‘Don’t Risk Dudeness’: The Politics of Women’s Body Hair

Hair on women’s bodies has been in the news a lot so far in 2014 – and I don’t mean the hair on their heads.

We have had movie star Cameron Diaz advising women to think twice before they permanently remove their pubic hair. There was also controversy over waxing products company Veet’s advertisement, depicting a woman who turned into a (bearded and very hairy legged) man because of failing to shave her legs that day. The voice-over tells women ‘Don’t risk dudeness! Veet Wax Strips. Feel womanly around the clock.’ The advertisement was subsequently withdrawn and Veet issued an apology. Meanwhile, photographer Ben Hooper recently added to his ‘Natural Beauty’ series which aims to challenge what he says is ‘societal brainwashing’ by the beauty industry. Hooper’s new series of photographs depicts young women with armpit hair.

The last time women’s body hair hit the news was in 2012, when a young Sikh woman called Balpreet Kaur responded most eloquently to an incident where a photograph of her had been posted online (without her knowledge or consent), and which had led her to become the subject of online abuse about her facial hair.

These news stories ARE news stories because each in their own way challenges cultural norms that govern women’s body hair in many countries. These cultural norms mean that, in the UK for example, over 80% of women pluck, shave, wax or remove in some other way their ‘unwanted’ body hair – eyebrows, facial hair, armpit hair, leg hair, pubic hair.

Why do so many women remove so much of their body hair? Drawing on the work of sociologist Connell (1987), women removing their body hair can be seen as a ‘technology of femininity’. It’s a way of ‘negating’ the ways women’s and men’s bodies ARE alike (both have body hair, and in the same places), in order to make them SEEM more different and distinctive than they otherwise are. Of course, women get the short straw here – women have to work hard (and spend money) to make their bodies less like a man’s by removing body hair.

The few sociological studies done on women’s body hair have found that women regard hair removal as a normal and taken-for-granted activity in order to achieve a body that is acceptably feminine. The evidence also suggests that women who don’t conform to hair removal norms report feeling negatively perceived by others – as repulsive, unfeminine, unattractive, unclean. A study by Fahs and Delgardo (2011) found that women of colour and working class women were the groups most negatively affected by failure to conform to the hair removal norm. For such women, being (too) hairy and in the wrong places added an extra layer of bodily oppression to the stigma they already experienced as marginal women. Moreover, for some women of colour, body hair can be dark, coarse and so more noticeable than is the case for white women.

In the past, as in the story of Samson, men’s hair has been associated with power, strength and virility, and facial hair (and other body hair) with manliness. Women’s hair has been more negatively perceived, with long, flowing (head) hair linked with sexual licentiousness and ‘bearded ladies’ paraded as freaks in circuses and fairs. But, before the twentieth century, it has been argued, few women in Western countries removed their body hair.

Nowadays, in the twenty first century, removal has become big business. Cultural norms including for pubic hair, are ever more anti-body hair – especially for women but also for men too. Increasing numbers of men are removing their chest and back hair, for example (although beards seem to be in fashion for men).

With both women and men removing body hair, perhaps the role of plucking, shaving, and waxing in ‘negating’ the differences between masculine and feminine bodies is disappearing: in the future, will both men’s and women’s bodies conform to the hairless ideal? Or, as the news stories I mention above might suggest, is there the beginnings of a rising cultural and consumer tide against the hairless orthodoxy –  for women at least?

Further reading

Connell, R. (1987) Gender and Power, Cambridge: Polity.

Fahs, B. and Delgardo, D. (2011) The Specter of Excess. Race, Class and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives’ in Bobel, C. and Kwan, S. (eds.) Embodied Resistance, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (2006, ed.) The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Toerien, M. and Wilkinson, S. (2003) ‘Gender and Body Hair: Constructing the Feminine Woman’, Women’s Studies International Forum 26 (4): 333-344.

Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S and Choi, P. (2005) ‘Body Hair Removal: The “Mundane” Production of Normative Femininity’, Sex Roles 52 (5/6): 394- 406.