This is an article I wrote for a new ny magazine called YOUNG, COLORED & ANGRY that only features the work of brown people. It’s about the experience of having body hair, as a woman of colour.
Body hair is everywhere and nowhere. In the Western World, it is a weed that is pulled from women’s bodies systematically and without question, rigorously policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame.
In my examination of mental health, art and activism, body hair is often characterized as an abnormality or aberration, for example as the medical condition ‘hirsutism’, as a pornographic fetish, as something threatening or something trivial, and always something to be removed, something to be removed, something to be removed in every sense of the word.
In my first relationship and close contact with a man, I would watch, as he would routinely wake up, rub his hand over his face, and leave the house to begin his day. I have always worn very little make-up myself, and tend to let the hair on my head do whatever it decides to that day, but still, the disparity between us in freedom of movement and freedom of mind was clear – and I began to see this disparity everywhere I looked, in advertising, in the lives of my friends, in the university sanctioned reading lists that were considered exempt from criticism.
It was around then that I stepped into the shower to perform my regular shaving ritual, and a small thought pushed its way to the front of mind: that this act is absurd, and that the double standard that it is couched within is even more absurd.
It wasn’t until two years later, when I left university and moved into a large shared house in London, that I was able to transition from someone who “experimented” with body hair (which often meant wearing cardigans in the sunshine) to someone who could begin to accept her body, find it beautiful even, and begin to make choices about it that felt like they were hers.
Danni Paffard was the enabler of this transition, and my experience watching her is the basis of much of my strength of feeling around the importance of the image. Danni lived in the room above me and was always running. She would run up and down all the stairs of the four-floor shop-turned-house and would leave the house at 6am every day without fail to run the streets of London. She’s an environmental campaigner and is known among friends for being hilarious, and having a piercing laugh that can work as a routing device at music festivals when everyone’s phones have died. Danni is loved by men. She wears lots of mascara and has an asymmetrical fringe. She doesn’t remove any of the hair on her body and makes no attempt to hide this fact regardless of where she is. Danni Paffard blew my mind. I remember sitting opposite her for the first time, watching her tie her hair up with both hands, desperately trying, like a child, to catch a glimpse of her armpits.
It wasn’t just seeing the hair so brazenly displayed that began rewiring my brain, it was the context, the fact it was so clearly situated among other stylistic choices: the make-up, the clothes, the fact that she laughed so often, danced so hard, felt desire and was desired, and yes, the fact that she was able to muster an unapologeticness which I felt could shatter the world.
I believe that much of her ability to live like this comes from an inherent confidence which is undoubtedly tied to social factors. That she is a white, middle class, able- bodied, heterosexual female cannot be overlooked, but neither can it discredit her role in my personal awakening. Besides, there are many, many women who share all her identity markers, and who do not challenge beauty norms in this way.
It was the fusion Danni Paffard represented (hairy social deviant meets outgoing stylish babe) that created a new level of understanding within me, and perhaps her being white and fulfilling so many other traditional beauty norms was part of that.
In a psychological review of work that has been done on ‘hirsuteness’ (“an excess of body hair in the male distribution” (Conn & Jacobs, 1997)), Keegan (2003), states:
A display of facial or body hair is only acceptable in women who in some way represent the ‘other’.
Two such categories of ‘other’ emerge: older women (i.e. past the need to be sexually attractive) and ‘foreigners’. To be happy about the presence of ‘superfluous’ hair is also the prerogative of women regarded socially as deviant, e.g. lesbians. One implication of this, which is not directly spoken, is that sexually attractive heterosexual women cannot display facial and body hair. (Keegan, 2003:14)
That body hair is palatable in situations where the women involved already lack value in society or have in some way ‘let themselves go’ speaks again to the importance of The Image, and particularly images which challenge those ideas by fusing unexpected images, for example, a woman’s hairy stomach with her manicured nails. These fusions are so powerful because they present the hair as an active choice rather than an involuntary byproduct of old age or illness or lesbianism. In short, images can remind women they have a choice, and what is feminism, if not the pursuit of the right to make empowered, agentic choices? As Lesnik- Oberstein writes:
Attendant on this issue is a challenge too to some (mostly popular) feminism to consider more carefully its formulations around ‘fun’ feminism and ‘victim’ feminism. The whole idea of make-up and clothing, or other ritual decorative practices, as constituting in any simple way ‘celebrations’ of ‘femininity’, serves to close down important questions around the coercive practices of social ridicule and social exclusion for those not willing or able to participate in this ‘celebration’, never mind the more general question of how women (or anyone) come to believe that they have freely ‘chosen’ to engage in certain practices. (Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006:6)
As I have grown in confidence and challenge myself to experiment with my body further, it has become a billboard; at clubs, on the subway, in classrooms, and I have come to think of it as an act of direct action, as well as one of deep self love. My body provokes many conversations with women, usually after a few drinks, and these have become the conversations I enjoy the most, as there is a real feeling that a psychological burden is being unloaded between the women participating, as personal stories that have often never been told before are being vocalized. These conversations are not always easy, however. Sometimes women feel judged or chastised by the sight of my body and the jarring reminder that there is another relationship we can have with our hair. I am met with a great deal of defensiveness that I try to dismantle, often by telling a few stories of my own, about my moustache and the other parts of my body where hair growth still disgusts me. Still, these conversations, by and large, become about choice, and by making something which is barely allowed to be seen so strikingly visible, that conversation has been achieved.
As I welcomed increasing discourse and activism around body hair, I couldn’t help but feel that something still wasn’t right. I began to realize that the experience is different for Women of Colour in a way I did not have the language to express, or was frightened to. But as feminism became more of a diverse space, and crucially, via social media, one that was easily accessible by diverse women, this very dilemma began to be played out.
‘Misogynoir,’ coined by activist Moya Bailey in 2013, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by Women of Colour by virtue of our gender and race. And as I read more, it transformed my understanding of my instincts. It helped me realize why I felt uneasy as my white, middle-class feminist friends gleefully lambasted Beyoncé for the way she moves and for her contradictions, and why I felt uneasy about a feminist body positivity movement that did not seem to account for the unique experiences of black women.
Then in August of last year, writer Mikki Kendall called time on these double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting Women of Colour globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a non-white woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.
My unease also came from the look in my mother’s eyes every time she saw my body hair. The look has been persistent over the years and communicates so much more than a feeling of disgust or judgment that I have come to expect. I could not help but feel that as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a racist 1970s Britain under constant threat of attack, there was a deeply racial and particularly social element to her discomfort with my choice, though that was never said.
This line of thought was reawakened while studying under photographer Deborah Willis. Around the same time I heard about gender professor Breanne Fahs’ course at Arizona State University entitled Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. As part of this course she offered an extra credit for female students willing to grow their body hair and male students willing to remove it and document their experiences. This was widely discussed on social media and Dr Fahs analysed her students responses wherein she found body hair removal “an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity.” The interesting bit of this however, was that while the majority of her female students found the challenge “difficult” and “disgusting”, there were marked differences between the experiences of the female students of Colour, and the others. As she reports:
Reactions to body hair carried raced and classed elements, as women of color and/ or working-class women reported more familial regulation about body hair and far more social penalties for growing out their hair than did white or middle/upper class women. Women of color often expressed that body hair exacerbated their ‘differentness’ from white or middle/upper-class women in the course. For example, Ana compared the quality of her body hair with her white classmates:
When I compared my hair to the hair of the other girls in class, there was an obvious difference. My hair grew in thick and coarse. The other Latina women in the class understand that the white girls had it easier because their hair was thinner. I felt like people would think I was a ‘dirty Mexican’ because of the hair, that I was doing something nasty, and people would connect my body hair to my being lesbian or Mexican.
Body hair for some women of color became a marker of racial status, which made it harder to assimilate into white middle-class educational settings. (Fahs, 2013:494)
Isn’t it amazingly fucked up that a body that is maintained in line with society’s narrow code of acceptability (a white code) is one that has “looked after itself”, that has not “let itself go”? This is discussed by Foucault (1986) who describes it as a process by which regulation of the body comes to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations – or racial ones.
With regard to respectability and body hair, the most striking testimony can be found in Breanne Fahs’ classroom study:
I come from a family that didn’t have much money, and to let yourself go is going against everything I have been taught. I’m always careful about coming across as respectable and clean, just so I don’t confirm all of those stereotypes people have of me as dirty and low class.
These comments reflect the association of body hair with both a lack of femininity and a lack of respectability, as women of color implicitly faced judgements about how their bodies circulated in public spaces as indicators of their racial or class statuses. Women of color constructed their bodies as having more at stake in this supposed loss of respectability. (Fahs, 2013:494)
No-one, as far as I can see, has tried to measure the psychological impact of body hair practices for Women of Colour, but it has been attempted for white middle class women (surprise!) with a very direct correlation proved across the ages between ‘hirsuteness’ and ‘psychological morbidity’. In a 1938 study by Rabinowitz et al on hirsutism and anxiety, women with hirsutism had significantly higher levels of anxiety than the control group. In 1992, Barth et al measured psychological morbidity in pre-menopausal women with hirsutism. The results found that there was a measurable correlation between hirsutism and social dysfunction in women, which in turn led to overall psychological morbidity in hirsute women.
More recently, Lipton et al, in their 2006, ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden’ found results that support many of the earlier studies carried out; namely that 1. Women with unwanted facial hair experience high levels of distress and that hair removal constituted an immense time and emotional burden for these women. In addition to the time burden, it appeared that many women had concerns about their appearance, felt ashamed, and lacked self- confidence. Thoughts about unwanted hair were constantly in the minds of most women, demonstrated by their frequent checking for hair, and 2. Although a large number of women perceived their facial hair to be severe, a finding more pronounced in mixed race and Asian women than white women, this perception was found to have little bearing on their psychological health.
It’s getting there but the research is lacking, or perhaps useless. What about women who are not considered medically ‘hirsute’? What about women who do not display signs of mental distress? What about black women? This is not a medical phenomenon, it is a social one.
There is clearly a mental onus around body hair rituals that exist outside of the realm of having a full blown mental breakdown which can be measured on some sort of psychological scale (though that obviously counts too). I can’t help but feel that for many women, particularly Women of Colour, the mental health effects are much more insidious, hidden among other pressures and concerns, hidden from ourselves, couched confusingly within a culture where these practices are considered ‘self-care’ and the experience of participating in them, indeed a therapeutic one.
I am interested in the small stuff. When there is open critique of beauty rituals, this often revolves around the cost of them, the time they take and the pain that must often be endured. This is a neat retelling of the experience. A few studies I have read indicate that body hair is something that is “always on their mind”. This quote, found in one study on psychology and hirsutism is particularly harrowing:
Behavioural measures to conceal hair in this sample included covering the lower part of the face with the hands, staying in shade, maintaining physical distance from others, moving quickly to avoid close observation, wearing concealing clothes and an avoidance of physical contact. (Zerssen et al, 1960)
The mental burden of hair removal does not stop when the hair is removed. It has to be planned and timed around social events, wage delivery and potential sexual encounters. For example, if Layla has a work event on Thursday and a date on Saturday and wants to wax her moustache for the work event, she may encounter a problem as the hair will not grow back fully before her date on Saturday so she may not be able to remove it again before then, but the stubble will be showing, which is unacceptable for a date. Headspace.
Researching the psychology of body hair, I have found a repeated testimony of women describing hair as “dirt”, themselves as “dirty” and the process of hair removal as one intricately tied to the idea of cleanliness. Douglas (1970) suggests that a contravention of order by any object which is “likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications” becomes, “dirt”. This is striking and makes me think immediately of sexual assult survivors self-reporting as feeling “dirty” (Coy, 2009). So let’s think about race. Worldwide, darker skin is considered undesirable and dirty, with many practices employed by women such as scrubbing and bleaching, in efforts to lighten the skin (Craig, 2002). Many racial slurs imply dirtiness. So what is actually going on when women of colour take their hair off? What does it feel like to live with a daily triple burden of brown skin, body hair and a history of sexual abuse, as so many many women do? This framing around the concept of dirt helps to understand why so many women may become so observant of hair removal practices, which are closely related to ideas of cleanliness and purity. This shit goes deep. These ideas were also found in the testimonies gathered by Fahs:
Ruby confronted her own sexism and racism about body hair: ‘I also thought, like most people, that women who did not keep up on their appearance through body hair removal were lazy, dirty, and kind of crazy. . . I never thought that it could be a choice.’ Sharon, who could not finish the assignment because she found it intolerable, described her fear of dirtiness as a raced dimension: ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’ Ana similarly commented on her body hair by noting its raced and classed dimensions:
I found myself wearing makeup more often, at first unconsciously. Before I’d stopped shaving, I hardly ever wore makeup. I started because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t ‘take care of myself’ and I’m always aware of the fact that, as a Mexican, I have to go that extra mile. I’m not a college professor and I don’t live and work with other feminists like some of my girlfriends do. I’m a waitress, and my coworkers would think I was a freak. (Fahs, 2013:495)
Last year, Chinese women made headlines for “bombarding” Weibo, a social media site with images of body hair growth. Although framed as a competition, this was a highly politicized online campaign, including the statement:
Many people consider it personal hygiene or etiquette for girls to shave their body hair, be it leg hair or underarm hair. Guys, on the other hand, get away with sporting bushy armpits and a forest of hair on their legs, arms and even chests “because it’ s manly”.
In the UK, 23 year old Harnaam Kaur has made big headlines this year due to her decision to keep her facial hair and speak very publically about it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome and began growing hair on her face aged 16. After years of intense bullying, shaving, waxing, bleaching and a few suicide attempts, she decided, supported by her brother and close friends, to grow her beard out fully. For her there was a religious element too, that appears to give her strength in her decision. She began growing her beard shortly after being baptized as a Sikh and therefore not cutting the hair on her head anymore. In one interview she said, “It’s the way that God made me, and I’m happy with it.” She has since gone on to write articles, give many television interviews, and was the only woman included in a London exhibition by photographer Brock Elbank, that was in celebration of the beard. She also has her own YouTube channel on which she talks, directly to her audience, about her experiences. She has said:
I can laugh about it now but back then it affected me so badly that I began to self harm because it felt better than all the abuse I was getting. I’d talk to people with a hand over my face and I wore baggy, tomboy clothes to cover up the hair on my chest and arms… But I wanted to make my own decisions and live for myself – not anyone else… I’d had enough of hiding. I’d had enough of the bullying and the self-harming and the suicidal thoughts… I’m able to go out and shop in the women’s section without feeling I shouldn’t be there. I wear skirts, dresses and jewellery and I like to get my nails done like every other girl… If I had any message it would be to live the way you want – it’ s your journey and it’ s your life.
A further black women and body hair related search on YouTube returns a video posted by Brittany Virginia Green, a young, American Black woman, called, “Why I DON’T Remove My Armpit Hair (OR ANY OTHER HAIR ;)”. It has had nearly 5000 views and has a constantly renewing flurry of mostly positive comments underneath. The video is powerful, funny and very thought-provoking. She says:
No. I’m not doing it anymore. And I feel like there’s a different type of sexiness to it. Like, a natural, womanly, womanly, sexual, sensual, aura to it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like this is me in the raw. I’m a woman. I’m not nine. I have hair on my vagina. Get over it. Also… hair is psychic, it’s a part of our nervous system. It’s psychic to be sensitive, to know what we want, to be aware, to be self-aware, to be able to pick up on unsaid ques… hair assists with that. When we cut it off, we’re cutting that off… So, with all that said, I’m keeping all my hair, boo. Every last bit of it. Coz ain’t nobody got time to be sitting in the bathroom… doing all these things. I’m keeping it. I love it. I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.
She also speaks to her black identity and its relevance in conversation about body hair:
Let me tell you this. I’m a black woman. My hairs are coarse, curly, and thick. I know a lot of Black women or mixed women or Latina women or Irish women, or Italian women can relate. We deal with razor bumps, dark marks, just all the complications that come with shaving your armpits, or waxing your bikini line, or doing all this stupid shit that we really don’t wanna do, but we do because it’s etiquette, it’ s an anomaly to see it on the street, or because our guys expect us to do it.
These intersections of race and body hair politics are empowering and promising and brilliant, bright and visual, but they are not common enough. I am collecting testimonies, using a call-out for self-identified Women of Colour to tell me “how your racial identity has influenced your relationship with your body hair, if at all”. Below are some responses I have received so far:
Jenny: Becoming-aware of body hair was definitely concomitant with becoming-aware of not being white (I remember one of my best friends referring to me affectionately as a ‘half-caste’!). The first time the two came together in my head was when a half-Polish girl in a group of other friends (and certainly an ‘other’ in the school due to her name, too) talked to me about getting rid of our moustaches, which I was very embarrassed about discussing. (She used bleaching cream; I tried, but it had the horrific consequence of bleaching my upper lip skin as well, which didn’t show on her). She said we both had dark hair because of our ‘heritage’; and afterwards I remember becoming-aware of the idea that Asian women have more body hair (which I just fact-checked and apparently ISN’T TRUE). The idea that I have more body hair, especially facial hair (that I need to get rid of, but that’ s another story) is in my mind linked to me being half-Indian/Pakistani. I had totally internalised this idea until you asked about it.
Nadia: I found that growing up asian girls were taught that straight hair is desirable. Even now hardly any asian girls and even black girls embrace their natural hair (luckily there are some websites like naturallycurly.com). Also having dark body hair was a problem with asian girls at school, they would get their eyebrows and moustaches threaded/waxed off well as the white girls got away with less waxing as they tended to have blonde body hair.
Shauntell: well for me personally, i didn’t start becoming more free and comfortable with my body hair until i got in the #naturalhairmovement, which basically is a movement for black women that decide to go to our natural roots, fros, frizz, kinks and all and learning to love ourselves, and educating on ourselves about our history more. it’s a lot deeper than hair, i can tell you that lol and throwing out relaxers etc.
i had done the big chop and have been natural for 2 going on 3 years now. doing just that alone was big defining moment for me and was really deep for me. around the same time i did that, i also started questioning other beauty standards i had once subscribed to and wanted to go against tho’s as well. so i simply stopped shaving.
at first i was really uncomfortable and even disgusted with the sight of it, much like the hair atop my head, because i wasnt used to seeing it. but i realized that was a conditioned response. i started talking to a guy friend of mine and he really made me feel better about myself. i honestly have never felt sexier than i do currently, body hair untouched etc. i feel more like a woman that’s in control of my own life and body and it’s extremely liberating.
— — —
There is so much more to talk about; the Muslim women in East London that I have lived with for years, who cover their bodies completely in public, but talk to me in the waiting room of our local beauty salon, minutes before their full body wax; The cultures wherein the onus of beauty lies with men, or elsewhere; Men, and the rapidly growing pressure on them to conform physically to hair and beauty standards, for them too to be subsumed by this patriarchal capitalistic nightmare; There is the precious relationship between body hair and identity experienced by Trans People of Colour which is being written about beautifully by Sabah Choudrey. There is also class, which is so often lumped together with race as a way of side-stepping it, but is central to this conversation, and every conversation.
In conversations I have had about body hair I have been told I am a killjoy, that I should just be grateful I still have my clitoris, that I should shut up. In conversations I have had about race, I have been told that I have never experienced racism, that it is all in the past, that I am making people uncomfortable, that I should shut up.
It is in the past, and that’s why it is in every cell inside my body and every hair outside of it. My hair gives me voice that is louder than the haters, it is a radical re-scripting and a crucial daily reminder to me and the people around me, that the choices offered to us are not the only choices available. Before we can make a true choice, we have to remember we have one.
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