Last summer, as I was sitting on the cottage dock scrolling through my Instagram feed, a photo of an old high school friend caught my eye. Captioned “being me, being free,” she was with her sister on a beach excitedly jumping up in the air – arms outstretched and smiles wide, animated by the bright sun and August air. As I prepared to double tap, I noticed the last comment that read, “that’s disgusting.” Confused, I scrolled up to find comments ranging from “good for you Hannah” to “yikes.” When I saw the light brown patch of hair underneath her underarms, it became clear that the overtly hostile comments were fuelled by Hannah’s disinclination to shave and follow the social norm of female hair removal.
Of course, I was not surprised by these negative reactions. It is the same backlash met by actress Mo’Nique’s unshaven legs at the Precious Premier in 2009, Miley Cyrus’ proudly pink-dyed underarm hair on Instagram in 2015, and any other woman who has tried to go against the western cultural inevitability of spending the money, sacrificing the time, and enduring the pain of removing their body hair. These widespread responses of revulsion and disapproval to a woman’s natural body in our society raises important questions regarding the negative impact that our socially constructed ideals of femininity, sexuality, and beauty have on our contemporary society, and the latent sexism that persists.
These issues first become apparent when considering what motivates women to remove their body hair. Tiggemann & Hodgson (2008) found that enhanced feelings of sexual attractiveness, increased femininity and social acceptance, and maintenance of self-esteem were the most common factors. These findings are particularly disturbing; not only do they suggest that women feel their natural female state is not acceptable or desirable, but that ideals of femininity and sexual appeal in our culture are not for a woman at all – but for a young girl. After all, it is hair (including pubic, leg, and underarm hair) that denotes sexual maturity; a lack of it is characteristic of children. The sexualisation of this pre-pubescent body can only worsen the objectification of young girls. There is even a subreddit dedicated to Taylor Swift’s “smooth” and “baby soft” hairless underarms, with male commenters wanting to “lick them.” 
Men, on the other hand, are perceived as more attractive, sexy, and masculine the more body and facial hair they have (Fahs, 2011). This gender double standard in the presence of hair can then be interpreted as contemporary perceptions of “womanly” meaning “childlike,” and “manly” meaning “adult-like.” This is not to say that men are attracted to children, but rather it is meant to unearth the power imbalances embedded - and sometimes otherwise unnoticed, in the female hair removal norm. This is further illustrated in Basow’s (1998) research that showed both men and women perceived a woman to be less intelligent and took them less seriously than the same woman without body hair.
Many women simply feel “mentally unclean” and “less put together” when they don’t shave (Fahs, 2011, p. 493). My friends say they feel “too dirty” after a certain point of letting their hair grow – not necessarily that they feel less attractive or worse about themselves. Though this seems more benign, it makes me wonder why women hold themselves to a higher standard of “cleanliness” than men. After all, men don’t report having these sentiments; to them, there is nothing more dirty or unclean about body hair than the hair on their heads – and rightfully so. Hair has important biological functions such as protection of skin, regulating body temperature, promoting evaporation of sweat, and pheromone communication. Additionally, according to Dr. Emily Gibson - a professor at Western Washington University, shaving of pubic hair can promote STI transmission through irritated skin and inflamed follicles (Laurence, 2012). This further leads me to believe that the female hairless beauty standard is so entrenched in western culture that it is thoroughly internalized, to the point that it influences false perceptions of basic hygiene, while fuelling a gender double standard.
I am happy to note though that it’s not all doom and gloom. Events in the media are showing that women have been starting to catch on to the gender asymmetries and negative consequences associated with the hairless female beauty norm, sparking a body hair acceptance movement. These include the trending #pithairdontcare hashtag on Instagram, Gigi Hadid’s December 2017 Love Magazine advent calendar promotion for the Tommy X Gigi collection featuring her underarm hair, and photographer Ben Hopper’s photo series Natural Beauty in 2014, where he depicts women in their natural state to deconstruct the negative connotation associated with body hair. These instances mark an important shift occurring in our culture toward body acceptance rather than body modification. In a society where young girls and boys are growing up with images of photoshopped celebrities and hairless porn stars, it is important to present people who go against these conventions to facilitate a community of inclusiveness instead of potentially harmful expectations.
By presenting these thoughts and critiques, I am not suggesting that every woman grow their leg hair long like Mo’Nique, or dye their armpit hair like Miley. However, I hope women start questioning themselves the next time they grimace at their razor burn or pay $1,000 for electrolysis: who are you doing this for and why? Ultimately, women should be able to do what they want with their bodies, and if a woman, like Hannah, wants to let their hair grow naturally, then we should react to their body with positivity, not disgust. Otherwise, we need to acknowledge the consequences this norm has had on female sexuality and body image, as well as what it illuminates about our societal values, and the gender double standard that lingers.
Darci Brill Bachelor’s of Arts (BAH) Major Psychology Queen's University
Basow, S. A. (1991). The Hairless Ideal: Women and Their Body Hair. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 15(1), 83-96. Doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1991.tb00479.x
Fahs, B. (2011). Breaking Body Hair Boundaries: Classroom Exercises for Challenging Social Constructions of the Body and Sexuality. Feminism & Psychology, 22(4), 482-506. Doi: 10.117/0959353511427293
Laurance, J. (2012, August 5). Physician Calls for an End to Bikini Waxing. Independent. Retrieved March 14, 2018
Tiggemann, M., & Hodgson, S. (2008). The Hairless Norm Extended: Reasons for and Predictors of Women’s Body Hair Removal at Different Body Sites. Sex Roles, 59 (11-12), 889-897. Doi: 10.1007/s11199-008-9494-3