ON… BODY HAIR, DON’T CARE
WOMEN ARE STEPPING AWAY FROM THE WAX AND EMBRACING THEIR FACIAL AND BODY HAIR AT INCREASING RATES. SARAH RAPHAEL MAKES A CASE FOR DUMPING THE JOLEN
Sarah Raphael makes her case for ditching the razor
The body hair conversation has moved from busting women in the public eye for having any amount of it to a powerful social movement in which young women are taking back control and posting images of their hairy pits and legs on social media. And personally, I find this very validating. There are two or three days a month when I’m happy with the amount of hair on my body: the days when I’m freshly threaded, waxed, shaved, plucked, epilated and – oh hell – bleached. The days when there are no hairs to think about, because I’ve got them all – even that inch-long thing on my forehead, which laughs at me in brightly lit mirrors like, ‘Ha! You’ve just noticed me and I’ve been here since March!’
My mum recently told me the reason I had a fringe when I was little was because she didn’t know what to do with my eyebrows. On two separate occasions, with two separate boyfriends, I’ve been on busy tubes and the boyfriends have sweetly tried to pick a hair off my face – only to find it’s attached. One of those boyfriends, once we’d broken up, texted me to tell me he had a new girlfriend, and at the end of the message wrote, ‘She’s Thai, and hairless *winky face emoji*’.
Well, I’m Egyptian, and my ancestors would shave their thick, kinky head hair to keep cool in the heat and remove the hair from their bodies using hot caramel (sugar, lemon juice and water). When I’m in Egypt, a country renowned for its hairy people and pioneering removal tactics, my cousins cook up a mixture in the kitchen and sugar all the hair off my body. They gave me my first Hollywood when I was 15 and removed all the hairs from my forearms. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and roll up my sleeves with the nonchalance of a white girl.
Singer Ashanti’s ‘Foolish’ video came out around the same time, and I was shocked at the sight of her sideburns on MTV. If the song were released today, though, Ashanti would be trending on Instagram as part of the ‘hairy-girl-and-so-what’ strand of feminism I’m still too self-conscious to join. My relationship with my body hair is such that I’ll happily tell a friend I’m busy dipping my face in a bucket of bleach, but I’m not about to upload the evidence to Instagram Stories. Last year, the artist Phoebe Collings-James did just that, posting a photo showing the thick hairs on her thighs. I stared at it and sent it to my best friend, who is of course also hairy, and we both felt quietly empowered.
I remember all the hairy details I’ve ever read about celebrities: Kim Kardashian saying she used to wax the baby hair on her forehead. I’ve always taken a keen interest in celebrities with hairy forearms, too (Elizabeth Taylor’s are my favourite). And I remember the snail trails of Nineties and Noughties celebrities in girl bands, printed in gossip magazines with big red circles around the hairy patches, which were of course intended to bring shame on these women. But the effect for me as a teenager with a badly Jolen’d moustache and an apparently necessary fringe was relief – I needed those women with forehead hair and snail trails to show me that hairiness did not negate beauty.
When Paris Jackson shared a picture of her leg hair on Instagram, with the caption, ‘If you’re not competing with your brother over who can grow longer leg hair wyed’, it attracted nearly 2OO,OOO likes. A shot showing her armpit hair got a similar response. But while large numbers are celebrating such posts, others were so repelled that they started their own conversation about it on Twitter using words like ‘gross’ and ‘disgusting’. Swedish model, photographer and artist Arvida Byström had to contend with rape threats after posing for an Adidas campaign in which she showed her leg hair. The comments under the YouTube video included ‘Is this what some women have become?’ ‘Become’ strikes me as an odd word, since it implies a metamorphosis, as if this hair is new; a change of algorithm on women’s social media timeline.
Byström responded to the hate with a post saying: ‘Me being such an abled, white, cis body with its only nonconforming feature being a lil leg hair...I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to not possess all these privileges and try to exist in the world.’ Her point about privilege is something I think about a lot in relation to body hair. In 2016, gal -dem published an article called ‘Not Shaving Isn’t Always A Choice For Women of Colour’, about the general whiteness and blondeness of the body-hair movement. And for a while, it did seem a bit white and blonde; but then the conversation shifted, with activists and poets such as Harnaam Kaur and Rupi Kaur happily sharing their hair stories. I realised then that it didn’t matter whether the women posting their body hair were less hairy than me, or hairier than me, because I felt they were still smashing stigmas, and inadvertently helping me.
The message now, from where I’m sunbathing, is that body hair on girls is cool. It’s in magazine editorials, on supermodels, actresses and all over Instagram. It’s in adverts for brands like Converse, which recently shot Madonna’s daughter Lourdes showing her armpit hair. And yeah, it’s probably just another attempt by brands to make money out of feminism, but the effect is still good. Does Arvida Byström’s Adidas campaign make me want to buy a pair of trainers? Yes. And I also think Lourdes is more beautiful with body hair than without.
If no one had ever made me feel like my body hair and facial hair were unsightly and uncool, I wonder whether I would have thought it? Personally, I prefer my face with groomed eyebrows and no moustache, but I actually don’t think the rest makes any aesthetic difference. In fact I think I preferred my vagina aesthetically before I had all the hair lasered off. It’s amazing to step back from cultural expectation and realise what you really think. When this piece comes out, I’m going to post some body hair on Instagram. The visual has always terrified me, but the fear is floating away now. I keep going back to something the comedian Sara Pascoe said recently: ‘The absence of shame is euphoric’.