Sunday, December 28, 2008

Almost a week ago, my last post touched on the issue of hair and its racial connotations.....I was writing in the airport, after about 2 hours of sleep, while waiting to get on a flight that didn't materialize until more than 6 hours later.

If the post is totally incomprehensible, do forgive me.

I have been thinking a lot about hair issues lately. A couple of weeks ago, Feministing had a post up about body hair. The next day, or two days later, something like that, Womanist Musings talked about hair on women of color. Both really got me thinking.

The Feministing post was one of their "community" postings, which means that it was written and uploaded by one of their readers, not by any of the blog's main authors. She sounded totally obsessed and paranoid about the existence of any and all body hair. The comments, of which there were many, all seemed to look at the issue through the lens of femininity. Do our choices of what to remove make us more womanly? Does the choice not to remove anything make us more feminist? Stuff like that....

It's a constant issue, right? Dominant western culture has told us that body hair is unattractive. Everyone has it, though, so what amount is acceptable? My problem with this discussion, though, is that it ignores the big, giant elephant in the room. The ethnicity/racial issue.

Of the women and girls who commented, the ones who said "Well, yeah, I just decided that I would stop shaving, and you know what, it's been fine" all seemed to end it with "But I'm blond/redheaded/fair."

The ones who expressed insecurity or who felt a need to do a lot of hair removal (or many of them, I should say, not all) would mention their coloring as well, as in "I'm Indian/Middle-Eastern/bi-racial, and so I have to."

It seems to me that the femininity/feminist/womanly reading of the effects of hair totally ignore this feeling that many (myself included) seem to have that light hair is okay, but dark isn't. Or that white girls can get away with it, but the rest of us had better force ourselves into white culture's mould, since we're different enough already.

I don't know if that makes sense, or if that's really how I want to express the weird unsettled-ness that's floating around in my head, but it'll have to do....

My friend Emily responded to the Feministing post with this:

My mother was called many names in seventh grade, like Gorilla Girl. And
Ape. Sometimes the children just made monkey noises. I grew up knowing the
stories of my mother's pain intimately, and the shame of body hair was a
language I spoke fluently for many, many years. The hair on my body is not quite
as voluptuous as the hair I imagine would grow on my mother's body if she ever
stopped shaving. My hair is more brown instead of black, but one can see the
pronounced hairiness of my legs from across a room. Clearly. When I first stopped
shaving my legs I was terribly conflicted. I wanted to be able to choose my body
with hair, but I felt so incredibly ugly. I felt like a freak- some aberration
to the feminine gender. I felt alone when I rode the bus, and embarrassed to
wear skirts. But it got better. Much Better.It has taken a lot of time and a ton
of self-growth and love, but I am proud of my body- my hairy, obese, beautiful
body. I get a lot of reactions to my leg hair, which still shocks me, as I often
forget for a moment why a person would be staring at my legs, and though I
thought in San Francisco I would get less attention than in Michigan, I was very
very wrong. More often than not it amuses me now, which is something that I
hoped would be true 4 years ago, but had never thought possible. I do think there
is a difference between shaving one's body as a preference and being embarrassed
or ashamed of one's body hair. I agree that an individual's choice to
shave/not-shave his/her pubic area is not inherently a feminist issue, but as a
generic issue, I think it most definitely is. Body hair is a part of the body,
and while I embrace body modification wholeheartedly, I cannot in good
conscience embrace the consistent acceptance and systematic continuation of
intense body shame. The fact that millions of adolescents and adults feel they
MUST alter their pubic/facial/body hair in order to be acceptable, attractive,
healthy, un-freakish, and simply without shame, is a pity. My solution? Break out
your skirts, oh hairy-legged people! How do we bring about acceptance? By being
seen. By letting the little girl on the bus see that adults have hair, too!And
this is not just about hairy legs and pits. Bearded Women UNITE!! I wish I had
the guts that the bearded women I've encountered have. Their self-confidence is
inspiring and has helped me to re-shape my perception of the world. On a
practical and personal level, what has helped me? (1) Seek examples of beautiful
hairy people. Watch more Foreign Films (like Lust Caution!) where women are more
likely to have pit hair or body hair in general. Find images of women who have
body hair to help normalize the 'anomaly' for your brain. (2) Find (or
convince!) a friend who doesn't shave. Having a palpable peer who doesn't shave
can help bring some oomph to your efforts- you can go dancing together and risk
raising fists high in solidarity. (3) Start slowly, and become comfortable with
yourself before you unveil your beautiful, hairy body to the world. There's no
rule saying you must shave everything if you shave anything. . . I was really
uncomfortable with pit hair for the longest time- so I let my comfort with my
legs grow first. Take it at your own pace! And the hint about winter is very
true! It's a convenient time to start experimenting. (4) Be patient- exploring
and learning to love a socially unacceptable part of yourself is a lengthy
process! I still encounter days when I feel very iffy about my hairy body, but
those days get farther between as I grow stronger.Over time I have come to see
my act of not-shaving as a reclamation. What ignorant 7th graders at SJV used to
wound my mother in 1968, I have taken and made my own, I have made it a point of

I really admire her courage and bluntness, and really wish that I had the same. I still have to wonder, though, if I'm somehow less committed to overthrowing the dominant image obsessed patriarchal bullshit if I continue with the hair removal routine. Because honestly, I don't have the guts. And I still carry around the feeling that the amount of hair that I naturally have is not remotely accepted, even in crunchy-granola, hippy or dyke circles. And let's not even get started on whether it would be acceptable in opera circles. I don't like Stravinsky enough to spend the rest of my life singing Baba the Turk!

So, yes, there are a lot of hang-ups that I, and many, many others have that are hard to break. They're hard even to discuss, because inevitably someone breaks in with "Well, hair is just unattractive" which is not a belief that you can usually argue someone out of.

Let's be brave and try, though. Let's try to have a discussion that takes into account brown girls and the issue of race as it applies to the issue of feminism.

Let's also suggest things to Kat that will stop her from obsessively yanking out her eyebrows. It's not an "ew, hair!" thing, it's a physical compulsion. When the skin underneath gets dry or irritated, I start to's bad. I've gotten much better, but I've had to resort to rubbing toothache stuff into the skin to numb it and (hopefully) stop the yanking.


Celeste Winant said...

I'm a whitey, and of mostly germanic stock (not much Mediterranean), but for some reason, I can get pretty fuzzy. if I let the leg hair go, I feel like Alice the Goon on Popeye. Wherever it choses to grow, its pretty dense, so its apparent when I let it go.

I tried letting it go - mostly in high school (when I was more hippie) and in college (when I was more dykey), but always found that once the hair reached a certain length, it was all about the long pants and the Board Shorts (for swimming).

I realized when I was ~25 that the feminist stance that I was trying to uphold was as arbitrary for me as the classical aesthetic paradigm of being hairless. On a pragmatic level, if I was going to spend more than 5 minutes a day loathing the way I looked, it wasn't worth the 5 minutes that I was saving by not shaving. or the anti-ideal that I was upholding. If I subconsciously was covering up my "natural self",then how was that any different from taking the hair off in the first place?

I've definitely noticed that lots of the girls who have "no problem" with letting the hair go are very fair to begin with (if they are white). My observation has been also that east asian women (and men) tend to be less hirsute. Again, broad observation.

As I get older, and the bloom of youth begins to fade, I definitely see that I spend more and more time on my appearance. I still feel like I will hold out on dying my hair once it truly becomes salt and pepper, but we'll see.

Again, I would rather spend the energy that I have on feminist causes on directly helping other women in need rather than worry about aesthetic ideals.

Plus, one side effect of the metrosexualization of society (at least in lovely California) is that adherence to arbitrary aesthetic standards is no longer a burden borne only by women. I know that the playing field is far from even, but guys & their wax jobs, hair plugs, pec-inserts and botox treatments are starting to get a taste of the torture as well.

kat said...

Hey lady, nice to hear from you!

I love that you're always the pragmatist. It's a pretty refreshing point of view.

I had an interesting encounter with a coworker last spring who said that he had wanted to go to the beach on a particular week-end, but couldn't because he didn't have time for all the hair removal........

So yeah, I guess the hairless thing has gone beyond the realm of women. I'm not sure that's a good thing, though, but if it makes men appreciate the trouble they're putting women through, then maybe there's an upside....

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