To Hair or Not to Hair?

by Millicent Borges Accardi

OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a hippie. Or if not a complete tree-hugging commune living hitchhiking 1960s hippie I am at least hippie-esque. My god babies think I am the epitome of hippidome—through and through—and, with my hippie shack in Topanga, with its river-rock bathtub and my bearded-artist husband, backyard veggie garden, and an aversion to all or most things artificial, except for plastic picnic dishes, I have come to embrace at least a small part of the psychedelic 60s earth mother package. I do after all live in the hippie capital of the United States—Topanga Canyon, a rural zone filled with creekers (poor hippies) and peakers (rich entertainment-type hippies) about halfway between Santa Monica and Malibu, off PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).

Long ago our mothers and our mother’s mothers gave up girdles and burned their bras to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Jane Fonda on a loud speaker, yelling about the Vietnam War and the dangers of antiperspirant. Our mothers grew their hair long and stopped bathing. We ate sprouts and avocados. My mom threw together shakes made of wheat germ, dates, raw eggs, and soy.

Flash forward to 2013.

The world is suddenly filled with New Age hippies, crystals, gluten-free bread, and Om chanting. In yoga classes no one wears perfume; outfits are organic cotton or hemp. We all bring the requisite, glass or aluminum, refillable water bottle and rubber mats. We pour on essential oils and drink baby coconuts when we are thirsty. We shop at farmers markets or CSAs. We can fruit and make our own juices from kale and beets. We meditate and look for new and better ways to reduce our carbon footprint and expand our womanly goddess out into the universe—stronger, fierce, defiant, true, brave and wonderful. The earthly-female quotient of the goddess. We expand our Kundalini and chant Ha-Ha-Ha as if we were Amazon warriors off to battle the universe into peaceful submission. We sing Shanti, shanti, shanti and nod Nameste to each other in our blessed-out, peace-loving humankind existence.

And yet.

Why the heck do we all STILL shave our bodies like secretaries on Mad Men or Jackie Kennedy? Look around and see the free modern women of this millennium. We have embraced every opportunity to grow as spiritual beings and women and au natural is de rigueur—legs shaved, or waxed, underarms prodded and scraped until smooth, hours spent at spas to achieve the perfect Brazilian, hairless sex organs!

What IS this?

Why in this day and age is packaged food seen as bad and yet women still feel compelled to shave their bodies? In a casual survey, if you ask ten women, you will get comments like this: “It’s “gross” or “Ew,” or “It LOOKS bad.” (Same is true with plucking eyebrows or going grey.) Vegan, gluten-free, Yoginis who swear by their raw foods and hemp pajamas think nothing of coloring their hair, getting a wax, plucking their eyebrows, and shaving their legs on a daily basis.

When I peel off my sweatshirt at Topanga Days or the Reggae Festival I get stares about my glorious hairy pits. In the land of freedom and naturalness, why are hairy underarms seen as an abomination?

Why are we still buying into this male-dominated view of what is beautiful? In France, women proudly strut hairy patches visibly under bikinis and raise their hairy armpits in sleeveless smocks to grab the strap on the Métro. Why is hair such a hang-up in the U.S.?

Victorian John Ruskin was supposedly so horrified on his wedding night by his wife’s hairy nether regions that he never consummated the marriage. I suppose he never imagined women had hair too?

It’s clear that decades of advertising and conditioning have embedded in us this fear of the natural state of hair. Why have women rebelled against everything BUT hair removal? Why can’t we learn to love our hair, wherever it grows?

I stopped shaving my legs and armpits when I took a job as an artist model in college. Perhaps it made me feel more covered up? I just found I liked the look and feel of it. It was a great relief not to have red rashes under my arms, to throw away my razors. And, yet, for many years I still shaved for “special occasions,” like formal parties or weddings, places where I had to wear stockings and/or a sleeveless dress. I caved to public opinion and did not want to be abused or to draw attention to my lack of, shall we say, grooming? Recently Julia Roberts was lambasted by TMZ and the gossip media for showing up to a movie premier, in a sleeveless gown, with visible underarm hair. You would have thought she committed murder, the stories that were posted. People were aghast.

I remember my grandmother and my Aunt Lucy not shaving under their arms. In 6th grade when I decided to shave my legs, my grandmother warned me that once I started it would be impossible to stop. She told me shaving made legs hairier, and the more I shaved, the more I would need to. And, she was right. I just did not know it then.

I wear tank tops in yoga and usually go to the same studio, but I still notice stares and weird faces when people look at me. After awhile, people are trained and their eyes, avert. And yet, in the 8 years I have gone to this studio, no one else has joined me in my quest for being truly au natural. Initially, I thought I would have a few hippie sisters in crime. Us bold, daring chance-takers. But no. It has not happened quite yet.

Hairless armpits have been called more sanitary. But why? It seems to have started around the time of the first women’s revolution in the Jazz Age of flappers. For the first time, arms were let out of their clothing-cages and someone, somewhere, decided hair was unpleasant. Silent films like Cleopatra helped establish this hairless trend.

However, we have grown as a society, why do we still today? Are our hippy-dippy, new- agey lives STILL ruled by fashion? Advertisers?

Hair is sensual. The Joy of Sex even says hair adds to the overall experience of touch. It is and can be its own erogenous zone, ripe with scent and a gateway to the skin, our largest organ. Why shave and lose sensation?

In short, what is so horrible about body fur? I like the way my pits feel with hair. I like my legs in their natural state. It feels comfortable. I also like men with chest hair and beards. I like the touch and feel of skin and hair and bodies being natural bodies together.

Underarm hair in particular has a job. It cushions the air around the armpits so the sides do not rub against each other. Like every other part of our body, it is functional, providing ventilation, cooling, and less chaffing.

Why do so many people consider underarm hair vulgar, unclean?

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To Hair or Not to Hair?

7 thoughts on “To Hair or Not to Hair?

  1. Georgia Jones-Davis says:

    Well, the older I’ve gotten the more comfortable I am becoming with complexity and questions rather than answers;
    Things not being purely one way or the other. Hairy armpits are considered a no-no in our Vogue magazine culture.
    It takes guts to stand out and say, no way! This keeps me comfortable, cool and natural. I like it and I will wear sleeveless tops and that’s that. … it takes guts. Because we live in a such deodorized world. … women in our culture need to preen to feel accepted by men and women and bosses. They dye their hair, pluck brows, paint toe nails and finger nails, lob on the mascara, push boobs into strangely shaped bras. I could go on. I do shave my legs and underarms (I miss those pricey pre-recession full leg waxes I will admit) .. but I grew out my gray. In Berkeley or Boston, nobody would take a second look. In youth-obsessed LA, I stand out like a fuddy duddy. My own late mother, an apricot blond until her dying day at nearly 90, pointed out that I looked years older than her. … I don’t like nail polish for myself but I think can look very nice on people, depending on their preening level. I paint my nails hardly at all. … But I shave my legs, pencil in my faded brows and dab some powder and blush on before I go out. … artifice is nothing new. What it really boils down to is to what extent women need to preen to feel good about themselves — and men too. Plastic surgery abounds, starvations diets … all of us are victim to trying to feel comfortable in our own skins in a world that sells the illusion of perfect beauty.

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  2. I decided to go the way of the body’s plan in the middle of January (I stopped shaving and I stopped wearing bras!) and have had mixed reactions from people. But the best was definitely in the car with my ex-bf and two of his cousins. The cousins were a boy and girl, 14 and 12, and fought like crazy, so we split them up and I took the back seat with the brother. At one point (after spending nearly five hours together as a group), he finally spotted my glorious underarm locks. He freaked out and was actually afraid. My ex and I laughed it off until the kid cooled down, then my ex explained that underarm hair is natural and beautiful.

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  3. Amy Sayre Baptista says:

    Bravo for your honesty! This article raises some great questions and is a perfect essay assignment read to open a gender lit class or discussion about our social construction.

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  4. I think being hairless is so ingrained in today’s society. The other day at a farmer’s market, a young woman was sitting om the steps, and I noticed her legs were hairy. At first I was grossed out. Then it took me a second to support her. She must get stared at all the time for breaking this social norm.

    I don’t shave every day. Most days, I forget. But I buy in to the armpit hairless, leg smooth bull crap. However, I will support any woman who chooses hair. It’s a personal decision. Who am I to judge?

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  5. Leticia Hernandez says:

    I think it is important to respect all sides and decisions, it is the judgement that gets us into trouble and divides us. I would probably be vegetarian if animals weren’t the one thing I can eat in abundance because my health is complicated but that is no one’s business. While I am sugar and wheat free, run all the men in my life, am a proud womanist feminista, I shave, because I want to, and I have very little in common with the Mad Men women. SO, I need it to be o.k to be hairy and not be hairy. AND trust I am still very hairy despite what I shave, and I have done a lot of work to shed the stigma I allowed others to project on me as a little girl who was called Chewbacca. That is not why I shave my legs. I don’t shave my arms and love them just as they are, and that is a very long story and again, complicated, but what is important, is that I reserve the right to be hippie-esque on MY TERMS, in the way that allows me to walk a balance between the world I come from and the one I have created for myself. I don’t usually share on things like this because I am not really interested in arguing. But because I adore you I thought I would leave some thoughts. Anyone coming after who decides to attack, go to it, I won’t be returning to engage that kind of nonsense. #TeamMillicent

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  6. Excellent essay that really got me thinking. I have to defend shaving, for myself, at any rate. Ever since the first time I tried shaving clean my “girlie bits” it was like, “why haven’t I done this before and why doesn’t everyone, always?” Clean (I mean, it’s not the most convenient place for a fibrous material to spend 24/7, particularly in the South), oddly comforting (like seeing an old friend after years and years), and finally actually really naked, it also felt like I’d been having sex through a pair of thick wooly panties my whole life that I’d only then figured out I could remove. Hell yeah, I’ll keep shaving! 🙂 As far as if others shave or not, it’s up to them, though I find it extra nice if my partner is “fully naked”, too.

    On the other hand, that explanation does leave the rest of my body shaving undefended. I very much like the feeling of my own smooth legs resting against one another. My armpits go through phases of more and less hair, depending on my mood and I’m forgetful about plucking my eyebrows. On the other hand, when it comes to body hair, I cheat. Or rather, my hair cheats in that other than on my head, my hair is fairly fine and quite blond. It’s a lot easier for me to go unshaven without anyone noticing. So, I wonder sometimes if my aversion to body hair–on myself at least–isn’t just something to chalk up to OCD. I can understand why fellow diagnosed OCD-er, Howie Mandel shaves his head, believe me–watch me recoil in horror at a renegade hair without benefit of human attached. Though it’s just as much my OCD that compels me to twirl a lock of my hair for comfort, even in my sleep This hair thing is complicated.

    It it possibly generational? As a high schooler, running into a copy of the Joy of Sex and it’s hairy models nearly made me swear off sex for life. In no small part, I think, it was because those hirsute models reminded me way too much of my parents who I had no desire to see in any of those positions.

    And what about head hair? Mine has been dyed since I was old enough to do so. I’ve had plenty of snarky comments about my black hair and its light blond roots, though, which seems funny to me since I think dark hair is far more flattering, especially on me. After all, my grandmother had hair as naturally black as I work hard to keep mine. You wouldn’t know it though, since she dyed her hair blond almost her entire life.

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