Caught in the Crosshairs of My Unshaven Armpits
I watch my mum’s mouth drop open in disgust. “Oh my god.”
We’re dining at a fancy restaurant and I’m dolled up to the nines, hair and makeup immaculate, black stilettos clicking underneath the table. Waiting for our meals, I raise my arms in a lazy stretch when I catch my mother’s eye.
Her look is a combination of mortification and utter revulsion.
Surprise, Mum: I have pit hair.
As many would see it, wedged in the small space between my arm and my torso, is a disgusting, uncivilised display of animalistic vulgarity, complete disregard for personal hygiene and a brazen confession of lesbianism.
Unfavourable assumptions are common when it comes to women with underarm hair. These reactions both intrigue and confuse me. I mean, I get it. Armpit hair on women is not something we’re used to seeing, and we’re often scared of the unfamiliar. In fact, it took me several years to overcome my internalised shame to get the point of even trialling a bit of pit fur.
A couple of friends in high school who braved the hirsute lifestyle originally planted the seed in my mind, at which point my position was one of, “Good for you, not for me.” I guess I didn’t think it looked very good. I found it distracting, disconcerting, and felt mildly uncomfortable when I saw it. Of course, this was completely irrational. Why don’t I have the same reaction to a man’s sweaty, smelly and thicker pit hair? Why the double standard? If men can do it – why can’t women?
We can thank Gilette for popularizing the hairless underarm ideal in 1915 when they released the first women-specific razor, the ad for which contained a not-so-subtle directive for women of the day: “The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed.” This type of advertising cultivated, and proceeded to profit from, the calculated confluence of female body hair and shame.
As a feminist and sociology student, I am hyper-aware of myself as a product of these market-driven social norms. I wanted to unlearn the conditioning I’d been exposed to my entire life; reclaim a sense of control over my bodily choices. I figured that once I got used to it, then I could make a truly autonomous decision about whether I liked it or not.
So: I let it grow. Inspired by the increasing number of hairy-pitted women I saw online and IRL – thanks, Miley Cyrus – I first decided to trial it in 2016 whilst on university exchange in Sweden. I thought it the perfect opportunity to experiment with some follicle freedom given I would be wearing long-sleeves on a permanent basis for the following six months. I worried about what my partner of two years would think when I finally returned home and bared my newly-sprouted underarm bush. When that moment came, I felt lucky that his feelings were neutral, maintaining that it’s my body, my choice; his preference was my preference. But I shouldn’t feel lucky that he’s okay with my body hair. Why should I feel grateful to be ‘allowed’ this kind of freedom of choice in my relationship?
When I pressed him about his preference after one year of experimentation with growth, he confessed that in all honesty, having armpit hair did ever-so-slightly diminish my attractiveness to him. I struggled with the sense of obligation that (hetero) women feel to cater to men’s aesthetic preferences about our bodies – even when they explicitly tell us to do as we wish.
When I told my friends of my intentions, one couldn’t contain his horror. “Ugh, don’t do that.” Prepared for resistance, I quipped, “Why should I care about your opinion of my body?” He didn’t have an answer.
Interactions like this (combined with browsing too many internet comment sections) fuelled the self-consciousness that continued to permeate my everyday existence. I would select certain outfits in accordance with certain people I was seeing, and how accepting I thought they would be. My arms stuck to my sides like wax, moving in only calculated distances and angles. Instead of feeling liberated, I continued to struggle feeling simultaneously uncomfortable with the idea of both conforming and non-conforming. I spent hours over-thinking and over-analysing the whys and the contradictory feels.
I felt hypocritical in continuing to uphold other gendered beauty conventions; if I’m not shaving my pits because I want to normalise female body hair, should I then renounce all hair removal and beautification practices? But the complete rejection of capitalistic beauty standards is impossible, at least without becoming a social pariah. My obsession with complete ideological consistency was not only misguided, but futile.
I was stuck between being anti-capitalist and conformist. Between being self-conscious and hypocritical. Between not wanting to care and caring. And the ironic mindfuck of all this is that my decision to have armpit hair is precisely due to societal pressure to not have armpit hair. In my attempt to subvert social norms, I’m actually just letting them dictate my behaviour, albeit in a different way.
It goes to show the extent to which female bodies are politicised, rendering the choices we make with them political ones no matter which we choose.
This isn’t some revolutionary act of feminist heroism. Or at least, it really shouldn’t be. And that’s precisely the point. Women should have the freedom to be able to do what they want with their bodies and it not be a big deal, nor make news headlines. We shouldn’t be bound by some narrow cultural consensus around what ‘attractive’ is or isn’t – or be obligated to be attractive at all.
In my moments of self-doubt, I like to think of my 11-year-old sister, who at the cusp of puberty has recently sprouted her own wiggly underarm strands – the beginnings of womanhood that excite, rather than disgust her. She remains blissfully unconcerned with societal expectations of female beauty; oblivious to the shame and social pressure. She regards my pit hair as a choice – one equally valid choice among others.
Before Mum can protest, our meals arrive. I lower my arms sheepishly.
Her eyes swing from my underarms to me in an accusatory glare, demanding an explanation for such an incomprehensible demonstration of barbarity.
Noticing the interaction, it’s my younger sister that butts in to save me. “Mum, she can do what she wants. It’s her body. Who cares.”
She resumes tapping on her iPad. Mum accepts defeat, scowling as she digs into the salad bowl.
I think. Who cares? Who cares.
Cover by Billie