#Personal Stories

On Body and Hair: Can A Woman Choose To Be Hairless? Or is Vanity Denied To Women?

Women And Body Hair
Women And Body Hair: A few days back, my friend, let’s call her K, shared a “We Waxed Our Legs” vlog on our WhatsApp group with a very excited “Let’s try this the next time we meet.”

As small-town high school girls with access to the uninhibited internet, we are, in theory and thought, the models of empowerment, open-mindedness and free will, i.e., to say hardcore feminists. But with limited means, agency, limiting circumstances and a family which just wouldn’t get us, in practice, we remain what our parents think best till we can set out for college (or so we hope.) So, our bodies continue to be largely unexplored territories even to ourselves, especially to ourselves. Hence the sense of wonder and fascination towards cold wax strips.

Notwithstanding the novelty of cold wax strips and the attraction of smooth legs, M was quick to jump in and abhor it as unnecessary pain. N was not far behind in her condemnation and declared: “People who wax do not love themselves. They are narrow-minded for they live by societal norms. That is when a debate broke out over frantic texts that lasted an hour.

K took N’s condemnation of waxing as questioning her (K’s) commitment to the cause of feminism. So she vehemently protested that whether women choose to keep or remove body hair is a personal choice. And we, as women, should not bring down other women for their choices. Moreover, self-love is abstract and takes a different form for each individual. Can’t a woman choose to be hairless because that’s what she likes? Or is vanity denied to women?

And in trying to prove each other wrong, they ended up establishing how right they both were. K was not criticising people who actively choose to be hairless. She was calling out the unnecessarily painful process of waxing. Implicit in this was that although women themselves choose to undergo waxing, this voluntary submission to pain is driven by society’s notion of what a normal- not ideal- female body should look like.  As a child, I thought that after a certain age, all body hair just falls off from a girl’s body: just one of the many changes that our body go through. I had never seen a girl past a certain age with body hair. I still rarely do.

Exasperated by a debate that kept going back and forth with no conclusion in sight, K finally conceded that we should “let waxing be waxing. Why see it anything more?” But then everything a woman chooses to do or not do ends up having social repercussions: either as an act of pitiful submission or shameful defiance. When so many of us choose to be hairless, aren’t we fortifying society’s conception of what female bodies should look like and thus encouraging ‘voluntary’ submission to the pain of waxing?

I had never seen a girl past a certain age with body hair. I still rarely do.

I would not say that men do not grapple with their share of body image issues. But there is no disputing that they have it easier. They can choose to grow facial hair or not grow facial hair, have a hairy chest or not have a hairy chest, shave their limbs or not shave their limbs. None of these choices would be seen as a deviation but just a way of being. There is no one approved idea of what should be under a man’s shirt.

But a woman who chooses to be comfortable with her hair is defying patriarchal norms and a feminist woman who likes her arms perfectly hairless is submitting to societal standards. As Roxane Gay points out, our bodies are truly inescapable. There is nothing one owns as one’s own body. And when female bodies, our bodies are so heavily scrutinized and subjected to countless expectations and restrictions, women end up being denied the claim to their own body, their own self. A person with no claim to their self cannot exercise her will for she does not know if she has a will. Can a person with no say on her own body have a say on anything else? If I cannot choose what I wear, can I claim the right to make any other meaningful decision with actual consequences?

Is a woman who chooses to be comfortable with her hair is defying patriarchal norms and a feminist woman who likes her arms perfectly hairless is submitting to societal standards?

In thus policing our bodies, patriarchy has managed to restrict the exercise of our will. As we submit our bodies to societal norms, we also submit our wills, wants and desires to what the morality of men expects of us.  But this intense politicisation of our body can also serve as our boon. Every small act we do has the power to be an act of defiance. And when we, as women, choose to unabashedly do things because that’s what we like, we are disregarding and thus disempowering society’s approval: whether by wearing a hijab to the beach or strutting in a miniskirt in the local bazaars of India.

This way, maybe soon enough, a hairless woman would be seen as just a hairless woman and a woman with body hair as just a woman with body hair, as people exercising their individual preferences. Nothing else. Nothing more. For this is the goal of feminism: a parity for women in their humanity.

 The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of SheThePeople.