What do you do if a man makes a comment about your body hair choices? My own choices about body hair tend towards the "can't be bothered" end of the spectrum, and I still find it remarkable that if a woman decides she has better things to do with her time and money than pluck or wax or singe hair off her body, it's a political statement. I shave my legs and armpits very occasionally, usually because of some practical consideration: they keep itching under my tights, for instance, or I like to be clean-shaven under the arms in summer. I've never had a wax in my life. This doesn't make me a creature of high principle or a superior feminist being; I just do what I like for my own body and encourage everybody else to do what they want for theirs.
It's also important to note that, as Niloufar Haidari wrote very eloquently for Vice , this is a debate that often leaves out other cultural perspectives: in Iran, for instance, "a hairless physique alludes to a certain stature or glamorous lifestyle; that you are well-groomed and look after yourself, perhaps that you are more modern or Western," articulating a status rebellion of values that isn't part of general American feminist conversation. Letting your body hair grow isn't "innately feminist;" shaving or waxing isn't automatically "a concession to the male gaze". Ultimately, we're all allowed to do what we want with our bodies, without anybody else trying to control it.
Here are four ways to respond if a dude isn't being particularly complimentary about your body hair, or is just riffing on it in a way that doesn't make you comfortable.
1. "My Aesthetic Choices Are Not Your Business"
This will be a short conversation. No, you do not get to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body hair. Even if you're having sex with her. It's her body. It's her hair. It's her business. If your attraction to a woman is deflated in some way by the sight of some hair peeking out of her T-shirt arms, it is likely best to examine what that says about you, rather than encourage the woman to remove it so you feel more comfortable. Do you connect body hair with "angry feminists"? Do you have vague concerns about hygiene? Are you just not used to the sight of a female body with hair in places other than the head and eyebrows?
(The sole, and I do mean sole, exception to this is if pubic hair is in some way physically interfering with sexual activity or making it difficult or painful, in ways that can't be remedied simply by moving it out of the way. In which case a conversation is fair. But usually, saying "it gets in the way" is not valid, unless it's causing pain somehow. It's pubic hair; not a chastity belt.)
2. "Let's Have A History & Science Lesson!"
The female ideal "hairless body" in Western iconography goes back thousands of years. Indeed, a key part of medieval medical thought about the female body was that it was too "cold and moist" to produce body hair, which doctors then thought was formed by "vapors" escaping through the pores and solidifying into hair. A woman who was hairy was therefore unusually "hot" and masculine, less likely to be fertile, and generally to be avoided. We've been prejudiced against female body hair for an incredibly long time, for the simple reason that body hair has been cast as a "male" thing, and female possession of it intrudes upon male bodily power and strength.
As a cultural perspective, this has proven incredibly powerful. And it's interesting to try and discuss this with people, particularly those who feel disgusted or upset by the sight of female body hair and declare it not to be sexually attractive. How did they come by this belief? Where did they get it? When, for instance, young French women took over social media earlier this month with the hashtag #LesPrincessesOntDesPoils, meaning "princess have hair," where did the disgust articulated in male responses on Twitter come from? Like it or not, our ideas of sexual attractiveness are not all innately embedded in our genetic make-up; not liking women with body hair is not the same as the apparent preference by straight males for women who are ovulating. Sexiness has been hugely societally constructed throughout all of human history; witness the high-plucked hairlines of the Renaissance in Italy, for instance. And while that shouldn't necessarily devalue somebody's decisions about their partner preferences, it should also be recognized as part of the equation.
3. "How Can It Be Unfeminine If Every Woman Has It?"
Almost any argument about "femininity" by a dude is probably hobbled before it can begin, but this is an interesting part of male critiques of female body hair: that it's not "feminine". In other words, it doesn't fit in with the soft, delicate, pretty, societally accepted appearance of female bodies and experiences, so it's not valid or acceptable. And women judge and assess femininity as much as men do.
But there's a problem here, and you can actually look at it through the two different definitions of the word "feminine". In the sense that body hair is "unfeminine," femininity is "having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, like sensitivity or gentleness." In other words, it contravenes what we've all been led to believe is the "proper" way for a girl to look. (In one famous definition of femininity, actress Sandra Dee said "You must be meticulous in your clothing, make-up, skin — to be clean, fresh, and nice all the time.”.) But it also has a more fundamental definition: it comes from femina, and is the essential property of being a woman. No more, no less. Femininity contains body hair, by definition. What we then do with it is our own business.
4. "If This Upsets You, Wait Till Somebody Tells You About Periods"
There are a lot of things about the natural functioning of the conventional female body that are seen as publicly taboo or censorious. Mention of menstruation in subway ads for the period underwear THINX sparked an extremely bizarre scandal; we still show blue fluid rather than blood in ads for pads and tampons; public demonstrations and photos of breastfeeding continue to cause minor societal uproar; and that's not even talking about the censorship of normal bits of the female body just sitting there doing their thing. Tess Holliday's plus-sized body being deleted off Facebook, the entire "free the nipple" campaign, and the policing of photographs of female pubic hair on Instagram reveal that, as a Western society, we are still deeply uncomfortable with a female body that's anything other than smooth, nicely posed, and devoid of signs of humanity. Do these people not know we have colons? What is going on here?
The French Renaissance philosopher Montaigne knew what was up; he wrote the immortal words, "Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies" (yes, really). In other words, even the most societally lofty of people have bodily functions and unsavory anatomical moments, and we still seem to need to remind everybody about this. A distaste for female body hair fits very neatly into a context of disgust at the female possession of a body in general; men are allowed to have them and their messiness, but we're supposed to perambulate around like pretty automata with holes and the capacity to laugh at jokes.
Enough of that nonsense. Hair happens. What we do with it is our business.
Images: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Giphy