As fellow writer Carla Naumburg and I have discussed both here on Kveller and also off-post, she and I are very different. We are also very much alike.
Take her latest post about waxing her nether regions, for example: I too have never partaken in waxing. Matter of fact, I remain the tomboy/feminist who has never in her life shaved her legs or armpits. Ever.
The decision was made in early adolescence, maybe when I was 14 and all the girls in my school–none of whom had any hair on their bodies–started shaving because it was “grown-up.” Whatever. Seemed like a waste of time, a conformity that disgusted me (I was a feisty feminist even at 14), and an opportunity for blood where it was just not at all necessary. I should note (as you scour the web for images of me at the Emmys or on some red carpet with bare legs) that I’m not a terribly hairy person, but let’s just say that I am hairy enough that if I wore a strapless dress, you’d be weirded out. So I don’t wear strapless dresses. End of that story. As for my legs, having never shaved, it’s not an unbearable level of fuzziness. And I am fair, so the hair is very pale and thin, but you can see it for sure if you look close, especially when my legs are wet (like after a bath).
I have never written about this, because it really weirds people out. Joey Lawrence used to tease me about it mercilessly in my teen years on Blossom. It’s very unconventional to not shave, and while as a teenager in the 1980s I knew it was a fact that European women tended not to shave, by the late 1990s, I believe the American notion of women shaving had invaded Europe and it was just me, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gertrude Stein left. Oh: and my awesome funky bohemian friend who lived in San Francisco, where many funky bohemian women didn’t (and still don’t!) shave.
Carla’s post got me thinking, though, about “what if” I had girls. And it got me thinking to what I can and do impart to my boys as a non-shaving woman.
An anecdote: At a recent SWAG event, I received a canister of some fancy “women’s” shaving cream. It was packaged in pink and smelled kind of fruity. Obviously, I have no need for it. So I offered it to my husband (he’s got a beard but shaves his neck daily). My older son saw the canister and thought it was hysterical that shaving cream would come in a pink canister (he is obviously not immune to society’s recent association of girls with pink–in the not-so-distant past, blue was associated with girls and pink with boys, folks!). We had to explain to my son that some women shave. His eyes widened and I recognized the need to clarify: “They shave their legs and under their arms.” He laughed in disbelief and asked very simply, “Why?”
My son knows I have body hair just like he knows my husband does. It’s normal and natural to have body hair. Mammals have really fascinating patterns of body hair and I explain to him that body hair traps pheromones, and body hair keeps glands protected, and it highlights “special” parts of the body that hold pheromones and glands. Those parts are responsible for helping reproductive behaviors. That’s kind of how nerdy science mamas explain stuff; it may seem weird, but it’s just how it works for me. And it’s natural to be a mammal, and I have told my son I like my body like it was made. He doesn’t have any natural notion of women shaving, just like I always found it unnatural. I mean, in the simplest definition of unnatural, I guess it kind of is. I’m not judging, just defining!
As for subtler and humanly-contrived aspects of “femininity” and “aesthetics” that we modern women have been told are important: hairlessness, smoothness, and these things accounting for subjective “beauty,” I guess my sons will have to decide for themselves what they find attractive. I wonder if I had a girl if she would find me odd and embarrassing, or if whatever we present to our children about us, whether they be girls or boys, is simply what we teach them we are. Meaning, if we never told girls to shave, would they? If we modeled a cultural acceptance of our body hair, would they spontaneously feel the need to remove it weekly, monthly, or daily? If we all wore bathing suits that covered our natural forms instead of the form that only hairless young girls who have not birthed babies can wear, would our girls and boys have a more or less realistic notion of what the human body “should” look like?
I used to be hurt when other kids (girls especially) teased me for not wanting to conform to societal standards of beauty and aesthetics. I guess I hope that by simply being myself, my boys will find that character trait attractive and desirable in whoever they choose to love. And I have had plenty of women tell me that their feminism is about choosing: whether or not to wear spike heels and push-up bras and bikinis, and whether or not to shave. Well, as a second-wave feminist (think Hilary Rodham Clinton rather than Gwen Stefani feminism), I respectfully disagree. Feminism, to me, is about leveling the field, creating realistic and respectful expectations for all genders, and allowing the natural abilities and properties of all people to be accepted, appreciated, and treasured.
And when we say we want our children to love someone “warts and all,” no matter who they choose, I hope we can all mean it.