I do not like shaving my armpits.
But I do it anyway. I have been doing it for years but it was only recently that I began to think about why I do it. Until now I had never questioned the reason why I think shaving is something I was under an obligation to do. What benefit is there in it, really? Why spend time and money observing this ritual? Is it a norm that society puts pressure on women to observe? Or do we put pressure on ourselves?
A good place to start would be asking what the benefits of hair removal are. For one thing, there is some evidence that armpit hair may increase body odour. There are sweat glands located in that area and hair acts like a sponge that retains the sweat, which leads to unpleasant smells. Removing armpit hair for that reason makes sense; no one wants to carry an unpleasant odour. But that fact alone does not account for why we remove the hair off our armpits completely instead of giving it a regular trim. It also does not explain why women take hours in the bathroom removing hair from their legs, arms and pubic area and collectively spend millions on hair removal products.
The only logical conclusion is that hair removal is not based on biological evidence, but on sociological norms. It is based on the concept of the ideal female and is in the same league as what we have been told is the ideal hip to waist ratio, or skin complexion or hair texture. The struggle to conform to the feminine ideal is real and we are constantly trying to coiffe, wax and reconstruct ourselves to fit the mould.
What is beautiful and what is ugly?
But this ideal has not always existed. It was introduced to us. My grandmother, for instance, has never shaved her legs and I do not think it has ever occurred to her to do so. Even today, this ideal is not universal, particularly amongst black women. Your observance of it depends on how you were raised and, from my observations, how much of a western upbringing you had.
We do not expect men to remove the hair off their armpits, chest and legs, unless they are professional models or athletes. In fact, the expectation is that men will not remove the hair off those parts because that is what conforms to our ideal of a ‘real’ man. You can shave your beard, but you must leave some evidence of beard potential. You can trim the hair under your pits but make sure they are still sufficiently manly, that is, hairy. Often, men with little to no body hair are perceived to be little boys; ‘baby face’ is what we call them.
Hair removal is just one example of the body expectations about what is beautiful and what is ugly. There is a set of rules that governs your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. You only need to walk down the street past the salons at Copacabana rank to feel how real that pressure is!
And yet, at the same time, we enforce these rules ourselves.
Body expectations are not unique to women, men are pressured and pressure themselves to conform to them too. It just looks different for men. The female standard is usually the complete opposite of the other. But they have one thing in common: they are both false. False standards of beauty may have no basis in truth but they are very powerful: they make us feel like we belong and they give us a goal, an ideal to aim towards.
Longing for belonging
When you look back at your high school days, what was important to you? The teenage years were about fitting in. Fitting in was in the way you talked, you all spoke slang that sounded so cool then but now sounds nonsensical. Fitting in was about the clothes you wore. Yes, you deny ever being in on the viscose trend but photos do not lie. Fitting in was about everything from being seen at the right hang out spot on a Friday afternoon, to what you had packed in your lunchbox. Fitting in was king.
We left high school a long time ago, but most of us still carry the patterns of thinking that we developed there. We are still trying to fit in. We see conformity as not only natural, but necessary, a means of survival in a world that does not take kindly to rebels. So we do whatever it takes not to stand out. We do everything that we can to fit in.
But high school is just a mini representation of society. We see the false beauty standard at work every day. That is why you can walk down a street in Harare and see one in every three women with the same hairstyle. A few years ago it was the Keri Hilson hair trend and many years before that it was Mary J Blige. Depending on what street you are on you, will encounter the Peruvian or the massive curly big hair whose name I can never seem to remember.
So who is the fairest of them all?
Life is a beauty contest. And every human on the planet is a contestant. Throughout your life, you are being judged based on weight, body structure, facial appearance and how long it will be before you realise that wearing six inch heels every day in your 20s, 30s and 40s is something your body will hate you for in your old age.
The real power of contests is the idea that you are in competition. Because being in competition means that someone gets to win. And if you do not get to win then at least you get to be better than the person next to you. That is why some women do not dress for men and instead dress for other women.
We know that it is the compliments from women that really count and not the admiring looks from men.
If you are one of those women who somehow managed to escape and are not playing the game, people assume that there is something lacking. If you do not subject yourself to a rigorous grooming routine then it must be because you have a “strong rural background”. Or because you are “poor” or have some other kind of handicap that is the reason behind your pitiful unsophistication. We judge people all the time against a standard of beauty that is false and unrealistic.
The question is not so much whether hair removal is right or wrong. And even though we know that most of society’s standards of physical beauty are false, wanting to conform to them is not necessarily a bad thing. The root issue here is a question of freedom. Do you feel free to choose to shave your legs or not to? Would you freely post a sleeveless selfie with your hairy pits showing? Does that picture gross you out?
If your answer to that is “absolutely not!’ then I would argue that you are under the oppression of a false standard. It is not just political or intellectual freedom that matters, freedom in the everyday mundane things does too. The next time you walk down the ‘feminine hygiene’ aisle, before you pick up that hair removal cream, ask yourself why.
Always ask why.
Main image taken from www.lepotaizdravlje.rs