomfortable" to be real and honest with our own bodies.

All of this makes me wonder, to what extent is there any "comfort" there, for any of us, when many of us have not experienced life without the pressure to look a certain way? It reminds me of women who are afraid to leave the house without make-up -- similarly, we are afraid to leave the house with a tank-top on -- with unshaven underarms.

The fear, I think, is manifested within labels. If we do not shave, then we can be called militant feminists or accused of being unwomanly (meaning of course, that we are "manly" for sharing a biologically natural human trait). Then, within that realm of thinking, there are categories of shaving/not-shaving where it is "ok" to buck the trend (depending on who you are, and the company you keep). I am perfectly willing to accept, even, that many women are very happy and comfortable removing their body hair, because from the outset it made them feel happy. Maybe what I find disheartening is that both genders are pressured into elaborate shapeshifting to be deemed acceptable by society at large, and the justification, with hair particularly, is just about as compelling as "just because."

Really, we are "shamed" into a lot of bizarre habits, that make us feel loved, accepted and thankfully ordinary. Like we discuss in class so often, it is feminism's role to shift the ordinary, where we define what is or is not ordinary -- on our terms, and from our own perspective.

Sophie said...

First, I am absolutely shocked that the shaving and hair removal industry makes billions of dollars. That is such an eye-opening statistic! Second, I really relate to this post. I have recognized the insane amount of pressure society puts on individuals, especially women, to shave every part of their body. I went to an all-girls high school and we used to go weeks (even months!) without shaving our legs. We used to joke about the fact we had no one to impress (because we didn’t go to school with boys) and so why bother shaving our legs, especially in the winter? I guess this has carried with me because hair removal is still relatively unimportant to me. However, I always eventually shave my legs / arms. So, I guess the industry is getting to me a little then, right? This post encourages me to reflect on why I do indeed shave my legs and remove other body hair!