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Society's battle with body hair

By Cathryn Murray

Ever since I saw Nena singing 99 Red Balloons on a Top of the Pops rerun, proudly showing off her underarm hair and my mum telling me about the media backlash that followed when it first aired, I have been angry about the treatment of women with body hair.

We currently live in a society that talks a lot about body positivity (it’s about bloody time)! The body positivity movement very quickly moved away from its roots and became “a movement that advocates the acceptance of all bodies regardless of physical ability, size, gender, race or appearance.”

Although, conversations that normalise body hair (particularly pubic hair) are still too sparse for my liking.

The world has battled with pubic hair since history began. The more affluent Greeks and Romans were getting rid of their pubic hair from a very young age, with their equivalent of tweezers and Nair. Catherine de Medici forbade her ladies in waiting from removing their pubic hair, resulting in some of them removing it in secret.

The Merkin was born in the 1400s and has been used for centuries ever since. In 16th century artwork, women were being depicted with little to no pubic hair. During the mid to late 1800s, pornographic photography and early motion-picture pornography depicted women with full body hair.

By 1904 the first safety razor for the purpose of removing women’s body hair (a product created by a man, sold under the pretence of a fashion accessory). In the 1970s men’s magazines, such as Playboy, started depicting below the waist images of women with full or trimmed body hair and this trend continued for the next thirty years.

Until finally the 2000s hit and nearly all magazine models showed little to no pubic hair. It’s unknown whether this was reflecting real-life trends or whether this was a fantasy of the photographers. What an awfully long time to be publicly debating and dictating women’s private choice! The trends around body hair have changed nearly as often as Monica and Rachel’s hairstyles in Friends.

Conversations about body hair are punctuated with screwed up facial expressions and shudders, sniggers or mostly feelings of discomfort. It’s a constant obsession with aesthetics, where it 'should' and 'shouldn’t' be, though we never seem to discuss its benefits. Did you know that body hair (specifically pubic hair):

  • Keeps bacteria out (just like our eyebrows and eyelashes keep bacteria out of our eyes).

  • Reduces the likelihood of yeast infections.

  • Reduces the risk of catching an STI.

  • Provides increased pleasure (your hair follicles are attached to nerve endings after all).

  • Reduces sweat.

  • And absorbs your natural pheromones.

We all went crazy when Cara Delavigne shot onto the scene with her impressive dark bushy eyebrows; there were products created by leading beauty brands to “improve our eyebrow game” and we even went to lengths to draw them on.

So why does the thought of one strand of pubic hair send us into a tizz?

As Nadia Sawalha pointed out on an episode of Loose Women, “if you saw hair under a man’s arm, you wouldn’t think twice,” so why are women forced by societal norms to spend extortionate amounts of money on hair removal and to feel embarrassed for their natural body?

I think now is the perfect time to introduce you to what I call The Relationship Disclaimer. The “just to let you know, I don’t shave” moment; a conversation I have had with every previous partner. Why do I feel like I have to say this? I am worried that if I don’t disclaim it, they will take one look and run a mile. I am terrified that a lack of openness and ownership gives them more ammunition when they tell their friends and it becomes everyone else’s business (something I have experienced). I am embarrassed because a large portion of people still think it’s gross and weird.

In past relationships I have been asked to remove it to suit their 'preferences', and I nearly gave in. Now I say 'your preference doesn’t matter to my body'. It’s hard to know whether these 'preferences' have been born out of learning about sex and women’s bodies at a young age through pornography, or because the societal norm of women being completely hairless beings has meant that young men have never encountered women with body hair.

Although I will never change what I do with my own body hair, I can’t say that I am 100% comfortable with it.

Through years of being at school and being surrounded by the 'norm',I have become conditioned to think that if people see my body hair they will be disgusted and appalled. It’s not just past relationships that have made me feel this way. I have found many women to be conditioned to believe that body hair is gross and weird. In an episode of Loose Women where they discussed whether you should embrace your body hair, the moment it was mentioned several (female) audience members and some members of the panel turned their noses up.

Stacey Solomon expressed “I feel like I have to shave sometimes but I really don’t like to.” On a debate on the popular daytime show This Morning, Lizzie Cundy told presenters that the sight of another woman’s body hair made her “feel queazy.” She also stated that she associated choosing not to remove your body hair with “not taking care of yourself.”

Additionally, in a video by Allure Magazine, a young woman discusses how associating body hair with a lack of hygiene can be damaging. She encloses that “people would call [her] unhygienic, people would say [she’s] disgusting.”

I would like to disclose at this point that it’s perfectly acceptable to make your own choices about your body and your body hair, whether that be all off, all on or somewhere in between but I wish to highlight the negative talk around women who choose to have body hair. To make a choice about your body that makes you feel more comfortable and happy and be met with comments from others like “you’re disgusting,” “your choice makes me queasy,” is NOT OKAY!

To conclude, I would like you to take one thing away from this article. Think about how you respond and contribute to conversations about body hair. Someone across from you may not want or be able to remove their body hair and you might be adding to a stigma or their low self-esteem.


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