Why female body hair is still a prickly subject
The onset of British Summer Time generally means gales with the occasionally snow flurry. Then one day you wake up and there’s sunshine. Rampaging through the back of the wardrobe you try to find something that hasn’t been eaten by moths, the cat hasn’t used for a bed and that still looks vaguely on trend. Then there’s the question of body hair.
In winter, I generally take the view that I’m warmer with than without. This attitude is compounded by the joy of layering: long coats, voluminous wool trousers and high denier tights that all give full stylish coverage. As a result, body hair is barely given a second thought.
Yet why now, at the first sign of summer, do I feel a strong desire to rid myself of all my bodily tresses? To shave, wax, thread, pluck, epilate – leaving legs, armpits - literally every bodily crevice and crease like a badly plucked chicken, all knobbly skinned with bloody nicks at the bone?
Helen Plumb’s short film, A Prickly Subject, tackles this very issue. Narrated and starring poet Anam Cara, this sonorous, resonant piece is an ode to female body hair. Cara begins, “I have decided to finally allow myself to be hairy. A road less travelled for women - somewhat out of the ordinary. And I want to know why I’m so reluctant to be in my natural state. I think it started when he pointed at my legs in disgust, when I was only 8. Yeah, I still remember you mate…”
A Prickly Subject, captures a woman’s journey to body acceptance and starts a dialogue that challenges the validity of our body hair-hating social conditioning, “why is it ok for him but not me, another mark of inequality,” she asks rhetorically.
It’s ultimately a film that advocates a woman’s right to be herself, however that looks, whether “hairy or smooth”. As the narrator overcomes the negative comments and stares that her own body hair elicits she finds in herself the ability to enjoy her own body au-naturel.
Back in 1999, the sighting of actress Julia Roberts unadulterated pits at the Notting Hill film premiere caused a riot of horrified press attention but these days attitudes are changing. According to research by Mintel, there’s been a steady decline in millennial women removing hair from their legs and underarms, with almost one in four young women who have stopped shaving their underarms and a decline in leg shaving from 92 per cent said in 2013 to 85 per cent in 2016.
Body hair pride is on the rise. Even if the tabloid media would still have you believe that Madonna, Britney, Beyonce and Drew Barrymore just "forgot to shave" and that an unshaven armpit is a mark of embarrassment rather than pride, these women normalise a pro-hair choice, giving the rest of us a ubiquitous female icon to throw at the haters.
Swedish artist and photographer Arvida Byström’s experience demonstrates that whilst the issue is still contentious, the best approach is to continue to work unabashed and undiminished. After featuring in an Adidas campaign last year with unshaven legs, she received rape threats and a torrent of abuse but equally a lot of love too..
Byström's self-referential work was described by Dazed as exploring, “sexuality, body image, gender politics and the intersections between them, using feminism to expand rather than limit those conversations.” For me, Byström symbolises a fearlessness and progression from the prescribed historical signifiers for women and their rigid conceptions of femininity - choosing to keep her body hair is just one of them.
So, whether you prefer hairy or smooth, let’s support each other and give a smile to those who go pro-hair down there, over there, pretty much anywhere because that is what she wants.