Monday, January 26, 2009

The Politics of Body Hair and the Violation of Related Norms

Jessica Mason McFadden
Prof. C. Bailey - Western Illinois Unviersity
October 29 2006

Shaving off the Layers:
Exploring the Politics of Body Hair & the Violation of Related Norms

For the past six years, I have been challenging nonverbal gender expectations, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently. I began thinking about and challenging gender norms (including nonverbal “rules” dictating appropriate behavior for the sexes) when I realized my lesbian sexuality. Until I acknowledged my sexuality at sixteen, I was oblivious to the way in which I was influenced by gender stereotypes. Despite being hyperaware and critical of gender stereotypes, I sometimes find myself unknowingly obeying traditional gender rules or hypocritically supporting a practice that reinforces traditional gender roles. When I initially heard that our assignment required that we violate a nonverbal gender rule, I naively felt at a loss for inspiration and ideas. The first thought that came to my mind was that I regularly violate nonverbal gender expectations, but after reflecting upon the assignment for some time, I decided to use it to challenge myself. To do what I do everyday may have allowed me to complete the assignment adequately, but I would have felt that I had not made the most of the opportunity for personal growth that is inherent in the assignment. I regularly wear clothing that is androgynous (sometimes masculine) and open doors for men. I realize that these violations are significant, but they do not usually require that I step out of my comfort zone.

While have been given praise, at times, for the way in which I boldly challenge gender and other norms, I have always felt that much of this comes naturally to me. It feels natural for me to speak openly about my lesbian identity, just as it feels natural for me to speak openly about my partner, Sandy, our thirty year age difference, and the fact that we are trying to have a child through artificial insemination. While these details are not always relevant, I feel good about being able to share them. I firmly believe that monsters live in the dark and that the idea of privacy is often an excuse for fear and shame. I realize that not everyone feels so comfortable with self-disclosure, but self-disclosure comes naturally and easily to me. Since I am able to do it and I believe it is progressive and valuable, I feel confident about my in-your-face approach. I am a sensitive person, but I feel that progress only occurs when individuals push the boundaries. I challenge others when I feel inspired or disturbed, and I challenge everyone: strangers, family, friends, and even myself. Of course, it is easier to challenge others than it is to challenge myself. And so, for this assignment, I chose to violate a nonverbal gender expectation that challenged me to move out of my comfort zone.

Professor Bailey warned us not to frighten, intimidate or endanger anyone. When I read her warning, I laughed out loud because I often frighten people, even my own family members. I did not wish to frighten or intimidate anyone, but some things are out of my hands. In fact, I imagined that it was likely that some would feel frightened and intimidated! My partner is actually the one who came up with my nonverbal violation. She urged me to challenge myself by suggesting that I spend a day with my hairy legs revealed. Her idea was brilliant in so many ways, but I will admit that I was hesitant at first. When I was a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, I was surrounded by women who chose not to shave their legs. It was the first time I had encountered women who chose not to shave their legs, and while I agreed politically and ideologically with their choices, I was not able to boldly follow in their footsteps at the time. I did not shave and I did not reveal my legs. I covered my legs. Covering my legs and avoiding having to deal with the issue of leg hair was and still is a habit of mine. I consider myself to be in a state of ambivalence regarding shaving. Ideologically speaking, I have no desire to shave, but I also find myself concealing my legs in the face of my choice to “go natural.”

There are interesting expectations for women and hair. Women are typically seen as the purer, cleaner sex, but they are also expected to be sexy and are frequently objectified for their sexuality. This isn’t new, but it is still appropriate—the issue of hair and women’s bodies relates to, at least to some degree, the virgin/whore dichotomy. Women are expected to be sexual and innocent at the same time. An “ideal” woman, then, is a woman who walks a thin line, embodying a bit of the whore and a bit of the virgin. A woman who cannot walk the thin line is cast off as a prude or a whore. I am interested in exploring what might be called the “politics of hair.” When I was in high school, I played Annie in the school musical. It was during that period of time that guys started asking me out on dates. I cannot help but make a connection between playing a little girl and being found attractive. No one know at the time that Annie was really a lesbian in love with her high school English teacher. No one knew that Annie actually had thick, dark hair on many unacceptable parts of her body. What would have happened if they had known? What would have happened if Annie was a hairy little girl? I did not dispel the stereotypes at that time, and shaving did not alleviate the shame that I felt at being so hairy. My face is feminine and is not particularly hairy, so people are often shocked to find out that I share some qualities (underneath) with the hairy Italian women on my father’s side of the family.

Purity is associated with hairlessness. Women are expected to have hair on their heads. Most other hair is supposed to be concealed or removed. Women typically shave their legs and armpits. Why would we expect women to be hairless when most women are hairy? Why is it okay for men to be hairy, yet women must hide their hair? I should also note that this expectation may be different outside of the United States, but I think it is safe to say that it is a widespread phenomenon for women in the United States. The expectation is particularly common for white women who are considered feminine in appearance A woman who is considered unattractive would probably be more likely to be associated with hairiness than a woman who is considered attractive. If this is true, then attractiveness in women is associated with hairlessness. I find the gender expectation for women to either be hairless or shave their body hair extremely disturbing. I do not know at which point this expectation began, but I do know that is unrealistic, unfair, and oppressive. Women fall all over the continuum on hairiness. By shaving, women are adhering, at least to some degree, to the idea that they are not okay as they are naturally. I realize that shaving is only one example of many—women wear makeup, men shave their facial hair.

My sister and mother often argue with me over this issue. My sister says that she shaves because she likes the way it looks and feels, but I do not believe it is so simple. I remember when she was just a hairy little kid who could care less about being hairy. She did not begin shaving because she thought it looked and felt good, she began shaving because someone told her that it was necessary. She shaved because she wanted to be accepted and considered attractive. I know because I did the same thing! I was in fifth grade when I began shaving. It happened abruptly. I was taking a bath at my grandmother’s house. She saw that I was hairy and asked me why I hadn’t shaved. Then she gave me a razor and left me to my own devices. I did not know the “appropriate” places to shave, so I took a guess. I ended up shaving most of my body—arms included. My experience simply emphasizes that shaving is a learned behavior. There is nothing inherently good or natural about shaving. We give it meaning, and I happen to think the meaning we give it is superficial, ridiculous, and harmful to women’s psyches.

The messages that I received about body hair came, for the most part, from the women in my family, but I also received messages from the men. My father is as outspoken as I am. He told me to put on a shirt when I walked around the house in a bra and I told him to put on a shirt when he walked around the house with his breasts showing. I had the sense that if he could scratch his hairy tummy in the kitchen, then I should be able to do the same—to scratch my hairy tummy, my hairy legs, and to go around with a shirt off (I did not actually do this, but I thought about doing it). When my younger brother flashes his hairy butt at us, we laugh and cringe.; when I flash my hairy butt at the family, they scream and run. They find my hairiness offensive. By way of hairiness, I am a deviant. When I reveal my hair, I violate their sense of decency (Who can explain why I love to do it?). A couple of years ago, I announced to my family that I was extremely hairy (it wasn’t the first time that I announced it). I lifted up my pant leg to show my brothers and father my hair. Immediately, they let out screams of disgust. It was as if I had shown them a fresh wound with blood and guts squirting out of it. Still, I noticed that they studied the leg with a bit of fascination.

Whenever they visit us in Macomb, I am sure to reveal my legs at least once. As a side note, it occurred to me that my behavior may parallel the behavior of men who flash their penises to people on the street. The commonality might have something to do with challenging norms. Knowing that my hairy legs make people uncomfortable is, in part, a motivation for me to reveal my hairy legs. I want to put an end to others’ discomfort by forcing them to face the object of their discomfort, whether it be hairy legs or my lesbian sexuality. I do this because I believe that the discomfort is the result of fear that is irrational and unwarranted. Perhaps some men expose their penises for the same or a similar reason.

Every time I show my hairy legs, my father says, “Oh my god. Why don’t you shave? That’s gross,” which, of course, starts a wonderfully heated debate. There is something about my openness and hairiness that particularly disturbs my father. Once, relatively recently, when I was sitting in the front of the station wagon between my parents, my father said, “You have hair above your lip. Is that something that lesbians have? Does Sandy have hair on her face?” I was shocked that he had been sitting there, analyzing my face. My mother tried to shut him up by giving him a shove and saying, “Bill, she does not have hair on her face. That’s just light fuzz. Jessica does not have hair on her face. Leave her alone.” I was flattered that my mother wanted to defend me, but she was missing the point. I had to interject, saying, “Yes, it’s hair. So what? Lots of people have hair on their face. Why would it matter to you, Dad, if I had hair on my face? What if I had a beard? Why would it matter? It should be okay that I have hair on my face. It’s natural. You should see my legs. Oh, Dad, look at the hairy legs.”

Despite my desire to engage in passionate debates about body hair and my ability to openly reveal my hair with family and friends, I have not yet adopted fully the practice of showing my hairy legs publicly. Posing nude for art classes has helped me to come closer to achieving my goal, but I have not yet reached my ideal point of comfort. In the face of my discomfort, though, I chose to go to school with hairy legs for this assignment. By shaving, women are conveying a nonverbal message of conformity. By going natural, women are displaying nonconformity and defiance to traditional gender expectations. In class, we have spent a lot of time discussing the way in which gender expectations play out in childhood (gender rules regarding types of play, toys, and apparel). The issue of body hair is an appropriate addition to this conversation because it is a sensitive topic for which individuals have strong opinions. I have yet to be convinced that shaving serves a beneficial purpose, but I am certainly open to listening to anyone who feels that they can make a convincing argument on the behalf of shaving. My mother once suggested that having armpit hair caused more sweating. She claimed that having shaved armpits helped to alleviate the problem of sweat. I am unconvinced by her claim because she does not apply it to men and because I do not believe that she shaves to alleviate sweat. The practice of shaving is a deeply engrained in society, and ideals regarding women and purity are deeply internalized through the often automatic practice of shaving.

Once I had decided that I would go out in public with my hairy legs revealed, I knew I would not go back on that decision. It was something that I wanted to do, and I was not going to let fear stand in my way. The day before I performed the task, I tried to avoid thinking about it because doing so brought about unpleasant, anxious feelings. I also had to try to ignore the excuses for changing my mind that I was giving myself (“it’s too cold for a skirt and I’ve already done this once before”). I knew I could do it because I knew my fears and excuses were irrational. On Thursday morning, I put on makeup, a knee-length skirt, and a pair of large, leather boots. Wearing the makeup was significant because I rarely wear makeup (I used to wear makeup regularly though). My partner, Sandy, suggested that I pair the makeup and skirt with the hairy legs to effectively make my statement. My intended statement was complicated, and I am not sure that I fully understand it myself. I wanted to convey the point that women, even women with soft, stereotypically feminine facial features, can have hairy legs. It would not surprise me if many of the male students that I encountered had never seen (such) hairy legs on a woman. If that was the case, then I am happy that I was able to expose them to it. I also wanted to challenge the norm of stereotypical femininity (embodied in makeup and a skirt) by pairing it with stereotypical masculinity (hairy legs). If nothing else, I was hoping to make people think for a moment about the juxtaposition. If I confused them or made them look or think twice, then I succeeded in my personal goal for this assignment. In the context of this assignment, I will take it as a compliment if my hairy legs frightened or intimidated anyone.

There were three groups of people that I encountered throughout the day—friends and family, students at Western Illinois University, and those involved in the campus group for GLBTTQIAA students, Unity. Each group reacted somewhat uniquely and I, personally, felt different with each group. I was able to start off the day with my partner, who was incredibly loving and encouraging. It was important to me to know that she was proud of me for being bold and doing something that I felt was worthwhile. Knowing that she was proud and supportive of me helped me to face my fears (or to act in spite of my fear). I was happy that Professor Bailey’s class was my first class of the day because I felt that it would help me ease into my state of discomfort. During the day of the violation, I attended three classes, spent some time with a close friend at the Student Union, and attended a Unity meeting. Most of the reactions were subtle, but I was most aware of reactions while I was walking across campus.

My natural tendency was to look down, but I fought that tendency because the whole point was for me to observe others’ reactions to my violation. I doubted that anyone would verbally respond to my violation and I knew to look at others’ faces for their responses. Keeping my head up, I thought, was part of the assignment, so I did. Having to keep my head up and having hairy legs at the same time was a new experience for me. In fact, part of the significance of this assignment is that it provides us with an opportunity to observe and analyze our own feelings during the violation. I experienced a range of feelings during the process, including anxiety, excitement, pride, weariness, frustration, and awkwardness. I was surprised that I was highly self-aware throughout the day. When I walked from one class to another, I noticed that I felt a sense of defensiveness. My defenses were up throughout the day. I am not exactly sure of how others interpreted it, but I imagine that others may have interpreted my body language as being either confident or arrogant. When I looked others’ in the eyes, I frequently found myself smiling. When I passed someone who appeared to take notice of my legs, I would think, “Yes, I know what you were looking at,” and then I would smile. This reaction does not surprise— I often smile when I am uncomfortable, awkward, or unsure.

As I expected, I did not observe any dramatic responses from those I passed or encountered during the day. In general, more people seemed to take notice of the hair on my legs outside of the classroom. When I was in the classroom, most people were preoccupied or uninterested. Those who were in close proximity to my legs seemed to take notice, but they did not stare (probably for fear of the awkwardness of being caught). My classmates would only have paused to look if they had unintentionally taken notice of the hairy legs. I don’t think they had any interest in paying any special attention to me, so for the most part, they did not notice my legs. They were more likely to notice my legs in passing because there were less distractions and my legs were visible and moving. As I walked across campus, people scanned my body, looking first at my legs and then looking at my face (as if to try to make sense of what they were seeing). It was a rainy day and I was carrying an umbrella, but I resisted the temptation to hide my face under it. I would not be surprised if many students were looking up at my face under the umbrella as they approached to determine my gender. I did not observe many looks of disgust, although I did observe looks of confusion and curiosity.

The only looks that I interpreted as disapproving came from white males who appeared to be members of a football team. From my point of view, the “football players” did not hide their shock and disgust. All of this is speculation, of course, but perhaps the alleged football players were more obvious in their surprised and disgusted reaction because they felt threatened by it or because it threatened their narrow gender expectations. Other factors that may have affected their reactions or drawn their attention to me were that I was wearing an uncommon outfit (a peasant-style skirt and leather boots), that I had my bare legs uncovered in cold weather, or that I was looking at them.

Strangers and classmates were not the only individuals I encountered during the day. I also visited with a close friend. I have revealed my hairy legs in her presence at my home, but I have never revealed my hairy legs in her presence in public. She does not shave her legs (she does not have hairy legs), so I was sure that she would be proud of me for going out in public with my hairy legs. We met at her car in front of her workplace, Simpkins Hall. She gave me a good look before we entered the building, and then dramatically announced, “ I’m not walking near you. I don’t want to be seen with you.” While I am convinced that she was teasing me over it, I still felt sensitive because she was not giving me encouragement. I said, in response, “Gees, I thought you wanted me to do this. And now that I am doing it, you don’t want to walk near me. Fine, you don’t get to walk under my umbrella!” Again, I think we were teasing, but you never know (she may have actually been a little embarrassed to be seen with me). Despite her comments, she walked around campus with me (so I guess whatever she felt was not enough to deter her from spending time with me). She has seen my legs before, but she still felt the need to comment on the amount and darkness of the hair. I’m not sure if her need to comment on it had anything to do with her discomfort, she may have simply been making conversation.

Later in the evening, I attended a Unity meeting. I did not notice anyone looking at or reacting to the hair on my legs. I may not have been paying as much attention at that time because I felt more comfortable with the group. Students in Unity may have noticed, but I did not observe anyone looking at my legs. Unity members may be more open-minded because many of the members defy gender expectations themselves, but I have never seen a female member of Unity with hairy legs. Even Unity members, in my experience, shave their legs. So while it is possible that I challenged their norms by revealing my legs, I did not observe any responses.

It was a long day, but I am proud of myself for committing my violation. Not only do I feel that I did something positive by challenging gender stereotypes, I also feel that I did something positive for myself. Now that I have survived this experience, I will be more likely to do it in the future. When deciding whether or not to reveal my hairy legs in the future, I will at least be able to dispel some of my irrational fears by knowing that I survived it once before. I am grateful for this opportunity. Although it was an uncomfortable experience, I learned a little more about myself and others.

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