For all of our progress as women, we are allowed less hair in fewer places on our bodies than ever before. Angela Barnett asks, what’s with that?
I’ll never forget the toe incident. A flatmate went home with a woman he’d met in a bar and woke up forgetting exactly whom he’d managed to bed. After clocking she was brunette he glanced down and emerging from a white duvet was a big toe with black hairs sticking out.
Not the big hairy toe! He didn’t wait to discover her name – that hirsute hallux so repulsed him he sprung out of bed, into his clothes and scurried back to our flat. It made all the females of the house surreptitiously check their own toes, having not realised that such a faux pas – or toe pas – repulsed lovers.
But that was 1997. It was the lull between secondand third-wave feminism during which breast implants took off, Pamela Anderson ruled and the seeds of internet porn were being sewn.
Twenty years later, we supposedly live in a much more feminist era. Shame for having hair in places we’ve decided it shouldn’t grow (even though it does) is surely getting kicked in the shaggy shins. But that’s not the case – at least in the mainstream, women are allowed less hair on their bodies than ever.
Of course there are always celebrity rebels. Julia Roberts, Madonna, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Miley Cyrus, Tatiana Maslany and recently Lola and Jemima Kirke have all rocked underarm hair on the red carpet. Ben Hopper, a London photographer captures stunning portraits of women exposing natural, hairy pits in provocative poses.
Harnaam Kaur, the 26-year-old British model who wears a beard, has turned beauty on its hairy head, and inspired a bearded pseudo Barbie who holds a middle finger up beautifully to stereotypes.
“Hairy Legs” has sprouted a hash tag; you can find hundreds of pictures of furry female legs on sites like WANG: Women Against Non-essential Grooming.
Facebook pages have emerged encouraging body autonomy, crying freedom from the razor – or hot wax, thread, tweezers, depilatory cream or that most frightening contraption, the Epilady.
Would Frida Kahlo – who painted an elegant ’tash on her self-portraits – be proud of our progress? Not quite. While Madonna can expose hairy pits as the do-whatever-I-like-material-girl, her daughter Lourdes was criticised on Instagram this year for revealing natural pits in her bikini. The [mostly men] shaming her as a “gross feminist” seem to have missed the utterly feminine body attached to those pits.
When the Wonder Woman trailer came out, Gal Gadot’s raised arms created a tornado of tweeting that the Amazonian wouldn’t have had time to pack a razor preparing for World War I. Especially as she came from
a man-free paradise, Themyscira, where Gillette advertising was yet to reach. But if she had sported naturally hairy pits, a more probable Themyscira style, would the tweeting have been louder, turning Wonder Woman into Woolly Gross Feminist Woman?
Androgenic (body) hair has been used for many things. Control. Ridicule. Humiliation.
That Spice of a girl, Victoria Beckham, once suggested Brazilians should be compulsory for anyone over 15. She said that before she had a daughter, before the infantalisation of women was ubiquitous.
Such gob-smacking comments – and porn – have led to statistics such as 75 per cent of US college girls waxing or shaving their pubic hair. The most common reason cited is fear of rejection.
It’s amazing how quickly this happened. Even in the slick 80s when the natural look was swapped for hair gel and electric blue eye-liner, women were allowed their pubic hair. Just check out Helmut Newton’s famous photographs of naked models. They are toned, taut, heavily made-up, groomed and powerful – anything but hippie flower children – and yet their streamlined bodies still sport what has come to be known with distaste as a bush.
These days women are allowed to sprout big hair on their heads and fashionably enormous eyebrows, but not much else. And those who go against these rules get in trouble.
Harnaam Kaur may be invited onto catwalks around the world but she’s also received death threats. Photographer Ben Hopper has started good bristly dialogue around sensuality and armpit hair but his Natural Beauty campaign gets trolled. Gadot from Wonder Woman was criticised for wrongly depicting Themysciran pits and she also got flack for having white, pigmented underarm skin, a dead giveaway for laser hair removal. She can’t win, with or without hair. If you have to spend hours filming in a leather bodice, kicking ass and saving the world then maybe you can’t be bothered shaving every morning. Maybe there are more important things to discuss.
If the world gagged about a tiny tummy roll over Lady Gaga’s hotpants, what would it say about some freak hairs sneaking out of her top leg or – sacré bleu – down to her ankles? Maybe if we saw more female body hair we wouldn’t all sprint back to our flats.
And maybe if hair catapults a lover out of the bed, then they’re not the right lover.
Frida Kahlo didn’t shy away from facial hair in self-portraits .