As a hairy, chubby, 15-year-old girl, there was one thing I knew about desire: that what distinguishes teenage girls from teenage boys is hair, and that that distinction (one with, one without), was part of what made you desirable. If you deviated from this order, you weren’t hot. You couldn’t even be close to fanciable. And you’d never, ever get a boyfriend.
I knew this well. So well, in fact, that on the rare occasions I was around boys and hadn’t prepared correctly, I would fight to conceal any exposed part of my body. More than once, I refused point-blank to take off my long-sleeved jumper and instead slowly boiled myself in the dry, disgusting sun of a summer afternoon after school. I wasn’t actually the object of anyone’s interest, and I didn’t actually fancy any of the boys either – but that wasn’t the point. I just knew that teenage boys’ opinions were supposed to matter and I was desperate to fit in. Teenage girls judged too, of course, but what girls thought of me didn’t matter in the same way. They didn’t have the power to dismiss my insecurities about my spotty, chubby teen body and validate my existence, just by asking me out.
Other than the occasional after-school mishap, I shaved my body hair religiously all through my teenage years. What was originally a relatively small patch of hair under my arms grew in surface area until it reached the rough size of the diamond you make when you’re about to do itsy bitsy spider. My legs weren’t as fertile but my underarms required constant attention, as did my toes, and to my utter horror, my pubic hair took on a life of its own. I took it as gospel that I had to keep all of it in check.
But when I got about halfway through my first year at university, I stopped. I got lazy. I discovered feminism. And most prominently, several massive clues from every part of my life clicked into place. I realised I’d been desperately trying to convince myself that my love life was a shambles because I hadn’t met the right boy yet... when in fact I was just a lesbian. Though it wasn’t a ground-shattering realisation in itself (it was the most obvious thing I’d never thought of), it’s almost embarrassing to recognise how revelatory it all was, and how much it impacted the way I presented myself. Realising that the male gaze I had so routinely made myself ‘tidy’ for didn’t matter to me anymore, I joyously grew out my now bush-like armpits and let my leg hair run free. I’d proudly tell people how much I loved the feeling of the wind through my leg hair while cycling to lectures (I still do), just to see their reactions. My mum was worried at first, feigning that it was about the mole I have in my right armpit, though obviously that wasn’t the real reason, as hiding the mole behind a fence of thick, curly hair was obviously better for it.
While I felt confident and free in my decision to stop removing my body hair, the thing I’d feared for all those years happened, of course. Men told me, to my face, that I was disgusting because of my hairy body. They were so put off by the fact that I wasn't catering to them – that I shared a characteristic they felt belonged to them as men, that they shouted at me to put me in my place. But by that point, I didn't care.
The bravado was, in many ways, an act. But realising I was a lesbian gave me a whole new framework to understand my past, and became instrumental in how I came to understand myself. Stepping outside of the male gaze, not theoretically but fully, with my whole baby lesbian heart, I realised that I’d never removed hair for aesthetic reasons, only fear. And that fear had nothing to do with me anymore.
Unlike straight men, queer women understand that theoretical connection between being hairless and therefore desirable. And they get how boring, expensive and time-consuming it is to pretend to be as smooth and supple as a Veet commercial. Hair growth isn’t a secret you have to hide in a same-sex relationship because their hair grows in exactly the same way, and they've been expected to deal with it (remove it/tame it/hide it), the same way too. Of course this should be true in straight, cis relationships as well but, as Juno Roche put it in her brilliant feature We Are All Hairy Beings, the differences between men and women are still cast as so glaringly huge that to have body hair makes women too much like men. And if we’re too similar, the whole heteronormative narrative of desire falls apart.
The more I learned, the more I settled into myself. After a year of eschewing makeup, I found an old Mac lipstick as I was packing up my first year halls room. Putting it on for the first time since I threw away my razor, I realised that while my femaleness shouldn’t dictate my body hair, my femininity was separate. In fact, my hair didn’t really have any bearing on any aspect of who I was – it was just an unremarkable part of me. By lifting myself out of the heteronormative dynamic that convinced me it had some bearing on how sexy I was, I was free to see it as literally just a preference, an aesthetic choice.
I’m lucky, though. I’m now engaged to a woman who is almost as hairy as I am, though she is blonde and downy to my black and coarse. I don’t have to defend that choice to anyone, let alone prospective dates, unlike my straight single friends. I’m cis, and my hairiness isn’t used as a weapon to invalidate who I am. I work in an office where, though I’m an outlier, I’m never judged for my rough and ready calves. Instead, I get to revel in my choice, because it doesn’t matter. It’s just hair!