If you shave your armpits you are a slave to the patriarchy


I defied the patriarchy.

I damned the man.

I flipped off Bic.

If you shave your armpits you are a slave to the patriarchy*

I stopped shaving my armpits.

You might call me a rebel. You might call me a pioneer. You might even call me a hero. Just so long as you call me!

Am I possibly being a touch facetious? Perhaps. But. But! Not shaving your armpits is a Really Big Deal where I’m from. I’ve only ever seen hairy pits on one other woman and she was holding the megaphone at an anti rape-culture protest; you’d have been gobsmacked if you discovered she did shave. In my usual professional and social circles – armpit hair is just not A Thing. If we are ever careless enough to develop a fuzz we adjust our clothing choices accordingly so that no one will ever know that we are mammals.

Anyway, this protest lady – I believe she was making some really good points really well – but I was just looking at her thinking: holy crap I wish I were as cool as you. I wish I were brazen enough to openly reveal that I am a normal human being.

So I toyed with the radical idea of epilation cessation. And, god help me, I experimented with it. I would sometimes go hours without a shave. And what’s more I flaunted it. That is to say I self-consciously and with great trepidation, left the house wearing sleeveless tops and, from time to time, I reached for overhead objects.

To my surprise, I was not stoned in streets. People did not run after me yelling “get out of here you damned dirty ape”. Mostly people didn’t notice.

Ok, so one time my mother asked, with a conspicuously neutral voice “ahem… are you not shaving your armpits anymore?” (but after I said I was giving hairy pits a try, she changed the subject and life continued as normal). Another time when I was talking to a parent at school, I raised my arm and she stopped mid-sentence and lost her train of thought (but, after a pause, she recovered and carried on). I participated in a dance class and the instructor openly stared at my pits (but did not stand, arm outstretched towards the door, yelling “GET OUT, BEHEMOTH!”).

The thing is though, I just wasn’t as cool as the megaphone woman. In my fantasies, people would criticise my armpit hair and I would turn on them with a steely gaze and mortify them with my cool riposte “Oh, I’m sorry, are we sharing our views on each other’s personal grooming, now?” – but in reality, I feared people’s judgement (I frequently have fantasies about being awesome at confrontation in various contexts. The few times I’ve faced real confrontation I have generally cried, which is pretty much the opposite of being a badass).

See, I was rehearsing for a play at the time and I was playing a sort of 1960s feminist. I’d offered to the directors to grow my armpit hair as a kind of a badge of feminism. They reacted with neither enthusiasm nor horror, but said they’d think about it. So I grew my armpit hair for the two-month rehearsal period.

Growing my hair for the play made it feel socially acceptable for me to have armpit hair. If I were planning to wear revealing clothing around people I would find myself, days in advance of the big reveal, dropping into conversation that I was growing my pits for the play. Then when the time came to reveal my pits I could do it without fear of judgement. This is not the behaviour of a cool person.

Further, while in my fantasies I practically shoved my pits into peoples’ faces, daring them to say something obnoxious, in reality, I found myself wearing a cardigan when it wasn’t strictly necessary so as to avoid showing my dirty little secret.

Speaking of dirtiness, I wondered whether it really was authentic for me to have hairy pits in this play, so I did some internet research. I couldn’t get a straight answer on the authenticity question, but I did see the same comments over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER on various fora:

  • Of course women should be free to do whatever they want with their armpits and armpit hair is perfectly natural; I mean I shave mine, but it’s certainly not because the patriarchy requires it of me, but because [I’m paraphrasing here] I don’t want to be a smelly, dirty, disgusting beast; and
  • If you remove your pubic hair you are catering to pedophiles because children have no pubic hair but if you remove your armpit hair that is OK because… err… eww gross.


For the record, I do not think I smelt any different and my armpits were more comfortable than when I shaved. I was used to having mildly itchy pits pretty much all the time from shaving and it was lovely to have a respite from that.

So, dress rehearsals arrived and I asked the directors for their decision on the pits. “Yeah, just shave them” they said. I was in equal measures disappointed and relieved. I thought it would have been a nice touch – but even I was distracted by my shamefully unadulterated underarms – the audience probably would have been too. Deep down, I worried a good proportion of them would have been revolted by me. And I had an excuse to give up this hairiness lark that had nothing to do with me not being as cool as the megaphone woman.

Again, for the record – I get that this is No Big Deal in the grand scheme of things. In some places, in some cultures or sub-cultures hairy pits are ordinary, even de rigeur. And it’s not like I was doing anything brave; growing my armpit hair was a purely discretionary act that I could opt out of at any time and that was never likely to have any serious consequences. I’ll probably do it again sometime.

The thing that fascinates and baffles me is that – at least in my little corner of the world – a woman having the default state of armpit hair is seen as a political statement; it baffles me that it is even remotely noteworthy.

*I only said you were a slave to the patriarchy so you would read this story where nothing very interesting happens.


2 Responses

  1. Arcadia

    July 3, 2015 11:12 pm

    I can so relate! I stopped shaving my armpits some years ago, with hopes and visions of feminist coolness and helping re-establish a biological norm for grown women, but alas, I remain as conflicted about the hairiness or not hairiness of my pits as I was when I shaved them. For big occasions I still shave them to avoid attracting attention, and in day to day life I’ve found that I’ve given up wearing sleeveless things because of a lack of bravery on my part.

    I feel much the same about my greying hair. It all comes down to societal expectations on women and their performance of beauty norms. I want to be real, I want to be normal, but society wants me to be fake, and fake is what’s currently normal, so if I look real, then I’m the one who sticks out as not abnormal.

    I wonder how much time men spend thinking about how authentic they can look before they’re not brave enough to go out in public that way?


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