by Olivia James
“IN MY DAY, IT ALL STARTED when you were fourteen. . .at Easter time,” she says, pulling her long cotton skirt up to her thighs and scratching her upper leg above where it’s socially acceptable to scratch. “You got high heels, pantyhose. . .it was a custom. I don’t know how it was handed down.” Dr. Ann Dreher leans back in her office chair and tosses her bare legs up on the desk. She’s a theater professor at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia. When she wears ankle socks with pumps and exposes her hairy legs, is she just being dramatic?
Maybe. But she’s not the only one on campus. Sure, the majority of college women, of all American women, shave their legs and underarms. And most American men shave their faces and keep their hair short. But what about those who don’t? Hairy-legged women and bearded, hairy men. Why would anyone want to step that far out of the status quo? And why do so many of us want to stay in?
Dreher’s students offered her up to me as an interesting subject for this piece. “She doesn’t shave…she’s crazy,” one 21-year-old male told me, “But don’t tell her I sent you.” Some students find her hairiness disgusting. White men are usually “‘grossed out” by it, says Dreher, who is white. “Students have told me, ‘When I saw you didn’t shave, I knew you were a heavy feminist.’ “
Well, Dreher does have a bumper sticker on her office door that says “War is Menstruation Envy,” but she’s not the only one who’s not shaving. Sociology junior Amy Potthast, at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, quit shaving her freshman year. Other students have questioned her decision, but she won’t go changing. “Why is it a preference thing for men to shave their faces, yet unheard of for men to shave under their arms or on their legs and just as unheard of for women not to shave in those places?” she asks. “I don’t understand these arbitrary social patterns, and once I started trying to make sense of them, I stopped shaving.”
Dr. Soyini Madison, communication studies professor, University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, quit shaving when she started thinking about double standards. “I don’t see any purpose in shaving other than to comply with false standards of what women should do,” she says. “Men don’t shave. And it’s certainly not a matter of hygiene.”
The cultural norm is no secret. It’s proclaimed in every magazine, on every model. Liz Claiborne tells us in the ads that “legs have a language of their own.” Hers are smooth and silky. Teen magazine tells its adolescent readers what guys like. “Girls should always shave their legs and under their arms,” one teen-age boy wrote in last August; “I’m not into the au natural look.”
Yet women have never let men’s tastes determine their hairstyles, writes Wendy Cooper in Hair: Sex, Society, Symbolism. For centuries, men have pleaded for long and loose hair, yet for centuries women have lifted it, curled it, tied it back. Body hair “seems to be the one case in which women are prepared to please men, yielding to masculine whims and demands, even when, in the past, this has meant depilation by quite painful methods,” writes Cooper.
King Solomon is reputed to have demanded that the queen of Sheba remove “nature’s veil” before he would sleep with her. The Crusaders brought the Arabic idea of depilation to European women, which lasted until Catherine de Medici ended the fashion. During the Italian Renaissance, it was only practiced -when doctors shaved hysterical women, to make the “suffocating humors of the brain” flow out more easily. A report from a Frenchman in 1525 states that it was considered elegant for women to be completely shaven. But by 1545, Cooper writes, French women applied a special pomade to their private parts to make the hair grow abnormally long, so that it could be curled up like a mustache and decorated with colored bows.
Decorative pubic bows? Shaving to cure hysteria? Hold on to your hairdos, that’s just the women. Men have been hairier from the beginning. And while codes for women’s hair have remained largely unwritten, men’s beards and the hair on their heads have been subject to legislation.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT ordered his whole army to be shaven, so that the enemy didn’t grab their hair prior to cutting off their heads, wrote Charles MacKay in Memoires of Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 1841. At the end of the 11th century, the pope decreed that people with “long hair should be excommunicated while living and not prayed for when dead.” When the bishop of Worcester passed men with long hair in the street, he would reach out with his knife and slice off a bit of the hair. Then, holding it in their faces, he would tell them to cut off the rest or go to hell. In 1705 Peter the Great of Russia decided that his kingdom would be free of beards. Those who wouldn’t shave were forced to pay a tax of 100 rubles or be thrown into prison.
These men were shaved and shorn at the command of church and state. Today, the enforcement is more subtle. Not only do we fail to understand the reasons for the styles we follow, we sometimes fail to see that we are following anything. The average teenager will never ask “Why shave?”, only “When?”
Black women may not feel as much pressure from men to shave as white women do. “It’s not an aesthetic either way that we as black men are attracted to,” says Dr. Jon Michael Spencer, Afro-American studies professor at UNC.
But women of all colors who do have second thoughts about shaving often conclude it is easier to stick with the social norm. “If I were to grow my hair out, people would talk,” says NC State senior Laura Pottmyer. “They’d label me a feminist or a lesbian. I’m just not that secure about my womanhood.”
Her friend Rhonda Mann, coordinator of the Women’s Center at NC State, says shaving is right for her. But she admires her women friends who don’t shave. “It must be liberating to do something that isn’t ‘appropriate’ like this. It’s a way of saying you can’t define me as a woman. I’m defining myself.”
Perhaps hair is such a volatile issue for us because the hair that sprouts on our bodies at puberty brings new evidence that the differences between boys and girls are not just rumors. We do like to mark our differences: Men have short head hair and full body hair; women have the opposite.
Though we all have varying amounts of hair in varying places, we’ve deemed these particular traits “normal.” And we desperately want to be normal. We do what we can with our head and body hair, try to wear it as others do, and when we spot growth in a strange place – like me and my big toe (women don’t have hair there, do they God?) – We pray to the god of hair, please let me look normal.
Dr. Glenn Chappell, of Meredith Women’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, instructs women in the reputable side of normalcy: professionalism. As advisor for two business organizations, his rule of thumb is: not too far out. The idea of women not shaving throws him off balance. “A lot of people running around unshaven would be quite startling,” he says. “A female accountant who didn’t shave would create quite a stir. If you’re selling granola bars, I don’t know….”
AH, IMAGE…object of our obsession. We waste lifetimes wondering how things will look. For American women, the mantra of hairlessness includes shaving pubic regions. Most bathing suits are cut so that pubic hair must be removed or exposed. And if it is exposed, it seems unhygienic.
Theater professor Dreher preaches to her students a sermon against this trend of depilating the body entire. “You own your own body,” she warns. “Why are you putting depilatory on the most tender part of the body?” For her, a bathing suit that exposes her body hair is a message that the manufacturer wants to see the hair, and she wears the suit accordingly.
How does one respond to such hairiness?
Potthast, who goes unshaven in Pittsburgh, is a friend. I didn’t know how to talk to her about her hairiness. “Your leg,” I mention eventually (after she brings up the subject), “it looks just like a man’s leg.” Is the difference between the sexes only who shaves? I am 22 and I don’t know my own leg as a real leg. I know it well, chiseled and moisturized, with the muscle defined, femininity defined.
But without the use of razors, depilatories, and moisturizers… I have never seen my adult leg. I am a stranger in my own body. And a stranger to my own sex, unable to recognize the leg of a natural woman.
MOST WOMEN, young and old, who subscribe to this culture’s definition of “woman,” feel bad about having body hair. They secretly fear exposure; they glance at themselves in private and whisper as they pluck, “surely I’m the only one with unsightly hair.”
It’s hair-pressure on a national scale. Yet, when we encounter the hairy ones, we stand silently wondering. Perhaps Salvador Dali had the answer. He didn’t try to be normal. Just free. He was known for his “unsightly” hair. Dali had a mustache which, when curled, could rise upward to the level of his eyebrows. He said he used it to receive messages from outer space.
Writer Olivia James is struggling with the big issues in Carrboro, North Carolina.