Why Does Everyone Hate Female Armpit Hair?

by Erin Mayer

I studied modern dance at a liberal arts college and am therefore generally unfazed by the sight of body hair on women. I'd hoped that more people were on my page, given that no one (men included) should be "required" to shave if it's not their thing. According to New York Magazine's excellent new blog "Science of Us," however, everybody else is still horrified by female armpit hair. Le sigh.

NY Mag writer Lisa Miller drew from a study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, called "Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women's Body Hair Growth," and written by scholar Breanne Fahs, in order to better understand why female body hair terrifies so many of us. According to Fahs' findings, most women are total revolted by both the thought of other women's body hair and by actually not shaving themselves.

Here's an excerpt from the Miller piece describing the responses from the first part of the experiment, where participants were asked to express their thoughts about unshaved women:

Respondents said that shaving was a minor inconvenience and a personal choice, but that overall the idea of body hair was revolting. “I think women who don’t shave are a little gross,” said one interviewee, a 22-year-old Caucasian lesbian. “Because sometimes, like if people don’t shave their entire lives, that’s just a little to much to handle for me. I always shave. I don’t like hair. I shave everything.”

In the second half of Fahs' experiment, she gave students extra credit if they didn't shave their arms or legs for ten weeks. The recorded responses were equally vitriolic, with the women revealing that they thought almost constantly about their unshaved bits and refused to show them in public.

Obviously, the drive for women to shave is embedded in the structure of patriarchal society, but what's interesting is that plenty of women who reject traditional gender roles and sexist ideals — myself included — feel strongly compelled to shave everything. Why is this disgust for female hair anywhere but the head so widespread, even among many feminist circles?

Miller has some ideas:

Evolutionarily speaking, sex is the whole game. Sex with the wrong person can kill you and your genetic line – through disease, infertility, misfortune. With the right person, it can assure that your genes are transmitted to the next generation. Armpit hair signals sex because it grows during puberty and is one of the first signs of maturity (and fertility). And it signals sex because it transmits the scents that lead to mating. It triggers disgust because it reminds humans how dangerous sex can be. And that’s why we shave it off. Because armpit hair betrays the western fantasy about sex, which is that sex is fun, pleasurable, innocent, and inconsequential, a fantasy that elides the evolutionary truth.

This is an interesting idea, one that is something of a departure from the "shaving is a tool of the patriarchy" concept. One cannot ignore that men and women are held to different standards when it comes to body hair, but it is worth noting that "manscaping" (god, I hate that term) is on the rise. According to Cosmo, 95 percent of young men admit to grooming or removing body hair.

I personally prefer to shave and prefer men who have virtually no chest hair. But hey, even Madonna goes au naturale from time to time, so to each her own!