In fifth grade I begged my mom to buy me a razor. My hairy legs had suddenly begun to feel disgusting, and I knew that my ascension into womanhood was only one shave away.
When I was twelve I began to feel ashamed of my appetite. Each time I ate food I felt as though I was traveling farther and farther away from the flat stomach and thigh gap that I so desperately wanted. I used to joke that if I flapped my arms hard enough my arm fat would probably help me fly away.
I would go with my mom to the laser hair-removal clinic and sit in the lobby reading Lemony Snicket books and dream about the day when I, too, could pay to have a laser kill each individual hair follicle in my body. Maybe then I could finally achieve sweet, sweet hairlessness.
It wasn’t until I came to SMU and began to take Gender Studies classes that I realized that the social norms that equate beauty with slender, hairless, white bodies are completely arbitrary. Who says you can’t be beautiful and feminine with body hair or fat on your thighs or black or brown skin?
Why is body hair considered disgusting and repulsive on women but this same body hair on men is perfectly acceptable? Why am I supposed to have long, flowing hair on my head but not anywhere else on my body? Why am I supposed to be a size zero? Why am I supposed to wear make-up? Why are men and women alike are fed an “idealized” image of the female body that is almost completely unattainable?
The pressure to conform to beauty ideals is very real, but this concept of femininity is not grounded in reality. Wearing makeup makes you no more or less feminine than not wearing makeup – and the same goes for having long hair, wearing certain clothing, shaving your body, etc.
Hair is just that – hair. It is the same whether it is grown on a man or a woman. Having body hair doesn’t make you disgusting; it makes you human. There is no reason why society should insist on infantilizing women by demanding that they have smooth, naked-mole-rat bodies and then in the same breath insist that men have body hair in order to be considered masculine.
In the name of challenging these norms, I stopped shaving my underarms this summer and, several weeks ago, shaved the hair on my head into a buzz cut. I find challenging beauty norms to be incredibly empowering. Once I began to question this expectation of female hairlessness, I found myself feeling more comfortable with the other parts of my body that don’t fit into what women are “supposed” to look like.
I’m human and humans have fat and body hair and acne and many other characteristics that society has deemed undesirable. Having acne and body fat is completely normal! Women aren’t some magical unicorn species of human that is automatically born smooth and slender. Women and men come in all shapes and sizes and colors and they all deserve to be celebrated.
Personally, I feel more confident and feminine with my buzz cut and underarm hair. However, if wearing makeup, shaving and having long, luscious hair makes you feel more confident and feminine, then you do you! The point of this commentary is not to vilify women who enjoy fitting into traditional beauty standards but to point out that it is also okay to not “fit in.” All bodies are beautiful.
Society creates a culture of fear around nonconformity. Many women go to extreme lengths to conform to traditional definitions of femininity out of a fear that they will not be considered beautiful otherwise. Women who do not fit the mold of being naturally slender feel pressure to work out obsessively and eat sparingly. Those who have dark body hair feel pressure to shave, bleach, wax or laser their bodies. Women who consider cutting off their hair fear that they will no longer be considered feminine, beautiful or desirable.
Women who fit society’s idealized beauty mold should be celebrated – but women who do not fit the mold should also be celebrated! If you are a woman who has ever dieted or worn makeup or shaved out of fear that you would be considered “ugly” or “undesirable” if you failed to do so, I urge you to question the (often) unrealistic standards that society holds you to. Whether your questioning takes the form of thought, discussion or action, remember that it is okay to feel uncomfortable. I still sometimes feel uncomfortable with my underarm hair and at times my buzz cut makes me feel “unfeminine”—it takes a long time to un-learn the messages that society has fed us all our lives.
Just remember: No matter how you look, act or dress – you are beautiful.