True confession: As I am prone to do every semester, I have once again tarnished the innocence of young adults by forcing a group of students to look at this particular photo. It is, I am told, “the most disgusting picture ever.” If you can stand it, here it is:
It turns out that my students’ near ubiquitous sense of disgust with this image is not unique, for scholar Breanne Fahs has recently shown that despite many women’s nonchalant attitudes towards underarm and other body hair as mere “personal choice” when discussed hypothetically, a diverse group of her female students who opted to forego hair removal as part of an in-class experiment reported almost universal feelings of social pressure, helplessness, disgust, and anger, not only in the way that they felt about themselves, but also in the way that their families and peers treated them.
There have been ample articles written about the history of hair removal, not to mention how the Western preoccupation with relatively hairless women came about (if we’re looking at specific trends, it appears that shortened hemlines and sleeveless clothing had something to do with it). But knowing why a certain body modification came into vogue is not the same as discussing its social ramifications or how those dynamics work, so my interest here is not to discuss whether this “really” is disgusting, nor to provoke arguments on the relative merits (or lack thereof) of body hair. Rather, my interest lies in asking about our tolerance of the boundaries of the category “natural.”
What intrigues me about this photo is the manner in which it typifies Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s remark that when one transcends a gender boundary, the artificiality of that boundary is rarely interrogated or noticed, but the person who transgressed it is. To put it differently, the common reaction to this photo is not that our standards about underarm hair are strange or unnecessary, but that this particular woman’s choice to sport underarm hair is what is strange and unnecessary.
So while there have been numerous popular commentators who have asked why adult women’s body hair drives a rather common cultural revulsion, what is often missing from those discussions is a realistic look at the dynamics that shape disgust in the first place. As Julia Kristeva reminds us, that which is disgusting is not self-evident; it must be taught and then emotionally cultivated. Like any other social preference, the degree of our disgust typically reflects the degree to which the act or artifact challenges the power-based structures that invisibly define our lives.
In this sense, despite American culture’s current love affair with all things “natural,” there are certain forms of “natural” that transgress other social codes that are otherwise considered inviolable, even if we are unconscious of their presence. Let’s consider for a moment that a woman’s shaven body is seen as particularly “feminine” in part because it signifies difference from men (who can generally wear their body hair without judgement), but also for its similarity with children, in the sense that children are, generally speaking, the only other relatively hairless humans around. A very long line of social critics have pointed out that everything from the grouping of “women and children” together in emergencies to the continued popularity of the sexy schoolgirl motif has not only, in the case of the former, likened women to weak and innocent children, but in the latter, also sexualized them precisely because of their comparative weakness.
While few of us may overtly associate this disgust with body hair with the concurrent infantilization and sexualization of women, one of the most important social principles to recognize is that just because we are not consicous of the roots of the social dynamics that define us does not mean that they are not at work.
In other words, I don’t have to know the history of how Western women have been deemed sexually desirable in order for the connections of “hair,” “female,” and “disgusting” to make an impact on my life. As Fahs puts it, “…body hair is a ‘‘gateway drug’’ into topics that carry loftier and more serious consequences for women,” for if the personal is always the political in the sense that there is no individual untouched by society, then we physically become society’s mirror reflection, what Susan Bordo has called the process by which “the body becomes the medium of culture.”
This is why I have great sympthy for Fahs’ position that discussions about body hair are neither silly nor less important than other gripping issues, since diminishing them as such is yet another method to render society’s forces invisible. As Fahs concludes:
… Body hair represents an avenue into tougher and more painful discussions about gender, bodies, power, social control, invisibility of patriarchy, the fusions between heterosexism and sexism (seen vividly in men’s and family members’ reactions to women’s body hair), and overlaps among classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and sexism. In the classroom, body hair opens doors to rich discussions about intersectionality (e.g., ‘‘My mother tells me I’m a ‘dirty Mexican’ when I have leg hair’’), privilege (‘‘My hair is blond, yours is black, so we’re already dealing with different things at stake’’), misogyny (‘‘My boyfriend said I need his permission to grow my body hair’’), power (‘‘How can I be a radical if I can’t even grow body hair?’’), and the internalization of oppression (‘‘Even though no one says anything, I feel disgusting when I have armpit hair’’). Conversations about body hair hold up a mirror to otherwise unseen aspects of gender and sexuality, making the seemingly benign (‘‘fluffy tufts,’’ ‘‘fuzzy patches’’) suddenly endowed with the power to unsettle and transform.