Friday, May 13, 2011

The Great Underarm Campaign.

Last summer, the NY Times published an article prompted by Mo’Nique lifting her dress at an awards ceremony to reveal her unshorn legs. It was entitled "Unshaven Women: Free Spirits or Unkempt." I am a bit of a free spirit and I am definitely more than a bit unkempt; I remember this article speaking to me on a very personal level. I have always disliked shaving. The process forced me to stay in the tub for longer while my fingers and toes turned to prunes, and it usually ended with me nicking myself and developing ingrown hairs. The article caused me to question my involvement in this arduous undertaking. The more I questioned, the more unnecessary it seemed. So I stopped shaving. But I soon became self-conscious around others who informed me that "not shaving is a signifier for being lesbian" and asked if I had begun identifying as 'butch' or 'ftm' (really!) but nope, hairy pits or not, I identify as a female and a (begrudgingly) heterosexual one at that.
Julia Roberts circa 1990-something, lookin' sexy and hairy
There is no denying the pressure on women, from men and each other, to be hairless.
Recently I did some research and found that King Camp Gillette (if your first name is 'King' you're bound to be at least a little bit of a douche) patented his first safety razor in 1901, thus beginning the creation and domination of the shaving market. Gillette teamed with the U.S. Army in a large and profitable marketing venture, and handed a razor to every enlisted man in the army during World War I. During the same time, Gillette was trying to find a way to expand his reach. He was motivated by the same thing that motivates any corporate campaign. Greed. That coupled with a seemingly mundane development in fashion - sleeveless dresses - marked the beginning of "The Great Underarm Campaign.”
In 1915 Harper’s Baazar published the first advertisement featuring a woman with shaved “underarms.” From this point the campaign turned female body hair into something “objectionable" because, as the ad read, “the woman of fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.” And, by 1922 (two years after women won the vote), Gillette and the advertising barrage had won the underarm hair fight. They didn’t win the leg hair fight as easily as the length of skirts didn’t mandate shaving. However, by the 1930′s we’re not only shaving it all off we’re waxing it off!
Okay... so almost 100 years later why are we STILL shaving? Why do so many women shave, pluck, wax, burn, trim, bleach, dissolve, laser or otherwise remove every inch of body hair? "Being hairless is a patriarchal beauty standard that works toward infantilizing women and making them men's property and decorations," wrote an anonymous poster on a Yahoo! board. While this comment wasn't received too favorably, I have a hard time disagreeing with it.
Having body hair is not dirty, unsanitary or unfeminine. Underarm hair is there to protect your skin (note: your skin doesn’t develop those annoying little red bumps for nothing.)
This may seem counterintuitive due to all of the bad press your body hair gets! It has become such an ingrained, unconscious part of our culture that it’s an assumed responsibility as opposed to a choice. The first time a former boyfriend of mine commented on the fact that I hadn’t shaved my legs in a couple of days: it hit me. How ridiculous! And also, how dare you!
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you have to be hairy to be a feminist. You don't. Wake up every day and make your decisions... But make sure they are informed, conscious and entirely your own.
Amanda Palmer being a badass