Hair is amazing. It contains nanoparticles of gold, regulates temperature and releases pheromones. Why then is such an incredible biological feature criticised, demonised and politicised to such an extent? Having spoken to people of many genders, it seems that body hair is caught in a conflict between the public—conforming to or challenging social expectations, and the private—whether we have the ability or the functionality to physically remove body hair.
To shave or not to shave is a deeply personal decision, but more often than not it is claimed by the public sphere. The relationship between a person’s body and their hair is one of the most complex and interesting narratives of social history. Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks all agreed that pubic hair was disagreeable, and used tools called “volsellas”, a kind of proto-tweezer, to manage growth.
In contrast, Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France in the late 16th century, favoured the complete opposite and forbade any of the ladies in her court from shaving their pubic area. Her contemporary, Queen Elizabeth I, endorsed the fashionable removal of hair from the top of the forehead to create the illusion of a longer, more elegant face. Walnut oil or even cat faeces would be rubbed into the skin to deter regrowth.
In more recent times, the launch of Gillette’s 1915 Milady Décolleté campaign was the first to encourage the shaving of under arms. This corresponded with the increasing popularity for sleeveless dresses, and in the same year, Harper Bazaar preached that hairless armpits were a “necessity” for the modern woman.Luckily, most people today are not subjected to the same level of policing as our historical ancestors, but within the small, every-day lives we occupy, the way we manage and present our bodies can feel like a very conscious statement.
Speaking to many different people in Oxford, much of the feedback came with negativity—one person described to me how childhood insecurity and teasing over hair had affected their perception of their adult body. They admitted that “my ideal presentation would be hair on my head, eyebrows, eyelashes and literally nowhere else”. Another girl admitted: “I know that my decision to shave is probably due to internalised misogyny, and every time I go through the pain of waxing my upper lip I question why I do it”.
However, while it’s true that the obvious double standards of masculine and feminine beauty call into question the sexism behind the tradition of shaving, it’s also important to discredit the heteronormative assumption that women simply shave to be considered “attractive” to men. Some enjoy the feel of smooth legs, while others appreciate the benefits of shaving, such as the skin’s increased collagen production.
In many cases, shaving can be a very individual declaration of self-confidence. Emily said, “I started shaving every day after getting out of a relationship with an abusive partner. She pushed me to not shave because she was obsessed with being more feminine than me, so removing all my body hair has always been really personally empowering”.
Likewise, many people find that leaving body hair uncultivated is equally empowering. The acceptance of your body as it truly and naturally exists can be a very fulfilling experience—why else would hair grow if it was supposed to be stripped away again as soon as it surfaced? Taisie agreed: “I haven’t shaved my legs or underarms for a year and I feel good about that because it makes me feel more ‘me’”.
However, the decision to let hair remain au naturel can be difficult, as Miranda told me: “I stopped shaving completely the summer before I started university. I felt very self- conscious at first, and in the summer would cover my legs and armpits until I convinced myself not to care. I’m happy I managed to remove the internalised fear and stigma I had about body hair and make-up, and I feel much happier in my body these days”.
As an act of reclamation, last year Juliette decided to stop waxing her armpits and dye them instead. She explained “one of the reasons I originally dyed my armpit hair was so that people couldn’t tell me that I was just neglecting myself. It was sort of a statement of ‘nope, I didn’t just forget to shave’”. Within these conversations, one sentiment that quickly emerged was how many of those who chose not to shave were aware of their privilege. Taisie said: “I think that the body hair positivity movement doesn’t sufficiently interrogate who it’s really accessible for. As a femme cis white woman, my body hair isn’t policed like it is for other people”.
Francesca, who is Jewish and dark-haired, voices this issue—she feels that “not shaving is something that many people seem to take a great deal of pride in; the idea that ‘I don’t shave which makes me super feminist’”. The decision to ‘just not shave’ is very differently weighted for dark-haired girls, who Francesca said: “feel constantly embarrassed and self-conscious in order to fully ‘perform’ this kind of feminism”. Miriam likewise emphasised this disparity: “being mixed race means I have a lot of dark body hair and I used to get really stressed out about the little black dots that remain even after shaving. My blonde friend once asked if I’d forgotten to shave when I had literally spent all morning doing so. Because of this, I spent a lot of hot summer days wearing jeans”.
These micro-aggressions further alienate people of colour and ignore the racism and oppression that surrounds body hair. The desire to avoid harmful stereotyping or to escape racism is often over-looked or even criticised by ‘white feminism’, despite the fact that shaving or removing hair is a completely valid and justifiable choice for people of all ethnicities.
This privileged view of body hair affects transgender and non-binary people as well. Alyson, a trans girl, stated that, “shaving can provoke dysphoria. I have zero time for a feminism that is going to put the things trans people do to preserve their lives or mental health on the same scale as the things people do to police or enforce patriarchal beauty standards”.
The gender expectations that are problematically aligned with body hair surpass simple feminist discussions about choice, and rather present much more difficult challenges for non-cis people: “I don’t just risk being judged but being outed, misgendered, or even hurt. There are people who would take me having a beard as a personal attack on their ideas of gender”, Alyson told me.
Similarly, Elise said, “as a person who identifies as non-binary (with woman as part of that identity), body hair has always been a strange locus for me.” At school, they felt “shaving meant I was performing womanhood, and not shaving meant I was more manly—that’s how I saw it, though I knew deep down those were just gender roles”. The choice to shave or not to shave is more than an act of defiance against the patriarchy—for some people, it is an unavoidable act of defiance against the social construction of gender itself, and that can carry greater repercussions.
It’s also worth considering that sometimes people have little or no autonomy when it comes to the management of their body hair. Alice told me how she stopped shaving during an exhausting period of being very ill, explaining “it’s because I have issues with functioning rather than a defined aesthetic choice”, while Elise also noted that a struggle with self-harm meant that owning razors was not a safe option.
Similarly, one woman explained that “these kinds of social pressures and insecurities can really perpetuate aspects of eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders, and body focused repetitive behaviours—I know that body hair definitely plays a part in my history of dealing with all of these”.
When addressing comparable problems, Alyson highlighted how “dyspraxia makes it difficult for me to shave—lots of reaching and bending which rapidly starts to cause aches and pains”. The ableist concept that “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones” (according to cosmetics entrepreneur, Helena Rubinstein) disregards ways in which common beauty rituals can actually be very inaccessible, exhausting and painful for many disabled people.
However, at the same time, shaving can be medically necessary for others whose conditions cause hirsutism, or excessive hair growth, which can compromise surgical procedures. The point being that a disabled person’s body hair experience—no matter what form it takes—should not be commodified by mainstream feminism (as it often is) to either argue for or against shaving. To do so is to appropriate the struggles of disabled or neuro-divergent people for a discussion that concerns mainly aesthetic considerations; in other words, politicising other people’s bodies in order to claim a social symbolism.
Therefore, to exclusively reserve the choice of shaving for those who already conform to the majority of beauty standards (such as Miley Cyrus, Lola Kirke or Madonna) really illuminates the narrow-mindedness of ‘white feminism’ and the oppression it continues to serve. Strands of false feminism which neglect the issues faced by minorities are not truly feminist. In my interviews, a great many people showed sensitivity to this hypocrisy but among non-liberal and socially aware circles, the problems are pervasive.
Ginger expressed how she “would like for female body hair to be normalised and seen in the mainstream more” but until both the absence and the presence of body hair are equally divorced from social politics, there will always be the risk of accidentally perpetuating the oppression faced by minority groups. This is not to say white, cis-gendered, able women should feel guilty for their decisions regarding body hair, far from it—as long as they do not project or force these opinions upon others, and actively support and celebrate the choices (and acknowledge the possible lack of choice) of minority people.
In the end, whether you do or do not shave is a personal decision—albeit one with a bizarre amount of public interference—and maybe one day people will be able to pick up a razor without wondering if that makes them a bad feminist or not.