"Every individual's relationship to their body is so personal, yet it's shaped - to a degree - from the outside in."
By Rachel Bekkerman
I was eleven or twelve when I started shaving. It wasn’t something I thought about, just something that everyone did - a compulsory act that defined my pre-teen years. I can’t say I remember the exact moment the blond hairs on my legs and under my arms became unwelcome, but leaving them be never even occurred to me. In many ways it was a rite of passage. In addition to the engraved necklace I got for my Bat Mitzvah, I also got a razor and shaving cream. Thus began a lifetime of hair removal.
Then during a trip to the beach this summer I saw something I haven’t seen before - hair. Everywhere. It was under arms, atop legs, and peeking through bikini bottoms. There was a sudden shift; a lack of shame amongst the female population. What was happening? Were the women of Rockaway Beach more liberated than the rest of us, or was this phenomenon spreading beyond the sandy shore? Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Body hair was in; in my Instagram feed, in my inbox, in my coffee line. Women passing me on the street were displaying their hair like badges of honor. It was refreshing, curious, and made me ask the “W” questions (Who, What, Where, and Why)...
Politics around the female body has undoubtedly come into the forefront in post-Trump America, and this new redefinition of femininity made me think that we’re in the midst of what I’m calling “next next wave feminism.” In the 60s and 70s, women were rocking their body hair as an expression of sexual liberation and a connection to counterculture. We’ve all heard of the infamous “seventies bush,” right? But in 2018 the line between counterculture and the mainstream has blurred, and definitions of beauty, gender, and in turn, femininity and masculinity have become more flexible. As inclusivity becomes more in fashion and fashion becomes more inclusive, it seems like the only rule left is there are no rules. I mean, even razor brands are starting to celebrate body hair!
Body hair removal is a multibillion-dollar a year industry, and deeply steeped in history.
As my curiosity grew, so did my Google search results. Body hair removal is a multibillion-dollar a year industry, and deeply steeped in history. One article even takes it back to 2 B.C. when Roman poet Ovid urged women to groom so “that no rude goat find his way beneath your arms and that your legs be not rough with bristling hair.” WHAT?! From the ancient Egyptians to the Renaissance and beyond, a barer is better philosophy predominated. Hair was considered “dirty,” and removing it was a signifier of status. Fashion’s influence didn’t really take hold until the early 20th century when sleeveless dresses were in style, and later when a nylon shortage circa WWII forced women to say “buh-bye” to the hair under their arms and on their legs. The rest is more or less her story. Sure, there have been ups and downs, but there’s no doubt that the reigning beauty standard became less is more.
Every individual’s relationship to their body is so personal, yet it’s shaped - to a degree - from the outside in. What would it look like if our sense of self was constructed in isolation? And in the context of body hair, would we choose to let it grow, or keep it trim?
I asked some of our friends to weigh in.
"When I realized it felt more like an obligation and less of a choice, I decided to start growing out my underarm and leg hair."
JESSICA MILLER - MODEL, ACTIVIST
I grew up with a family of women who shaved, and men who were revered for their body hair. When puberty hit there was almost no question I would start shaving my legs and underarms - pitched as a coveted rite of passage among my pre-teen friends. It was all we knew and after some time, became something we just did. When I realized it felt more like an obligation and less of a choice, I decided to start growing out my underarm and leg hair. From the peers and adults in my life I was met with words of disgust and confusion - as if I was doing something so “gross” with my body. That reaction made me feel as if their goal was to shame me until I fell back in line with the status quo. What it did was reveal to me that for so many there is one standard of beauty, and that standard didn’t sit well with me. I decided to take my body, and my choice for how to groom, back into my own hands. I’m a big fan of doing what makes you feel the most healthy and aligned to your personal goals and lifestyle. If you feel beautiful and empowered by shaving, then that’s great! If you want to grow your body hair, that’s also great! If like me you want to do both for different times and seasons of life, the choice is yours! There will always be people who will want to critique or have some opinion on the issue, but the only perspective that really matters is yours, and with that realization comes so much fun and freedom.
"I'm sure subconciously my detest for my own body hair has something to do with an ideal beauty, but from a concious perspective, I'm more comfortable and feel better about myself when it's not there."
NICOLE BENDER - DIRECTOR OF BRAND MARKETING & COMMS, UNIVERSAL STANDARD
I have a mixed relationship with my body hair. At the core, I hate it. When my legs are prickly, they feel dry. When my armpit hair is longer than normal, I think it smells. And when things get crazy down below, it’s itchy and uncomfortable. However, as any gal knows, shaving your body clean is a serious time commitment. If I'm tired and lazy, or don't have time to shave myself clean, I don't mind my body hair... but it never gets too out of control. At max, maybe I'll go 7 days without shaving. My younger self was way more diligent about maintaining a clean shave, but as the years progressed, I became more comfortable in my own skin, and it became less of a nightly ritual. I'm an Italian/German blonde, so my hair is light and fine (thanks dad!), but there is definitely a lot of it in certain places (thanks mom!). Luckily, I have very little hair on my arms so I don't address it there, but otherwise I remove all body hair. Lip, eyebrows, privates, legs, and armpits are all squeaky clean. I even had a hair coming out of my chin that I had removed via electrolysis because I was too scared to pluck or shave it out of fear it would grow back tenfold. I remove my body hair because I like to feel clean, and when I'm not cleanly shaven, I personally feel dirty. I'm sure subconsciously my detest for my own body hair has something to do with an ideal beauty, but from a conscious perspective, I'm more comfortable and feel better about myself when its not there.
"In fear of judgement, or bias, I religiously shaved every night for years."
YANECE COTTO - MODEL, ACTOR
My body hair started out as something that I loved about myself. It was beautiful and blonde in the summer, and in the winter it was thin and I never noticed it. Then puberty started. People noticed my armpit hair and the hair that grows on the side of my lips. In fear of judgement, or bias, I religiously shaved every night for years. No matter how badly my body reacted I was hairless and covered in razor bumps until I was 20 years old. I began to get reacquainted with my body, and I felt beauty in who I was naturally. I found beauty in my hair again because, in a way, it was my truth. It is something that grows from me and I can do whatever I want with it. I stopped shaving, not to make a statement, but because I was hurting myself to fit these unrealistic beauty standards. I am a black, non-binary femme living with my body hair in its purest form - with my pit hair, happy trail, and anything else that makes me feel comfortable. If growing my hair out and living truthfully is a protest or seen as a radical act then I will gladly live radically until it is the norm.
To be honest, as much as I’m into body-hair-positivity (I believe everyone should do what makes them feel good), I’m not sure I’m ready to take the plunge personally. There’s a fearlessness that comes with rejecting established standards - a fearlessness I really admire.
Every day at Universal Standard I think about FASHION FREEDOM - what it means, how it manifests itself, ways it’s interpreted - and the endless definition and redefinition of an idea that gives all of us permission to exist as we are, right now. I can’t help to contextualize the body hair trend within that concept. While I know one isn’t directly related to the other, the two are inextricably linked. If nothing else, that hairy day at the beach reinforced the idea that beauty and femininity isn’t one-dimensional. It’s nuanced, complicated, and is ultimately realized by the individual.