“Society’s policing of female body hair is so strong that most women don’t question it anymore.”
It’s a heatwave and you’re off to the beach. Sun cream? Check. A good book? Got it. Very little body hair? Hmm, probably. Sound familiar? That’s because most women wouldn’t dream of leaving their body hair intact.
Case in point: remember that scene from the first Sex and the City movie when Samantha shames Miranda for having bikini line hair growth sticking out from her swimsuit? That’s the kind of judgement heaped on women if we deviate from what’s expected from us.
Society’s policing of female body hair is so strong that most women don’t question it anymore. Shaving, waxing, lasering and plucking hair from our legs and armpits to bikini lines and bum holes has become an accepted – and expensive – part of our beauty routine.
And, honestly, I’m fed up! Why in 2018 do we have such a narrow view of beauty for women? Why is it okay for men to rock up with body hair in its natural state OR with a back, sack and crack wax and no one really bats an eyelid? Whereas if a woman has armpit hair or untouched pubic hair, it’s commented upon or viewed as some kind of statement. Why do men have a choice but women don’t?
On the issue of pube grooming, consultant ob-gyn, Dr Shazia Malik, says she has noticed a ‘definite shift’ in behaviour. “I would say a lot more women, and especially younger women, are now doing a Hollywood – removing all their pubic hair,” she says.
This is despite the benefits of pubic hair, such as being a sign of sexual maturity, protecting genitals, helping to keep bacterial infections at bay and, apparently, also trapping pheromones to aid sexual attraction.
Dr Malik says there are no downsides to having pubic hair (it’s natural, after all), but you should keep the area clean with warm water.
Meanwhile, ripping out pubes carries lots of risks with it, including infections, ingrown hairs and burns from waxing or laser treatment. Dr Malik adds: “I had a mum bring her 18-year-old daughter in recently. She had really unpleasant laser burns around her vulva.”
I’ve always had a rocky relationship with hair removal. At 14, I accidentally cut myself on a razor while attempting to shave after being made fun of at school for having hair sprouting from my legs.
Over the years, I’ve had some awful professional bikini line waxes where I’ve come away red raw, bruised and, in some cases, bleeding. In between these experiences, I’ve hacked away at my bikini line or used (disgustingly smelling) hair removal cream, only to find an itchy rash a few hours later.
I’ve even cancelled trips to the pool or beach because I haven’t had time to get rid of hair or I’ve felt ashamed of the tell-tale hair removal rash. And why? To try and fit the acceptable mould of female beauty that Western society dictates through its depiction of women.
“I definitely think there’s a double standard between men and women when it comes to body hair,” says author and body confidence coach, Michelle Elman. “In adverts for shavers for women they don’t even show body hair because its seen as so unattractive.”
Michelle says societal pressure can leave women with huge insecurities, especially when it comes to sex, and porn is a big part of the problem.
“The whole narrative around porn – because everyone is so shaved – leads to women not feeling good enough in the bedroom,” says Michelle. “I’ve had a lot of clients say to me they feel like they aren’t being a good girlfriend if they don’t stay on top of their body hair.”
It’s true that sexual partners can be a factor in the body hair debate. Friends have told me their boyfriends would prefer them to get rid of pubic hair (including on their bum), while one pal even said she thought body hair was dirty.
Alice, 27, a teacher from Exeter, says: “It’s perceived to be the norm that women remove most of their body hair so I think a lot of men expect that. Men have even suggested to me that I’m more likely to get oral sex if pubes are removed.
“For men, body hair isn’t a political issue so they are less aware of what the pressure feels like and the impact it can have on you, and the way the small things they say can make you feel really shit about yourself.”
After Juliet, 48, an author from London, decided to stop removing body hair, she received comments from strangers, who said her armpit hair was “disgusting”.
“If men want a beard or not it’s a preference, a choice,” she says. “For women there’s one kind of behaviour encouraged and rewarded.”
Juliet, a mother of three girls and a boy, says we need to educate youngsters.
“I think we really need to talk to young boys as well as girls,” she says. “So many of them see genitalia for the first time on the internet and they think it’s (being hairless) normal.”
Of course, hair removal is nothing new. Women in ancient Egypt got rid of all their body hair, including from their heads. Beauty trends change throughout the years just like fashions.
But we have to drop this idea that leaving body hair untouched is unattractive, dirty or shameful. We need to question why society has these expectations for women.
Just to be clear, I’m not against anyone removing hair from their body. It should always be a personal choice. Often I feel like doing some grooming, but sometimes, I just want to be the natural me: happy and a bit hairy – and I don’t want to be judged by anyone for that.