Fact: women’s body hair is dirty. And how do I know this? Because I’ve always been told you’re cleaner if you shave your legs; and, stretching that logic, unhygienic if you happen to have armpit hair. And it’s on TV and in the newspapers, so it must be triply true. Heck, according to the media, even perspiring is a sin and will send you straight to hell.
In short, shaving your legs, waxing your arms, depilating your armpits and, while you’re at it, shining your vagina are mandatory. The question of personal choice doesn’t come into it. They are, after all, the little milestones on the path to becoming a Real Woman. How else do you expect to top your exams, make friends, get a job, snare a man and generally have fun or find success in life, silly?
There’s the logical part of me that wants to scream, “I am a mammal; I have body hair. Get over it!” or “It’s my body and I decide!” or similar such witty, insightful put-downs. But it has only a tenuous hold on the part that has been pickled by social conditioning. It is frighteningly difficult to rationalize with yourself that there is nothing wrong with the way you look when the world keeps hammering the opposite message at you relentlessly. (Cosmetic products and ridiculous expectations are also thrown at men, but that’s a subject for another day.)
For some reason, hairy legs are fine for men, but “unnatural” on women. That’s just the way it is; there’s no room to argue. And the other day the woman who cleans my house asked me if I “did” my eyebrows. I said I’d tried, found it too painful and given up. She found it amusing and said it was fine because I am “like a boy” anyway. This interaction disabused me of the notion that this terrorism of beauty hadn’t reached the working class—and to be fair, if looking good (I mean the narrow definition) is sold as something to aspire to, doesn’t everyone have the right to dream?
Actually, “shaving your leg” is an apt metaphor—for the pretty arbitrary guidelines that society lists for women to be suitable for public consumption. And they are sneakily, insidiously drilled into us until we find ourselves subconsciously adhering to these rules without questioning them—and we know how patriarchy has honed this technique to perfection.
When I was in my early 20s, I overheard a friend of my mother’s talking to her about the way I dressed: “I, too, dressed peculiarly when I was her age,” she said, going on to add that she grew out of it when she got married, ostensibly thanks to real life catching up. I didn’t stick around for my mother’s reply, but in my imagination she defended me. I’m completely surprised how many people feel they have the liberty to comment on my body, what I wear, or how I look (outside of asking if I’ve lost or gained a few kilos or saying that I’m looking nice today or pointing out that I’m wearing my trousers inside-out) just because I don’t look or dress the way they expect “normal” women to.
When you actually sit down to analyse it, and see that all these dos and don’ts only restrict women in various ways—tottering in high heels, caked in make-up, tripping around in saris and skirts, lugging huge handbags—you’ll be forgiven for screaming “Conspiracy!” And despite our better judgement, we keep getting pulled in.
I know, for instance, that body shape varies considerably and that being fit does not necessarily mean being “thin” as defined by pop culture (or vice versa). That the flat-stomached and liposuctioned models pushed in my face are not representative of all healthy bodies. That sweating is the body’s natural cooling mechanism. That hairlessness does not equate with hygiene….
And yet I can be unhappy about the tyre around my middle when I sit down, I may suck in my stomach when I walk into a room full of people, I have been embarrassed about a patch of sweat on my shirt, I don’t always have the nerve to walk stubble-legged into the swimming pool…
So much pressure, so many expectations. But cultural conventions are transitory—they are not laws of physics; they were just made up by someone, probably with a vested interest in doing things in a certain way (or more likely because they were bored). Some conventions we hold sacred are easily smashed by looking into their antecedents. For example, the pink/blue divide and women’s “inborn” attraction to high heels.
Some of the shackles I have managed to throw off have been hard-won. If you are a girl and don’t like bows and frills, don’t do nails or use make-up, and have no compunction about eating a chocolate pastry every day, you must be broken. Therefore, the world will try to fix you.
If you’re not careful, it will succeed.
[Photo credit: lilieks via SXC.hu]