Breanne Fahs on Unshaved
Though body diversity, body acceptance, and embodied revolt have long informed feminist politics, women’s body hair removal nevertheless occurs at rates I would classify as extraordinary compliance.100Between 92 and 99 percent of women in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and much of western Europe regularly remove their leg and underarm hair, while from 50 to 98 percent of women report that they removed some or all of their pubic hair. Women also remove their body hair at great cost: American women who shave spend in their lifetimes more than $10,000 and two months of their lives managing unwanted hair; that number increases to a full $23,000 for women who wax once or twice per month. Women throughout the world have seen increases in the mandate for women’s body hair removal. Chinese women have become targets of advertising campaigns that teach them to feel shame about their bodies, while Japanese women have become huge proponents of laser hair removal. Hair removal in India has become ubiquitous, with increased use of depilatories and laser hair removal for the chin, upper lip, underarms, cheeks, and bikini area. For German women, who were once averse to removal, 69 percent now remove their body hair. Given what is known about the influence of American television on body shaming and eating disorders in women throughout the world, one can surmise that norms of hairlessness are also being exported with equal intensity.
Though I have studied the social norm of body hair removal for nearly fifteen years, I continue to find it remarkable that women have been so wholly convinced to adhere to a norm that is purely social and aesthetic, with no notable health or hygiene benefits.101 In fact, doctors have recently begun to urge women to reconsider removing body hair, especially pubic hair, due to the link between hair removal and adverse medical risks, including shaving injuries, lacerations, rashes, abscesses, and abrasions. They also caution about the risk of unnecessary and risky hospitalizations due to uncontrollable staph infections due to body hair removal. And yet, women who removed their body hair reported feeling cleaner, more hygienic, sexier, more attractive, smoother, and more “normal.” Most women remove their body hair not because someone else tells them to but because they want to. Most women argue that removing their body hair is their personal choice, that they enjoy it, and that they would feel “dirty” or “gross” by not removing it.
But, of course, that isn’t really the story. People do not typically make informed and rational choices about grooming, beauty, and aesthetics based on logical outcomes or careful personal analysis, and choices are not all equally choose-able. Body hair removal has become compulsory. Those nonconformists who choose to go against the grain often face great social penalties and find themselves in a condition of, at minimum, exerting effort just to be themselves. At times, they face even more severe forms of social punishment, including derogatory comments, discrimination, social isolation, harassment, threats, and assault. These are the conditions to which we subject women who defy social norms and expectations, who delineate the boundaries of their own bodies on their own terms rather than someone else’s. These are also the conditions within which people make routine, everyday choices about their bodies, as the expectations of rejection, disapproval, and social punishment become possibilities.
The story of women’s body hair removal connects at its core to the story of women’s oppression, to the insidious ways that women’s bodies are controlled, managed, shaped, restricted, constrained, and dictated by outside forces. Hair is tangled up with a wide variety of powerful institutions that shape the choices women make about their bodies—cultural practices, institutions, formal organizations, families, workplaces, relationships, the beauty and fashion industries, governments, and capitalism, to name a few. Cultural stories about hair—particularly women’s body hair—have their roots in the fundamental belief in the gendering of subject/object relations, where women are told (and then internalize) the story that their bodies are fundamentally wrong in their natural state, and, in tandem with this, that they must alter their bodies in order to be seen as attractive, worthy of love, and inoffensive.
Body hair is an emotional subject. In every interview I have done and in every piece I have written on this subject, my overwhelming impression is that body hair incites fervor. People feel strongly about their own hair choices and often react badly when women use body hair as a form of rebellion against the status quo. Body hair is also a tool, something that peels away the layers of the culture people live in, revealing its deeply held beliefs about rigid gender roles and normative body choices. Ultimately, body hair is also a place of possibility. It is the perfect site for exposing readers to the allure of social norms, the invisible workings of power, and the possibilities of resistance. Because everyone can relate to the subject of body hair—as we all negotiate the tiny daily choices around managing and grooming our body hair—this work serves as a springboard for more serious conversations about oppression, social identity, patriarchy, biopolitics, and power. Small aspects of our bodies have wide reverberations in the political and social landscape; more importantly, decisions about bodies matter not just to us as individuals but also to the wider political landscape. The workings of how gender operates, how the deep imprint of culture is felt in the individual’s experience of the body, and how cultural stories are made and remade, become visible when looking closely at the story of women’s body hair. And maybe, though this work is never complete, by seeing these stories more clearly, we can render them fragile and vulnerable, and we can see how easily they break apart and are remade anew.
 Merran Toerien, Sue Wilkinson, and Precilla YL Choi, “Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity,” Sex Roles 52, no. 5-6 (2005): 399-406.
“Women Spend up to $23,000 to Remove Hair,” UPI.com, June 24, 2008, https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2008/06/24/Women-spend-up-to-23000-to-remove-hair/64771214351618/?hsFormKey=6c236b2fe21f331cdf53ce23f1415097&ur3=1.
 Allison S. Glass, Herman S. Bagga, Gregory E. Tasian, Patrick B. Fisher et al., “Pubic Hair Grooming Injuries Presenting to U.S. Emergency Departments,” Urology 80, no. 6 (2012): 1187-1191.
Breanne Fahs is professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. She is the editor of Burn It Down!: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution and author of Firebrand Feminism, Out for Blood: Essays on Menstruation and Resistance, Women, Sex, and Madness: Notes from the Edge, and several other works. Her latest book, Unshaved: Resistance and Revolution in Women’s Body Hair Politics, is available now.