"I love your armpit hair! I’ve been trying to grow my own!" shouts a very enthusiastic and probably quite drunk girl just as I get down from my friend’s shoulders in the crowd at a music festival. "Thanks", I say back, feeling awkward.
Unlike "Your hair looks nice" (possible responses: "Thanks! I just had it cut"; "Really? I haven’t done anything different"; "OMG, no it does not, but thank you"), there is no template for how to respond to a compliment about body hair that many people believe should neither be seen nor discussed. I was suddenly self-conscious, when just a second before I was lost in the moment. It might have been less confronting coming from one of the hippy types I knew at university (where there was a mutual acknowledgement that we were against The Man in a wider sense), but a giddy 20-year-old at a one-day city festival? The times they are a-changin’.
Change is good. In a digital-first age, with the retreat of traditional media establishments that previously had a tight control over women’s body and beauty standards, youth culture has created the representation it wasn’t getting from the old guard. Since the early 2010s, DIY feminist zines like Polyester have presented a more radical and inclusive vision of beauty; a plural vision that says boo to the ghosts of fat-shaming, femme-shaming, transphobia, racism and a squeamishness about bodily functions like periods and skin-deep issues like acne and stretch marks. A measure of their success is how the aesthetic – if not always the message – has been co-opted by commercial culture. Today, in the lovely little liberal bubble we’ve created for ourselves in major cities, showing unexpected body hair is now A-OK. Or at least your colleagues know it should be, even if they can’t help but stare.
But let’s be real. The bubble is small. Really small. Armpit hair has become way more accepted since Julia Roberts displayed hers at the 1999 London premiere of Notting Hill, making international newspaper headlines. But when the artist Arvida Byström appeared in an Adidas advert with her leg hair visible at the end of last year, she received rape threats in her DMs. And despite what the new right-wing will have you believe, even big cities are not a total refuge for those who visibly challenge heteronormativity. Just the other day a man shouted abuse at my colleague and her girlfriend for holding hands in the street. People in the capital may be more accepting relative to many other places, but it can still be frightening and dangerous when you don’t fit someone’s narrow expectations of how you should look and behave.
As female body hair slowly gets more screen-time, it becomes easier for a white, cis-gender, able-bodied person like me to show it in real life, among my comparably woke friends, and in my job at a feminist publisher. That is a privilege. For transgender women, visible body hair can lead to threats from bigots. As Juno Roche explains in a Refinery29 article on this topic, "Trans women with hair are not marked out as 'hairy' – we become real targets, often for abuse and violence, because people read us as 'men pretending to be women'."
As a person who is read by others as a hairy cis-woman, I am far less likely to face this kind of violence and abuse. It is a privileged position to be in, but that doesn’t make it a walk in the park. I will never forget the time, years ago, when a close friend visibly recoiled at the sight of my armpit hair, and asked me, only half-joking, "Why can’t you just be normal?" For most of the winter, I do appear 'normal' – the hair is covered by clothes, so no one can tell. But come summer, and the lure of cool skirts and light dresses, suddenly I wonder whether it would just be easier to shave it all off. To just look 'normal'. There’s no magic solution for how you push through that fear and uncertainty. Yes, it would be more pleasant to take the Tube and not be stared at by grown adults, whispered about by straight couples, or sneakily have pictures taken of you by people who haven’t worked out that their phone screens are reflected in the glass behind them.
But keeping my body hair is a philosophical and feminist choice, not an aesthetic one. I don’t have hairy armpits and legs in order to look edgy or cool. I leave the natural hair where it is because I want to accept myself and my body exactly how it is. I would rather spend time working on my mind, rooting out, challenging and unlearning the oppressive assumption that women must pluck and shave and wax themselves bald in order to be acceptable, fuckable and deserving of love. It’s an oppression that’s probably impossible for me to completely eradicate, because it has been socially enforced and culturally reinforced every day of my life, for over three decades.
Deprogramming is difficult, but I think it’s important. When I’m being stared at, laughed at, or yelled at, I hold that in my mind, and try to remember that this may be one of the first times the person has been confronted with gender-nonconforming body hair in real life. They have been trained to see it as disgusting and embarrassing their whole lives too – and if they don’t react in a way that acknowledges that, they open themselves up to scrutiny about their own allegiance to the gender binary. But the more frequently they see it, the less shocking it will be, and the impulse to react should begin to fade away. Like seeing women with short hair – or wearing trousers, or driving – eventually it will become completely unremarkable. Until then, it’s my privilege to gross people out all summer long.