ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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’.

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