For Millennial Women, Body Hair Presents A Complicated Choice

(Photo: Isabella Carapella/HuffPost)
(Photo: Isabella Carapella/HuffPost)

This past August, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski posed for Harper’s Bazaar in a bra, a blowout and what appeared to be fully grown-out armpit hair.

“On any given day, I tend to like to shave, but sometimes letting my body hair grow out is what makes me feel sexy,” Ratajkowski wrote in the controversial feature that sparked mixed reactions, including accusations that her armpit hair was fake. “If I decide to shave my armpits or grow them out, that’s up to me.”

Regardless of the armpit merkin conspiracy theories, Ratajkowski’s feelings about her body hair echo a distinctly millennial stance — that body hair is strictly a matter of personal choice.

“For me, body hair is another opportunity for women to exercise their ability to choose ― a choice based on how they want to feel and their associations with having or not having body hair,” Ratajkowski continued. “As long as the decision is my choice, then it’s the right choice.”

Millennial-friendly body care companies like Billie and Fur Oil are catching on to millennials’ evolving relationship to body hair as a personal choice, offering products that actually acknowledge its existence while championing the idea that removal isn’t mandatory.

Body hair positivity is at an all-time high — or at least, the idea of body hair positivity is. For anyone who isn’t a celebrity, the reality of being a woman with visible body hair is much less sexy than it looks on Instagram or in viral ad campaigns. Shaving is a personal choice, but it’s also a complicated one that can raise questions about identity, sexuality and politics, and it leaves some women feeling deeply conflicted.

While some women embrace the idea that shaving should be optional, millennials aren’t throwing their razors away en masse. Many still feel ambivalent about letting it all grow due to the still-lingering stigma historically associated with women’s body hair.

“I think body hair remains stigmatized for many of the same reasons it was stigmatized before: racialized concerns about ‘hygiene,’ homophobic associations between visible hair and lesbianism, cultural perceptions of political ‘radicalism,’” said Rebecca M. Herzig, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College and author of “Plucked: A History of Hair Removal.”

“Even those celebrities who dare to venture out with some visible hair tend to follow other dominant conventions of physical appearance — able-bodied, white, young, thin and toned, expensively dressed, etc. — in every other way,” she told HuffPost.

Armpit hair may be acceptable or even sexy on a conventionally attractive model in a magazine, but in reality, many women face harsh criticism, stares and even death threats for daring to display all types of body hair — including leg hair, arm hair and pubic hair, still mostly invisible even among hair-positive celebrities.

“It makes total sense why plenty of women feel conflicted about shaving,” said Caroline Ervin, co-host of the podcast “Unladylike.” “On the one hand, many of us have had it drilled into our heads that body hair is gross, unhygienic and unfeminine. On the other, we know in our logical, feminist brains that we ‘shouldn’t’ fall prey to those social pressures.”

In a three-part series earlier this year, Ervin and ”Unladylike” co-host Cristen Conger explored the reality of being a real-life hairy woman and found that body hair is rarely just about body hair.

“We talked to one woman who was really emotionally struggling with the hormonal effects of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), one of which is an extreme amount of hair growth — more than just your average mustache or dark pit hair. Her roommate literally scolded her — in the name of feminism! — for trying to remove some of it!” Ervin said. “Another woman we interviewed experienced deep gender dysphoria around her body hair before starting estrogen therapy. It was just a reminder of a gender identity that wasn’t hers.”

Hair removal can certainly be expensive, painful and time-consuming for many women, and yet for others, keeping their hair feels uncomfortable and inauthentic. “Those ‘good feminist’ rules can feel just as oppressive as any other set of rules telling women how to live their lives correctly, especially when they don’t allow for nuance,” Ervin said.

Though most people can freely decide to remove their hair or not, calling hair removal a “choice” may not be entirely accurate. “However much women’s personal choice may be valorized in ads and women’s magazines today, the assumption is generally that one would obviously ‘choose’ to accede to dominant consumerist norms — in this case, norms of smooth, unblemished, youthful skin,” Herzig said. “The rhetoric of choice helps veil how narrow the array of social options presented actually are.”

Millennial body hair positivity isn’t as overtly political as it was in previous generations, particularly second-wave feminist movements, and that can be a good thing. Women’s bodies are constantly politicized and policed, down to the way we grow hair out of our skin, and not everything women do to or with their bodies has to mean something.

“I think it’s OK to prefer or even enjoy removing your hair,” Ervin said. “I’ve also, of course, heard arguments that keeping every strand is the most feminist option because it’s a middle finger to the patriarchy. I don’t disagree that it is, but these binary, good/bad conversations become dead-ends really quickly, and I’m not sure we’re helping ourselves or other women to play good/bad body-hair ping-pong.”

Shaving, or not, isn’t inherently feminist, and it doesn’t have to be. However, Ervin added, hair is still a feminist issue. “It won’t stop being a feminist issue until people stop telling women what to do with their bodies. That goes both ways, both for the people telling hairy women they’re gross or the people telling women who shave that they’re bad feminists.”

According to Ervin, body hair representation in the media would be a powerful first step in normalizing women’s and nonbinary individuals’ body hair. “The more humans see something, the more normal and boring it becomes,” Ervin said. “I think shocking people with rainbow pits is funny, too, but I’d like to get to a place where it simply does not matter and is no longer so tied to gender.”

Body hair politics aside, Ervin believes her listeners should choose what feels best for them and their own bodies. “I understand the financial and time suck that hair removal can be, and I understand that expectations of hairlessness fall heaviest on women,” Ervin said. “But I’m still of the ‘you do you’ mindset.”

Ervin said she used to shave some of her body hair every day, though as she’s gotten older, she’s much less concerned about what other people think. “I’m not going to march on Washington for leg hair anytime soon, but I fully support all of us, especially women and nonbinary folks, letting our body hair blow in the breeze.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.