In what may be the best assignment ever, Professor Breanne Fahs of Arizona State University has offered students in her Women and Gender Studies extra credit — for refusing to shave. For 10 weeks, her female students are asked to stop shaving their armpits and their leg hair and journal their experiences, actively living a social experiment.
The assignment is a bold one, and highlights how completely expectations of female beauty have permeated today's society. Women who neglect to shave their armpits are accused of poor hygiene (what self-respecting woman lets sweat pool in the hair beneath her arms, eh?) But men, who have been scientifically shown to perspire more than women, are not only accepted with armpit hair, but in fact expected to keep their masculinity in tact by refusing to shave their pits.
Shaving, a seemingly minute day-to-day activity, serves as a manifestation of the hypocrisy of gender norms, and through her extra credit opportunity, Professor Fahs pushes her students to take a closer, more personal look at societal norms that otherwise seem commonplace.
Said Fahs to ASU News:
There’s no better way to learn about societal norms than to violate them and see how people react. There’s really no reason why the choice to shave, or not, should be a big deal. But it is, as the students tend to find out quickly.
Women were not the only ones eligible for Fahs' experiment. In order to perpetuate equal participation, Fahs offered an alternative for male students — for 10 weeks, the men in her class were asked to stay clean shaven from the neck down, virtually flipping the expected hygiene tactics for the genders.
Many students reported visceral reactions from friends of both genders, and even family members took issue with some students' participation. Stephanie Robinson, one of Fahs' students, spoke of her 10-week experiment to ASU News as a "life changing experience," and noted the disgust with which many of her peers addressed her new habits.
Many of my friends didn’t want to work out next to me or hear about the assignment, and my mother was distraught at the idea that I would be getting married in a white dress with armpit hair.
These responses to a trivial and altogether personal choice go a long way in reflecting how deeply ingrained social expectations run for women. Unless Robinson was actively rubbing her sweaty armpit hair on a workout buddy, there seems to be little reason for anyone to be put off by the idea of taking a spin on the elliptical by her side. And yet, the very idea of a woman failing to conform to gender norms in a public setting was enough to send even her close friends running in the opposite direction.
What was the real issue at stake? The act of refusing to shave, or the social subversion that accompanies a willingness to violate common expectations? Grace Scale, another student and participant, reported that male students were most offended by her failure to keep a smooth underarm, with one male friend comparing her new hair growth to "the sludge in the bottom of the garbage can."
It is unclear what garbage can this male friend was looking into, but if it was a hair receptacle at a barber shop, this makes sense. According to Fahs and her students, the strongest deterrent from participation, from both genders, came from concerns about how the men in their lives would react. Women feared that their boyfriends would leave them once they realized that they were not, in fact, prepubescent children who grew hair in normal places, and men feared that their "friends" would question their masculinity if they were not covered in fur.
One male student, in order to reinforce his manhood, decided to embark upon his hairless journey using a hunting knife. But all in all, it seemed that men, in fact, had fewer qualms about participating, and according to Fahs, were more comfortable because they adopted a "men do what they want" attitude. Kurt Keller, who participated in a previous iteration of the experiment, noted that when he was questioned about his hairless legs, he said that he was "comfortable in [his] own skin," whereupon his decision was accepted.
But for female participants, being comfortable in their skin does not seem to be an adequate response. Whereas men have full autonomy over their bodies and how they choose to display them, it appears that women still remain chained to societal expectations when it comes to their own appearances. Men like Keller may have been confronted with confusion, but it is unlikely that anyone was disgusted by their appearance, as women like Scale reported.
The experiment, as amusing as it was, yields results that speaks to a deeper and perhaps more insidious issue at hand. Armpit hair was not taboo until around 1915, when Gillette began targeting women as an untapped market for their razors. Unless hair was on a woman's head, it suddenly became unclean and unsightly, and over the course of a century, hairlessness became synonymous with cleanliness and, to a large extent, beauty.
So ingrained was the necessity of shaving that when Mo'Nique accepted her Golden Globe for her role in Precious at the 2010 Golden Globes with unshaven legs, the Internet exploded in anti-hair fury. The New York Times asserted that a "collective ewww rang out nationwide" at the audacity of a woman who chose to go out in public with hair on her body.
But Mo'Nique was not necessarily making a statement — she was simply exercising her right to choose. And this right, regardless of circumstance, is one that seems to have been forgotten in today's society, and is one that women should seek to regain.