Advertisement for women’s shaving razor, 1933. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
One afternoon, two and a half years ago, I decided to do something I had never done before and haven’t done since.
I was living in Copenhagen at the time. On an unusually warm day in August, I put on a skirt that barely reached my knees. Before leaving my apartment to get groceries, I checked my legs, moving my right hand over my shins and feeling hair stubble poke the palm of my hand. I went to the full-sized mirror in my living room to see if my unshaven limbs were visible from a distance. Even in my badly lit apartment, they were easily spotted, an army of little black dots. But instead of rushing to the bathroom to shave, putting on pants, or at least changing to some high-shaft boots, I did something that used to be unthinkable to me.
I left my apartment, legs unshaved and uncovered.
I realize that it doesn’t sound revolutionary to some—maybe most—people, but the thought of being spotted in public with visible body hair had never been an option for me. At school, only the weirdos, or unsanitary girls, had body hair. I’ve shaved my legs, armpits, and pubic hair since it started appearing when I was a young teenager. My mom gave me a razor the first time, teary-eyed, that I showed her the dark hairs on my shins, and ever since I’ve shaved, waxed, and plucked (with an epilator) obsessively.
So why did I suddenly feel a need to show my humanness to the world—or at least the people on my block in Copenhagen? Well, here’s my confession: for years I’ve felt ashamed. Ashamed of spending more money than I’ll ever want to count on hair removal products, and ashamed of all the times I haven’t worn what I wanted to because I didn’t have the time or energy to shave. I was ashamed of the times I’ve frantically bought a razor at a convenience store, balancing one leg in the sink at a restaurant because an opportunity to be intimate with someone had arisen.
Most of all, I’ve felt ashamed of calling myself a feminist, while conforming to one of the longest traditions of American sexism.
I felt like a hypocrite. And on that afternoon in August, a recent break-up had left me doubting my old ways. Suddenly the thought of shaving angered me to the point that I swore off my ex, men in general, the patriarchy, and Gillette.
Questions flooded in. Why had I wasted so much time hiding parts of my body to be considered attractive—particularly by men? When I hate the act of shaving, and the pain of waxing and plucking, only for the hair to return? I felt like a modern-day Sisyphus but unlike the mythical dude relentlessly pushing his rock up a hill, I could just decide to let go of it.
Or so I thought.
As soon as I closed the door behind me on that hairy day, my confidence started to evaporate. On my way down the stairs of my building, I felt my heartbeat in fear of meeting neighbors who might easily spot the hair in the cramped walk-up. Leaving the building I glanced down at my feet and saw the dark hair shimmering in the sunlight. Walking down the street I caught myself looking everyone who passed me straight in the eyes to distract them from looking at my legs.
I was now infuriated with myself. I wanted to be one of those people, many of whom I’m friends with, who are unwavering in their feminist values and don’t feel like they’re having a panic attack at the thought of strangers noticing that they have let everything grow.
Why, I raged at myself, am I such a bad feminist?
As it turns out, I am not the only one. Last summer, columnists in The Washington Post debated whether you could shave your legs and still be a feminist. As Kate Cohen argued, a woman doesn’t shave because she herself wants to. Instead, she wrote, “The feminist knows that the reasons she wants to shave are deeply compromised—and that as long as men aren’t expected to do it, doing it for yourself is an illusion.”
That statement angered some readers. One responded: “Sexism says that women must shave their legs to conform to men’s ideal of female beauty. Liberal feminism says that women should be free to decide whether to shave their legs. But radical feminism, as expressed by Ms. Cohen, says that a woman must never shave her legs, regardless of what she thinks she wants.”
But Cohen’s formulation reminded me of a conversation I had with a close friend of mine that revealed the limits of certainty about why women persist in grooming themselves. She shaves even more rigorously than I do, so once I asked her why. “I like the feeling of smooth legs,” she said.
I asked her if she felt the same when touching a man’s leg, and she said no. Then, I asked her where she thought the appreciation of smooth (female) legs came from, and she replied: “Well, I’ve done it since I started growing hair, so anything else feels weird now.”
That would put her, and me, in the “liberal feminist” category. But that may not be the point: Aren’t we feminists who are still struggling? And perhaps we are still struggling with feminism. I don’t shave because I love the feeling of smooth legs or because I love wasting time in the shower. I agree with Cohen—I shave because I’ve grown up believing that it’s a necessary and essential part of being a woman.
This has been a problem that has been around since women began shaving. Over 3,000 years ago, Egyptians used razors made of copper to shave; according to the Women’s Museum in California, some women shaved their heads. They also removed their pubic hair because it was deemed “uncivilized.”
Later, Roman and Elizabethan women used tools and waxing methods to remove body hair. Maybe you’ve noticed how most paintings of naked women such as Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” painted in the mid-1480s, display no body hair. Venus (today the name of a Gillette razor), who is the goddess of love, covers parts of her crotch with her long, wavy head hair. But the part that shows? It’s completely hair-free.
However, shaving didn’t become mainstream until the twentieth century, when the idea was spread throughout the United States courtesy of American advertising agencies. Harper’s Bazaar ran the first ad for hair removal products in 1914. At the beginning, these ads focused on the removal of underarm hair, later on armpit hair and women tended to wear stockings to conceal their hairy shins. In some cases, American women used sandpaper to remove body hair, leaving their skin damaged. Others used X-ray treatment, and thousands of women used a cream made from rat poison, in some cases causing blindness, limb damage, and even death, reports The Atlantic.
Our excessive focus on hair moved from our arms to our legs came during World War II, when there was a shortage of stockings in the United States and razors became a staple for the American woman. According to Rebecca M. Herzig’s Plucked (2015), shaved legs became the norm by the 1950s, and by 1964, 98 percent of American women reported that they removed body hair.
Then along came feminism, and women’s rebellion against time-consuming, expensive, and uncomfortable ways of dressing and grooming, often identified as forms of social control. As radical feminist activist and journalist Susan Brownmiller wrote in her book Femininity (1984), “Body hair on women is subjected to the closest esthetic scrutiny, and most normal manifestations are thought to be at odds with feminine appeal.” That’s still true.
Sure, we’ve seen pushback in the last decade, and many women do let their hair grow, but it’s not with the same defiance as back in 1968, when demonstrators walked the streets in Atlantic City to protest the Miss America Pageant, waving their bras and heels in the air, throwing razors, make-up products, and other “instruments of female torture” in a trash bin as a declaration of independence.
According to the women I know, hairy armpits still set you apart from the crowd and worse, it causes acquaintances and strangers alike to comment on your body.
Anyway, back to the day I had hairy legs.
When I walked into the supermarket—a few hundred feet from my apartment—I was hit by the cold air conditioning and immediately wished I had worn pants. I grabbed a basket and walked swiftly up and down the aisle to gather my groceries, wanting to make it home as quickly as possible. But when I squatted down to reach for the canned tomatoes I paused. My face had come very close to my shins, and I felt like all the little hairs were looking up at me. I wondered how many of them there were. Hundreds? Thousands?
As I sat there motionless in the canned food aisle, an elderly woman excused herself as she reached down to grab the peas. Her naked forearm accidentally touched my right shin. To me, it felt like it was happening in slow motion, and I thought I could hear the scratchy noise of her skin touching my stiff stubs. I looked up expecting a reaction from her—a look of disbelief at my lack of self-care—but she didn’t seem to notice that she’d even touched me. She just put the peas in her basket and walked away.
I got up, and as I walked toward the counter, I felt embarrassed by the drama that had only existed in my head. I hurried back home feeling overwhelmed by so little. And yet, when I closed the door to my apartment, I took off my skirt and put on sweatpants.
Maybe I wasn’t ready yet.
So, what do men think? Since I was in my early twenties, I’ve talked to male partners—some very hairy humans themselves—about my body hair. I’ve asked them how they would feel about me growing my hair out. Some answered very plainly: “I find it unattractive.” Others have been reluctant to comment, saying some version of: “That’s up to you.” But if I pressed, the truth always came out: “I prefer you without.”
Every time I’ve been disappointed with these answers, sometimes even angry about them. Sometimes I made it clear to them how unfair it is, and that I never asked them to shave anything. From my perspective, they should just be as they are—so why was it different for me?
But truth be told, once I calmed down, I’ve also always felt relieved. Because men didn’t push or encourage me to become a better feminist version of myself, I could just keep doing what I’ve been doing for years. That’s how they like me.
I realize, writing this, that a feminist shouldn’t even be “asking for permission,” or maybe even an opinion, from a partner. I should do with my body as I see fit, which I usually do. But a part of me probably asked my partners because I knew their answers could somehow excuse my un-feminist preference: hairless limbs.
What if just one of them had said: “I would love it if you grew out your armpit hair”?
Panic and anxiety! Would I be woman enough to do it?
I discussed it with my mother. As a kid, looking through family albums, pictures of her as a young woman used to make me cover my eyes with my hands. She and her friends had their breasts out and their armpits covered in hair; to me as a young girl, the way they flaunted their femininity made me never want to become a woman like them.
That was before she had four kids and a career. Now 63 years old, she still doesn’t understand the fuss about hairy armpits or why anyone would get a Brazilian wax, or why people would shave their legs during winter.
However, she shaves when the weather is hot and unlike me, she would never go to work—least of all a party—without makeup on.
Do we all just express our femininity in ways that feel comfortable to us, and live with our shortcomings? Over the years, I’ve managed to refrain from sexist norms and practice as I preach, but body hair is still the last stubborn roadblock on my way to feeling like a good feminist: after my (made-up) drama in the grocery store, I kept shaving for the rest of the summer, and I still do to this day. The degree of over-the-top anxiety I felt in that supermarket remains vivid.
It’s also true that if I’m out with my girlfriends and see their hairy pits and limbs I feel a pit of shame in my stomach. I’ve talked to them about my shaving issues, and—feminists all—they tell me that it doesn’t matter and that I should just do what I’m most comfortable with, but when we discuss why I feel the way I do, it is clear to all of us that there is a contradiction: my feminist values don’t line up with my compulsion for shaved shins.
My friends seem to secretly know this. Many of them tend to give me an empathetic look or a pat on the back to signal that one day I’ll join the club of authentic feminists. But their sympathetic gestures only make me feel worse.
Then I realized that every feminist is hiding something. One night several months ago something surprising happened. After yet another discussion about our grooming habits, one of my hairy friends leaned in and whispered: “Don’t worry about it—I still shave my vagina.”
Amalie Thieden holds an MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism from The New School for Social Research.