Every now and again, the wheel of fashion turns but discovers it has nowhere new to go, and suddenly bellbottoms and crop tops are back in vogue. The same cyclical patterns can be found in Gender Politics. Catcalling, quotas and ‘how-to’ books on feminism are all back on the agenda. And so it is that the question of body hair has become somewhat of a ‘thing’ lately, with the press reporting ‘hairy isn’t scary’, with a combination of fear and fascination that denotes it could well be the last taboo. Girls, rejoice! Sporting neon dyed underarms is proof your feminist credentials and a fashion forward-look for SS15. But is a bit of fluff really a political statement?
As a 13-year-old girl, I knew that the forcible removal of my pubes was a rite of passage on the path to womanhood, in my case via a self-administered wax strip in the bathroom, leaving an angry scar on my inner thigh. I was in primary school when I first saw the wisps appear in my pits, and I began shaving them off with a cheap Bic razor before swimming class. My underarms suffered terribly in my violent efforts to hide my precocious development from my class mates. It was along time later I realised I have a small mole in my left underarm that I had been annihilating. That was where the blood came from, then. You can blame Madonna for a lot. While remaining a nostalgic, if somewhat disillusioned, super-fan, I put this down to her. Me and a friend kept a scrap book of Madonna images, mostly taken from her ‘Sex’ book. These miraculously found their way from behind the kinky wipe-clean, foil-sealed cover of the book onto the pages of outraged tabloids, and into the bedrooms of my best end-of-primary-school-friend Sarah and me. We poured endlessly over those pictures.
In one of my favourites, Madonna appears as an interstate hitchhiker with naught but a fully intact triangular bush and fuzzy pits for protection. Conflictingly, I read somewhere that Madge waxes her bikini line (perhaps the most deadly of her many revelations to this particular devotee). And for me, this was it: the apotheosis of female emancipation – self-inflicted pain in the name of independence. This was fearless, fuck-you, come-and-fuck-me-if-you-dare feminism. As soon as there was enough, I was triumphantly ripping it out for my personal satisfaction. It made me feel like a grown up woman, ready for grown up experiences.
When a good friend launched a campaign, asking women to cease removing any body hair for January, I was immediately supportive. The proceeds of Janyouhairy would go to Target Ovarian Cancer. It was liberating, and felt ridiculously rebellious. My friend is a sex-goddess, exuding old school Hollywood beauty. For her removing body hair was a ritual tied to a glamorous appearance. To a certain extent, the project was both a mission to challenge the concept of her own body and to start a discussion about the increasing influence of pornography on women’s bodies: that incessant drip-drip of a homogenized beauty ideal upon our everyday lives played out via the costly, time-consuming process of removing unsexy lady hair. Barely a woman I know doesn’t pluck her eyebrows, paint her face or shave her legs. Many fuss over the quality of the space between her legs. And nails? They must be ripped off, bought in plastic, painted, polished and renewed every two weeks, or so they tell me. Well, each to their own.
The proliferation of body hair is a very obvious signifier of adulthood, acquired through puberty, one acquaintance confessed she shaved her forearm hair as an adolescent, in order to conceal her changing, increasingly sexualised, body from her parents. And herein lies the taboo, for the growing of body hair, along with the other secondary sexual characteristics, indicates the stage of development where we learn to identify our sexuality with shame.
The natural has become offensive, revolting even. An unkempt bush thwarted many unexpected romantic liaisons for me: I was sure that if a man saw my three-week growth down there, he would shrivel in terror and tell everyone. I remember numerous occasions that saw me drunkenly fleeing to the bathroom for a lethal tidy with a razor, causing more harm than good. A lover once patiently explained that mine was the wrong shape: it should be formed like a landing strip, helpfully illustrating the desired outline as we lay, post-coitus, side by side. This guy was himself extraordinarily hirsute, all over. I was inwardly furious, and decided we would remain friends – but no more than that (which is the case).
The identification of the ideal shape and form of our bodies, and even the arrangement of our body hair, is increasingly dictated by pornography and the fashion industry, an industry that is predicated on finding imperfections in the female body. This, combined with the pornification of culture, is impacting both boys and girls expectations of our bodies, and sometimes causes lasting psychological and physical damage. So I’m glad that the 90s grunge aesthetic is back, even if it’s a fickle fashion statement. Girls can party in jeans and big T-shirts, not shave their legs for a week, drink pints and wear a scrunchy ponytail. The vilified ladette, the hero of my teenage years, could still be hot, still be a girl, but she could walk to the pub and back instead of tottering along in her Laboutins.
The political gloom of the naughties gave rise to the Brazilian bikini, body spray tans and the demise of a feminist agenda. We thought the legal battle was won, so go forth, make money and be sexy. These days the cosmetics and beauty industry are targeting increasingly younger girls, and I worry that for a younger generation we have regressed to the 50s in terms of beauty expectations, and not in a vintage tea pot, amusing hat kinda way. When did all of these products, treatments and processes become so essential to being a woman? Parts of the media seem determined to push the spectre of the failing (fallen) woman down our necks: ugly witches needing surgery (ugly/old), hated by their friends (lonely/sad), abandoned by their lovers (unsexy/unwifely). Nothing much new there, then.
So, 30 years after second wave feminism, is body hair still a political issue? Ultimately, I don’t care about the shape or quantity of pubic hair displayed by women, but I do mind that this is an aesthetic derived from the trickle down effect of Hollywood style pornography; I mind that this medium promotes the subjugation of its female subjects, via the violent abasement of women(s) bodies by men and relentless emphasis on the male orgasm and cum shot. I mind that female flesh, in digitized, carefully edited renderings, is available in such abundance in our culture.
By maintaining a porn-ready body, we are always available for sex, but in a way that is divorced from genuine sexuality. On a cold winter morning, the vision of a bikini clad model in sparkly latex, or lace knickers and bra staring dumb struck, insipidly at the public and plastered over the walls of the Tube, or whizzing along a frozen road on the side of a bus has become an all-too irritatingly familiar sight. It really is The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman! Replete with thigh gap, vacant eyes and parted lips, pert tits and £2.99 H&M undies. I’m not conned. I think, fuck off. She looks cold. She is making me feel cold, this is insulting to women, men, commuters in general and I want to buy your lousy clothes even less than I did before. I guess I’m not their target audience anyway, one imagines they are aiming for the pre-teen triangle bikini crowd this season.
Most porn – and advertising – is still aimed towards, and the product of, the male gaze, stealthily assimilated by girls and women via fashion and other media; a sexuality defined by an industry – surely that must be the focus of our anger? The messages are designed to make us feel inferior, so you buy products and services endlessly to fit the unattainable ideal (with an ironic, knowing grimace, of course). Such is fashion, and fashion is fun, right?
History shows us that the concept of beauty is an arbitrary, capricious and ideologically charged convention. It is also delightful and fanciful. But this does not mean we can’t critique our culture in order to challenge those conventions that waste our time and our cash and stop us being the best, most original people we can be.
Illustration: with apologies to Gustave Courbet