To Shave or Not to Shave: If Only Women Had a Free Choice

What do images of women's bodies in television, movies, and advertisements have in common? They all present women's bodies as naturally hairless, as though the model did not wake up with stubble on her underarms and legs that morning, like all other women.
12/24/2015 09:22 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2016

What do images of women's bodies in television, movies, and advertisements have in common? They all present women's bodies as naturally hairless, as though the model did not wake up with stubble on her underarms and legs that morning, like all other women. This is because women's body hair has become a taboo, a "dark secret" that women are supposed to keep to themselves; this is also why women's participation in the recent "No-Shave November" has triggered so much controversy.

"No-Shave November" began in 2007 to raise awareness of men's health issues such as prostate cancer. Participants, usually men, stop shaving for the month, letting their facial hair grow wild; presumably, this unconventional hair growth attracts comments from strangers, giving these participants a platform from which they might spread awareness of the health issues at stake. This year women participated in No-Shave November as well by allowing their body hair to grow; in response, Men's Rights activists condemned the women for distracting from the movement's message, as though men's facial hair is more relevant to cancer awareness than is women's body hair. Whether or not women's hairy selfies distract from the movement's message, it is clear that they raise awareness about society's gendered discomfort with women's body hair, which is a social issue unto itself.

Women began to fight for the right to keep their body hair during Women's Liberation, but when this symbol became associated with the "man-hating radical lesbian feminist" of antifeminist imagination, it became even more stigmatized than it had been before. Since Women's Lib the subject of women's right to body hair has been replaced entirely by the feminist preoccupation with women's right to body fat. For example, of all the Body Positive imagery that has gone viral since Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign of 2004, only two "real woman" campaigns have included body hair.

So long as the popular conversation about women's body hair relies upon "choice" rhetoric, hairlessness will continue as an unexamined norm. According to research on the "hairless norm," approximately 95% of women in the Western World remove their body hair; if hair removal was really a personal choice, we would expect to see something closer to a 50-50 split, but women are not presented with an equally weighted choice at all. Far from free or personal, women receive positive reinforcement for removing their body hair. Moreover, they face threats including occupational termination if they choose otherwise; according to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers can hire and fire based on employees' compliance to gendered grooming regulations. When images of women that include body hair go viral, women's body hair becomes slightly less stigmatized and the choice becomes incrementally more balanced. Men can choose to shave or not to shave without social sanction, but as of yet women do not enjoy a free choice.