Last summer, I ended up in hospital. With a drip plugged into my arm, I lay there for a couple of days mainly cursing my misfortunate of missing Nicki Minaj at Wireless. But, as I’d recently got back from Morocco, I was also filled with the slight panic that my leg – which I couldn’t walk on – was infected by some unknown and rare tropical disease. As the swelling and pus refused to disappear, I lay there silently contemplating the speeches that my friends might make at my funeral. But, then, the cause was made known to me. My leg hadn’t been ravaged by an exotic bug. Nope, I had hair folliculitis. Hair folliculitis: what is it? Well, it certainly wasn’t something I could bang on to my friends about in an attempt to garner their sympathy. And, in fact, it wasn’t something that I’d caught away at all. The cause was much closer to home; the reason I had hair folliculitis was probably lying on some surface in my bathroom. One of the most common causes of hair folliculitis is waxing and shaving. The infection occurs when you damage your hair follicles which regularly happens in the process of removing your body hair. Additionally, when your hair follicles are in this weakened and bruised state, they are at the highest risk of infection – which is precisely what my doctor told me in order to explain why virtually all of my leg had swollen up. I couldn’t have been less beach body ready. I felt like an unhygienic mess. In my mind, I assumed that I must have been using a rusty razor and rubbing dirt into myself for this to happen. But, it turns out, that the spread of infections through our ritualistic removal of body hair is pretty common. In fact, when I put a call out on social media to chat to people about their experiences, the response was pretty overwhelming. Most people had at least a rash or, as one unlucky person told me, cut their labia so badly that it bled for an hour. Some people, like Georgia, had waxing disasters which led to them having layers of their skin pulled off. Others, like me, have had to go to hospital due to shaving. Jenny tells me, “A year ago, I got an abscess under my arm from over-shaving in the summer. The cause of which was an infected follicle that got increasingly worse. According to my doctor, some people are more prone to them than others but it is a lot more common during the summer months because people have their legs out so are shaving a lot more.” They had to give me local anaesthetic, put a scalpel in and then drain out the pus. Not only was it really gross, she says, but it was also super sore. Another woman I talked to, Bronwen, was given a course of antibiotics to take by her doctor after she got a cyst from shaving her pubic hair. Her experience also confirms that the repercussions of shaving can be very painful but affirms that it is really quite a common problem. “My doctor gave me the medicine but literally said to me that this [the cyst] is a risk that comes with shaving. So she said that if I continue to shave there, the chances are that it will happen again. Thankfully, it hasn’t but fingers crossed it stays that way.” she laughs. Given that the majority of people have removed their body hair at some point in their lives, hair folliculitis is still relatively unheard of. I, for one, was being told by my dad to call the London School of Tropical Medicine for help and Jenny was concerned that the red lump under her arm may have been cancer. Even Katherine, a Staff Nurse in Manchester, hadn’t learnt about it until she got it herself. Although her case was not as severe, she still had to use an icepack to bring down the swelling and itching which lasted for about three days.
Veet’s pitiful attempt at humour exemplifies why body hair has been, and still is, a feminist issue.
In regards to letting your body hair grow, our feminist foremothers have spent a lot of time explaining the structural issues surrounding choice. Recently, Veet attempted to play on this trope by showing a woman who hadn’t shaved for 24 hours as a hairy man. While there are about a million things wrong with this advert, including the suggestion that only stereotypically feminine women are sexually attractive, Veet’s pitiful attempt at humour exemplifies why body hair has been, and still is, a feminist issue. The message is that, regardless of cost and time, women are expected to police their bodies for stray hairs or run the risk of no one finding them attractive ever again. These expectations – placed on women to maintain certain beauty regimes – are just (time consuming) social constructions that reinforce the gender binary, in other words: what is deemed appropriate behaviour for men and women. It does feel that, over the past few years, more women are letting it grow. Miley had her armpit selfie, Madonna jumped on the bandwagon and then it even turned into a hashtag… Yet as the list of individuals proclaiming that we should be proud of our hair goes on, it is also important to mention that this renewed fervour around body hair has often excluded women of colour. From chatting to friends, as well as being informed by my own experiences, it is clear that – for people like me, who aren't white – body hair grows in different places, is generally darker and seems to be regarded as all the more embarrassing. Rupen, a student at the University of Bristol, explains: "Being Asian, I was advised (by my mum) to start waxing my arms. I used to have eczema in the elbow crease of my arm and when I waxed I used to bruise and bleed really badly." Rupen adds that the process really hurt and that she eventually stopped as a result. Despite the pain, she is one of the only people out of the forty or so who came forward with their stories who had actually stopped.
Even after being hospitalised by my regime and running the risk of being called "a bad feminist", I still continue to remove my body hair.
Even after being hospitalised by my regime and running the risk of being called "a bad feminist", I still continue to remove my body hair... especially if I am going on holiday. So, if we don't want to stop, what should we do to protect ourselves? Katherine, the Staff Nurse, has some other good tips to try and avoid getting hair folliculitis. "If you shave, make sure you always wash your hands and use clean, if not new, razors." According to the National Health Service, the best way to minimise the risk of hair folliculitis and in-grown hairs is to make sure that there is no double dipping at salons. It is also recommended that you shave in the same direction that the hair is growing, rinse the razor after every stroke and try not to shave too closely to the skin. And finally, they suggest it is helpful to try not to use soaps or washes that might be perfumed and cause extra irritation to your skin. Good luck out there.