The Prickly Truth: The Politics of Body Hair
Do you ever wonder how much of our time is spent obsessing about hair? One of the most common complaints I hear from the women I know is about hair. It appears that there’s either not enough of it is growing where it’s wanted, or too much is growing where it’s not wanted.
In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that hair removal products generated a staggering $1.8 billion in the US alone. In India, the Tirumala temple earned nearly 40 million dollars from the sale of hair donated under religious custom to markets in Europe, North America, China and Africa. It all adds up into a billion dollar industry and it’s hardly surprising. Convincing women that they are not good enough is a lucrative business. We’re constantly flooded with ads that feature women and men trying desperately to tame body hair gone “wild.” These successful ad campaigns reinforce notions that women’s bodies are always in need
of improvements and move products from drug store aisles to our homes.
Is hair really all that bad? Body hair signals sexual maturity, protects vulnerable body parts and wicks away sweat. While removing hair has often been described as more hygienic, in reality it leaves the body vulnerable to razor burns, cuts and infection. Despite all this, we convince ourselves that the image of a hairless body outweighs these possible harms. This is also not new, Pumice stones were used to remove body hair in ancient Greece, beeswax made from alkali was used in Egypt and threading has been a common method in India, China and Persia for centuries.
It’s hard to ignore that social policing of body hair regulates gender. Men are allowed to revel in the body hair that comes with well, becoming a man. Those first few hairs that sprout on a young boy’s upper lip are celebrated. These hairs signal more than hormonal changes, they alert the world that a boy is on his way to manhood. Women instead
are shamed into hiding any signs of adulthood, trying to hold on to the façade of “innocence” associated with being a girl. Boys
are encouraged to grow, blossom and embrace adulthood in a way that women are not.
Part of the masculine identity is the ability to grow hair, facial hair, body hair, all kinds of hair. Whether or not one chooses to engage in that piece of their identity the option still exists. Women are constantly forced to straddle the lines between child and adult, and societal pressures around body hair is only one example. Portrayals of womanhood are stifled through these many images that equate femininity with childhood. It may be uncomfortable but womanhood is about more than sensual curves. Part of growing into a woman is the presence of hair, on
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places other than your head.
This is not to say that men are not pressured to conform to standards of beauty. I remember watching men with reams of chest, arm and back hair on TV in the 1970’s and 1980’s but the hairless trend has caught up to men too. Indian actors on Bollywood have smooth chests and even the adored mustache in Tamil movies is taking a backseat.
The pressure to strive toward unattainable beauty standards is something women and men fight worldwide. But sometimes it’s just too hard to shun social norms. I’m far from immune to the pressure to fit into these confines and have been waxing and shaving away all the hairs I deemed ugly since I was 14. But, it is time consuming,
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Unlearning all this is a difficult struggle but it is one
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we must engage in. At the very least, I hope that our daughters are spared this fight. I hope that one day, girls who are celebrated as beautiful, perfect creatures don’t grow into women who are never good enough. The world is a place that thrives on its diversity, isn’t it time that the definition of
beauty reflect that too?