"What did she say?" I asked.
"She asked me if you are a boy or a girl," one woman said, "because your body has so much hair."
Another time, when I shaved my legs for the first time in a while, a friend angrily asked me why; he felt I was less of a feminist without the hair.
Most recently, I dated an Australian for two years while living in Perth. He was a pretty blokey guy who drank Jack and Coke in pre-mixed cans and watched UFC — but he loved my feminist ways. At one point, I noticed that he'd started turning his head away from me while we were having sex. I asked him why. "It's your armpits," he told me. "They're hairy. I can't look at them without going soft."
Today, Madonna's armpit selfie and The New York Times are celebrating body hair as the newest fashion. American Apparel displayed mannequins with merkins in the window of a New York store. And, according to a recent Daily Mail survey, 51% of British women leave their pubic area ungroomed — while 46% of men interviewed said they preferred it that way.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of opinions and feelings flying around about hair. It can be a political statement or a personal preference, but it seems like most women have a pretty complex relationship with their body hair. So, with everyone trying to weigh in on what body hair means, I asked five women to tell me why they shave, groom, or don't.
Has not removing your hair ever affected your life?
"I went on an OkCupid date one time, and I ended up inviting him back to my place. We were on my bed making out, and he put his hand down my pants, then removed it. After a little bit, he stopped making out and told me he didn't want to have sex that night. Then he asked, 'Why do you have pubic hair?' To which I replied, 'Because I'm a mammal?' I put two and two together and asked, 'Wait, do you not want to have sex with me because I have pubic hair?' And, he actually said yes!"
What are your feelings about your own body hair or how body hair is portrayed in the media?
"I didn't have a TV in my house until I was 10 or 11. I'm also short, with neither the body type nor the facial features you see in ads, and I guess I'm just so naturally belligerent that instead of trying to embody that image, I was able to disregard it as being impossible to attain. Ads for shaving cream are all tall women with long legs running around in cute sundresses. Well, when I shaved my legs they didn't get longer. I missed patches because I'm impatient, and they just got stubbly again within two or three days. So, instead of attempting to master the Sisyphean task of being hairless and beautiful, I just decided it was stupid and stopped."
Do you remove any body hair?
"I do. I had laser hair removal on my underarms and bikini area this year, although it didn't remove 100% of the hair. I shave my underarms and legs every day, and my forearms once a week. I also tweeze my eyebrows as needed, and wax my upper lip about once a month. I have thick, dark, OBVIOUS hair, which I was always embarrassed of, so I've been removing it for longer than I can remember. I honestly don't remember when I began."
How do you feel with hair and without hair?
"With hair, I feel prickly, gross, and unkempt — not to mention mortified. I am extraordinarily lazy, and I hate taking the time to remove it, but I still prefer that to just leaving it. Without it, I feel much smoother, cleaner, and, honestly, more attractive."
Do you notice any physical benefits or detriments to having body hair, particularly during sex?
"The main benefit I can recall to having hair is not having to shave. It wasn't exactly keeping me warm or doing anything useful, so I don't miss it. And, if I've skipped a day shaving my legs or something, and have sex, I enjoy it less because I'm embarrassed and self-conscious. For me, the detriment is much more mental than physical."
Do you notice other people's body hair, and what do you think?
"I don't notice body hair so much on men, unless someone on the beach has a Burt Reynolds-like rug. I don't love the hairy look, and think a smoother look is more attractive — but only if it's natural! I'd prefer natural hairiness to unnatural waxed smoothness (yep, I'm a big fat hypocrite). I do notice when women have a mustache and think, CLEARLY they see that — how can they just leave it there?! Maybe I'm sort of jealous that they can be totally A-okay with it when I'm not, but then I think, I don't want to be okay with a mustache."
Do you remove your body hair?
"I leave all of my hair, except I'll shave my legs when it's swimsuit time. If I'm in a particularly conservative crowd, I may shave my underarms to blend in."
Why do you do this?
"My leg hair is kind of scraggly looking. I think my legs look prettier smooth than with black, pirate-beard-y tufts. It also makes me feel more girly. I avoid shaving at all other times because I usually feel like it's a pain, a waste of time, and irritating to my skin. I used to shave my pubic hair for a guy I was dating, but it itched, I felt way smellier, and I hated the ingrown hairs that always happened as it grew back."
Do you remove your body hair?
"I sometimes (every couple of months) get my eyebrows threaded, and that's it."
So, why did you make that decision?
"I used to [shave] in high school, because it seemed like that was just how the world works. When I got to university, I just gradually stopped. For a while, I still waxed my legs and shaved my armpits, and then I realized that I didn't really like the way it looked, and it started to feel like an unnecessary waste of time."
What are your feelings about your own body hair or body hair on others?
"I am all for people doing whatever they want with their body hair! I can't recall ever being put off by a partner, friend, or stranger's body hair. I do, on occasion, find it confronting to see shaved lady-gardens or have sex with women who shave their lady-gardens, because it looks a bit strange to me. But, finding something 'a bit strange' is not a good enough reason to ask anyone to change their approach to their own body!"
Do you notice any physical changes between having body hair and not?
"I like not having itching and regrowth issues! I think my underarms maybe smell more strongly of me now that I don't shave, but none of my partners have complained."
Why do you remove your body hair?
"I shaved my lower belly on a dare as a teen, and it grew in black, so I've been shaving it since. I also shave my pubic hair and have for as long as I can remember. I've always had horrible yeast infections. And, when I was a teenager, I realized the easiest way to stop the endless infections was to remove the hair that trapped irritants and my own natural lube close to my vagina. I've really considered laser hair removal so I didn't have to shave/wax all the time."
Do you notice any physical benefits, detriments, or changes between having body hair and not?
"I've never had sex with pubic hair unless I skip a day shaving. Then, it's just stubbly and irritating, and I don't get off. I do love my boyfriend being hairy, though — kind of helps me during sex."