The following feature appears in the April 2016 issue of NYLON.
I remember the first time I really became aware of my body hair: I was 11 years old, sitting on the grass outside of my school with some friends. It was a warm day and I was wearing shorts. A friend of mine took a look at my bare legs and exclaimed, “You don’t shave?” I was confused—shaving hadn’t really ever crossed my mind. All of the girls sitting around me chimed in, telling me how they had started shaving ages ago. Suddenly, I felt uncool and wanted so badly to be part of what felt like a secret, super-exclusive club that paved the path to becoming a woman. Not long after that, I grabbed one of my mom’s razors and started secretly shaving my legs, my armpits, my stomach, the hair above my lip—everything had to go. Eventually my mother found out. She was disappointed, but her only real response was, “Well, you’re going to have to keep shaving now because it’s only going to grow back darker and thicker.”
What began as a burning desire to fit in quickly became a routine. It wasn’t until I had gone off to college that I began to backtrack. After all of those years of shaving, what made me stop? Seeing that not shaving was even an option. The first time I saw a girl my age who didn’t shave I was so fixated on her body hair. I was amazed that she didn’t seem to care, didn’t draw attention to it, and didn’t feel ashamed of it. She wasn’t doing anything and yet my world seemed to fall apart because of it. It threw me for a loop and I slowly began to question why I was having such a strong reaction to the sight of body hair. What is so shocking about seeing hair on a female-identifying individual? Why had I been shaving for all of these years without stopping to think about why I was doing it?
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Shaving is such a normalized thing in Western culture and it’s deeply tied up with shame. As women, we’re taught to be ashamed of our bodies—we’re taught to compare our bodies to others. It runs deep, and you learn it at such an early age that sometimes it feels impossible to shake. I realized I had been seeing my body through the lens of what other people deemed attractive, particularly men. When I first took the plunge and decided to stop shaving, my biggest fear was that men would no longer find me attractive and that the sight of my body hair would repulse them or scare them away. This thought process is harmful. It teaches us to place value on ourselves, our bodies, and our worth based on how we fit into the male gaze. From experience, none of my partners have ever had a problem with my body hair; if anything, it’s been a good way to “weed out” people who are not worth my time. Anyone who doesn’t accept your body—and the way you choose to present your body—is not someone you want to be with.
As body hair becomes more common, due to the fact that women have more control over their own image on social media, it also gets warped by media and billed as a trend. In a way, this initially feels fine, because I see choosing to have body hair as akin to choosing to paint your nails or sport a certain haircut—but oftentimes, the media is only showing you consumable or palatable depictions of body hair. We’re only seeing small amounts of armpit hair, maybe a little bit of blonde leg hair. There’s no discussion of the back hair, pubic hair, hair on our faces, stomach hair, or nipple hair that so many of us grow. For example, I stopped shaving my legs and armpits when I was 19, but continued to shave the hair on my stomach and bleach my upper lip hair up until a year or two ago. There was still hair on my body that even I was ashamed of. So while armpit hair is an edgy, cool look to rock, we still feel obligated to shave our bikini areas knowing very well that no one’s pubic hair fits nicely into their underwear. Everyone’s bodies are different and everyone grows hair differently—but only certain bodies are promoted, while the rest of the population is left to wonder why their hair isn’t as “cute” as that.
You are not a failure. Body hair doesn’t make you any less feminine or any less attractive. Choosing to shave doesn’t mean that you’re insecure. The strongest statement you can make is to take control of your body and present yourself in whatever way that makes you feel comfortable. Shave one leg and don’t shave the other, shave sometimes, never shave…it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you feel good about you. That’s the boldest and bravest thing you can do.Photographed by Arvida Byström.