The Razor’s Edge.

Since I was a teenager, I have been told by a multi-billion dollar corporation that the only way to reveal my inner goddess was to shed my body of it’s natural protective layer of hair. We have all been sent this message since childhood; that female beauty and confidence is inherently linked to hairlessness through aggressive ad campaigns selling us products subject to the ‘pink tax’ and the general representation of infantilised eurocentric beauty standards across all media. But what happens when you have been buying into it for years without really thinking critically about what you have been putting your body through and cost involved?

Body hair is a contentious subject for all women whether we like it or not. The dichotomy between bodily autonomy and adhering to the beauty standards of a capitalist patriarchy can be tricky to navigate. Surely, what I choose to do with my body is my choice and I’m in charge but how much of what I do to my body really is my choice? Have you ever paused, mid wax, and thought ‘who exactly am I doing this for?’ If it’s not yourself and only yourself, put the spatula down immediately.

We all know by now that women only remove their body hair because of large corporations telling them to and it didn’t start with Veet. It started in 1915 with the introduction of the first safety razor specifically for women. Gillette realised that they could expand their market by making women feel bad about themselves and the Milady Décolleté for armpits was launched. This emotional coercion continued over the decades to include legs, pubic hair and top lips with some women spending up to £23,000 on hair removal over a lifetime. It’s easy to know the reasons we started to do something 103 years ago and be sufficiently outraged but why do we still do it? Who do we do it for? What do we do it for?

I started shaving my legs with my mum’s rusty razors when I was 12. They sat in the bathroom cabinet for months only being used when she scraped them across her legs sporadically during the summer months. I had never given it much thought and my mum had told me that I could start shaving my legs at 15 like my sister had and that seemed fine with me. That was until a younger friend was about to start secondary school and her mum told her to shave her legs before she started so of course, I had to do mine too. This wasn’t about getting rid of my body hair, it was about the need to appear more mature and grown up to a younger child. My mum soon noticed that her razor were rusting quicker than usual and that was the end of it until I started buying cheap disposables with my pocket money. The blood spattered on the bathroom floor quickly gave me away. This was the beginning of a 15 year journey that saw razors, waxing, Immac and tweezing to rid myself of not really that much body hair in the first place. At one point in my late teens, I was even shaving my forearms! Not one person had told me that was what I was supposed to do. Not one person had told me that my body hair was unacceptable. No, I just knew that as a young woman, it’s just what you did in the desperate hope of being considered beautiful.

But I was lucky. You can only see the peach fuzz on my cheeks if you get too close. My eyebrows don’t meet and my top lip has nothing but a few blonde hairs and some dry skin. I haven’t ever really needed to spend a lot of money or time on hair removal. I can count the amount of times I’ve paid someone to painfully extract hair from my body on three fingers and I have about five hairs under my arms. As I sat in the bath last week stroking my fuzzy legs that hadn’t seen a razor in over a month, I contemplated whether finally hacking through the hair made me a bad feminist or not. Why was I about to run a metal blade across my skin if no one but my partner was going to see my legs for at least another 3 months? These days, believe it or not, I do it for comfort. I buy cheap own-brand razors and I don’t use shaving foam so the cost works out at about £2 per month. Once a week or so, I shave my legs and under my arms while the conditioner sinks into my hair (once in a while, I even do my big toes) therefore not taking up any additional time. I genuinely love the feel of smooth skin on my legs and I lay in bed after getting out of the bath, rubbing my legs together like a grasshopper.  As you can see, I have justified my internalised misogyny and will probably continue to conform to what a woman is supposed to look like whether I do it for the leg rubbing or not!

There are so many reasons why women choose to remove or not remove their body hair. And that’s what it needs to be: an active choice, not the unconscious fulfillment of what we think femininity should be. I have discussed this issue with quite a few women recently and the consensus is generally similar. One woman told me that she no longer removes body hair because she likes the way it feels and looks and she wants to set a good example for both her son and daughter. Another woman told her colleagues that she had stopped shaving her legs and was met with horrified questions about what her husband thought of her! Another tells of the negativity she received from other women when she stopped shaving under her arms. What I noticed about these conversations was that we are all now grown women and relatively comfortable in our own skin (ie, giving zero fucks for others’ negativity).

What about the young girl at primary school who is teased in public by a stranger about the low hairline on her neck? The teenager who wears a skirt longer than everyone elses to hide her legs? The young girl who is called moustache girl and teased for her hairy arms in the playground? The young woman she grows into who only wears long sleeved clothing for much of her twenties? The woman who cannot spontaneously go for a swim or wear a short skirt without worrying whether she can fit in a hair removal session beforehand? Body hair is intrinsically linked to race, class and gender and it is easy for me as a fair, cisgender woman to revel in my fuzzy legs because, quite simply, I’m allowed to. For a woman to ‘pass’ she has to conform to tired, old eurocentric beauty standards thus causing even more pain and discomfort (mental and physical) for women with dark hair, women of colour and trans women, not to mention the costs involved. For some, not removing body hair just isn’t an option that they are comfortable with and I am not here to convince them otherwise.

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Lourdes Leon

Lourdes Leon was applauded last year for flaunting her unshaven armpits and Sophia  Hadjipanteli has been credited for ‘bringing back the monobrow.’ So, do we have a beauty revolution on our hands? No, because as Priya Khaira-Hanks points out, these women are  “an example of how female body hair in the mainstream is still confined to gimmick and novelty, only acceptable if your appearance conforms to beauty standards in every other respect.” Would Lourdes’ hairy pits be celebrated if she wasn’t a slim, nubile young woman? Would Sophia’s unibrow be deemed fashionable if she wasn’t an amazonian blonde? Of course they wouldn’t!

Sophia
Sophia Hadijipanteli

So the next time you book yourself in for a wax, ask yourself ‘Who am I doing this for? What else could I be doing with my time and what else could I spend the money on?’ If the answer is anyone but yourself, you know what to do. Whatever you do, don’t shame someone else for their choices. 

Thank you to the women of Essex Feminist Collective and my incredible friends for your insights. 

 

 

 

 

The Girl With The Most Cake.

Pizza. Pasta. Bread. Chips. Cheese. Pastries. Biscuits. I am well-known among my friends for my unapologetically beige diet of refined carbs. I have an intensely romantic relationship with custard creams and I can happily eat pasta for every meal. My long Easter weekend was spent eating and drinking with various friends followed by lying lazily on the sofa scoffing chocolate eggs. After seeing a few self-loathing posts on social media regarding the intake of a few too many chocolatey treats, I started thinking about my relationship with food and my own body image.

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The first thing I need to make clear is that whatever I write here, I write from a position of thin privilege. This means that my body shape, no matter the personal problems I have had regarding it, is considered the desired ‘norm.’ I do not believe that ‘thin shaming’ is the same as ‘fat shaming’ no matter how much it hurt me as a child because society is built as such that I will never experience hatred, oppression or the refusal of medical assistance due to my size. This, however, does not mean that I have always been happy with what I see in the mirror.

Long and thin is how my mother described me as a baby. With no fat on me, it was assumed my health conditions had affected my weight (I was born without an oesophagus) and I was the only toddler with knobbly knees and a scarred body at the swimming pool. Because I was thin, everyone felt entitled to comment on my size and some of my earliest memories revolve around eating as much as I could to put weight on just so people would stop looking at me and talking about me as if I wasn’t there. Buying clothes was always painful and despite her jokes, I wasn’t allowed to sit on my mum’s lap for too long because of my ‘bony bum.’ As I moved through school, the jokes turned into whispered gossip about eating disorders and graffiti on the toilet walls. Sometimes, the accusations about my eating habits were directed to my face and at times, by medical professionals. My classmates even diagnosed me with an overactive thyroid after seeing a photo of a big-eyed person with one in a biology textbook. (I’ve since had it tested and I don’t have an overactive thyroid; just a speedy metabolism and large eyes.)

Meanwhile at home, my mum would reassure me that I would appreciate it when I got older and that she too had looked like me at her age. This was no consolation to me as I watched my mum and older sister dance around in their underwear and swimsuits making their bums and thighs jiggle about and laughing as no matter hard I tried, my tiny bum waved from side to side without so much as a wobble. You see, I grew up in a house where jiggly bums and wobbly, life-giving tums were celebrated and instilled envy in a young girl who would eat five Weetabix for breakfast in the desperate hope that her thighs would start meeting at the top. I grew up in a house where food was loved and enjoyed and we were never scolded for eating too much. Big appetites were something to be admired and food seemed to be the only thing to bring our fractious family together, whether it was around big plates of fresh pasta or a Sunday roast. I don’t ever recall my mum mentioning the need to watch what she ate, lose weight or express guilt over food. Her motto was, ‘we live to eat, we don’t eat to live.’

Even as I started to fill out and put on weight in my late teens and early twenties, my appetite did not abate and I continued to maintain a voracious appetite. I lovingly gazed at my fresh stretch marks that marked my thighs like tiger stripes when I discovered I could finally make my bum and thighs jiggle at the age of twenty-one. I am incredibly proud of my stretch marks and cellulite because they brought me the first body acceptance I had ever experienced. Perhaps I would have the Amazonian body of my dreams after all?

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I still eat as though I’m trying to close my thigh gap (another massively happy achievement for me) because no matter what, I will always get more happiness out of eating a pizza with friends, scoffing bag after bag of crisps over gossip in the pub or lovingly preparing a dish of macaroni cheese with all the leftover cheeses in the fridge and scooping up the sauce with garlic bread. Kate Moss was very, very wrong about nothing tasting ‘as good as skinny feels.’ I’m not giving up chips just to be able to see my hip bones again because it never, ever made me happy!

As a teacher, I am very mindful about how I eat and talk about food and my body in front of children. I make sure they see me eating relatively healthily throughout the day but also enjoying chocolate and fizzy drinks in moderation. I make sure they know that I am happy with the way that I look and that I take pride in my physical strength. We tackle fatphobic language with the understanding that ‘fat’ is an adjective not an insult and being an unkind and hurtful person is worse than being a bit bigger than some of the other children because we all grow at different rates and we are all beautiful the way we are. Children learn how to relate to food from the adults around them so please think carefully about how you talk about needing to ‘lose a stone’; express guilt at eating an Easter egg; not being ‘allowed’ certain foods and talking about how much you hate how you look in front of them. Children hear everything.   

I try to ensure I eat fruit and vegetables when I remember and now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve started to exercise to ensure that my body remains strong and healthy. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who is so much more than a body covered in scars, tattoos and stretch marks. I see a warrior ready for battle. I think, as women, we forget how important it is to be physically strong to ensure that our bodies can fight what life throws at it. Our bodies are not museum pieces, clothes horses or trophies. They are part of us and who we are and they are a map of our experiences and journeys. Scars, tattoos, tiger stripes and all. It is the only body you will ever have so please, please take good care of it. Feed it good food and tell it just how much you love it.
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights. It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.” Naomi Wolf- The Beauty Myth

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