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Jemima Kirke's controversial armpits at the CFDA Awards. Photo: Getty Images.
Jemima Kirke's controversial armpits at the CFDA Awards. Photo: Getty Images.

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I'm Tired of Justifying My Armpit Hair

It's surprisingly exhausting for a woman to walk around unshaven.

In May, Lena Dunham Instagrammed a pic of her Summer 2015 to-dos. Top of the list? "Grow armpit hair." I double-tapped the photo, but I had to laugh at the irony—because the same week that she determined to let her underarms go au naturel, I shaved mine for the first time in three years.

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Allow me to introduce my armpits. These two furry friends have had an on-again, off-again relationship with razors since I was in 6th grade and the first straggling hairs sprouted. I have that dreaded (for body-hair haters) combo of pale skin and super thick, dark hair, which means that when I shave, my stubble starts growing back immediately in its best impression of that scene from The Santa Clause with Tim Allen's beard. I rejoiced when personal care companies came out with triple- and then quadruple-blade razors, which I wielded like a machete in the jungle. I can't tell you how many times a conscientious girlfriend pulled me aside like "Psst—you forgot to shave your armpits!" and I'd gasp, "Oh—thanks!" hunching my shoulders down but thinking all the while, "I shaved this morning."

When I stopped shaving, I embraced my all-natural femininity, and I expected the world to embrace it with me.

My five o'clock shadow makes Julia Roberts' little Oscars hair affair look like peach fuzz, and the constant upkeep leads to razor burn and painful ingrown-hairs. So when my boyfriend and I broke up for a while at the end of college, I stopped shaving my armpits cold turkey. At first it was so freeing—never again would I endure the scrape of the razor or recoil from the sting of deodorant applied to freshly-shorn pits. It also felt cool in a countercultural way. I was no longer a slave to the razor like the smooth-skinned girls I danced to "Single Ladies" with at the bar.

To be clear, I didn't become an overnight female body hair fetishist by any means. I still get my ‘bikini zone' lasered because IPL is really cheap in Japan, where I live, and razor burn down there sucks even more than under your arms. And although I'm pretty lazy about it, I still shave my legs; I like the smooth way they look and feel, and they don't seem to have the same innate aversion to the razor.

But I stopped removing the hair from my armpits because for me, shaving them is the pits. And, more importantly, I don't think that female armpit hair is gross, or unhygienic, or manly. When I stopped shaving, I embraced my all-natural femininity, and I expected the world to embrace it with me.

It helped that within some of the circles I moved in back then, a woman with underarm hair was kind of NBD. I was a liberal arts college student, and then after graduation a yoga teacher living in Portland. And as it turned out, that boyfriend (now husband) actually thinks that an armpit full of soft hair is sexier than a prickly, inflamed one.

It felt great to overcome my middle school mortification at people discovering that I had hair growing in my armpits (as if literally every other woman in the world doesn't.) But I found that outside of the kombucha-drinking community, attitudes towards underarm hair hadn't matured much. My carefree pits were a surprisingly big topic of conversation: for children at the pool, who had mostly never been exposed to female body hair and weren't afraid to ask questions or express horror; for the older generation, who left body hair behind with the drum circles and bong rips of their youth; and even for my more squeamish friends. Didn't my armpits stink? they wanted to know. Didn't they itch? No more than they had when I shaved was the answer to both.

While crunchy lifestyle choices and natural beauty have become fashionable, a pretty young woman sporting armpit hair is still controversial.

As the recent buzz surrounding Miley Cyrus' unshaved pits proves, a female flashing all-natural underarms is still TMZ-worthy news (see also Julia Roberts, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Jemima Kirke, and Scout Willis). I think that what might be so shocking about these unshaved celebs is that society has an image of a woman who doesn't shave. She's most likely the earth mother type—feminine in a fecund way, but not exactly style-forward. And if you don't fit that image, people get confused, and maybe resentful.

It used to be the same for guys, too; unless they were in the lumber industry, men needed an excuse like No Shave November to get away with letting their whiskers grow out. My mom used to delight in telling me how upset my grandma had been that my dad had a beard at my parents' wedding, but these days full-on bushmen beards are so acceptable (and trendy) that a scruffy Prince of Sweden walked down the aisle with a beard last month.

And yet while crunchy lifestyle choices and natural beauty have become fashionable, a pretty young woman sporting armpit hair is still controversial. (So controversial, in fact, that Chinese activists recently held an armpit hair photo contest as a protest against sexism in their country.) Cool girls swan around braless in their Birkenstocks—but if they raise an arm to adjust their flower crown and in doing so reveal a little fuzz, it's like they're somehow violating the social contract. An unshaved professional woman seems pretty unthinkable.

Miley Cyrus's unshaved armpits at the 2015 amfAR gala. Photo: Getty.

I have to admit, it's technically not true that I didn't shave my armpits for three years. At my wedding, I wore a vintage Cahill eyelet lace dress with no sleeves, and my relatives took bets about whether I would walk down the aisle with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something hairy. In the end, I caved and got my pits waxed for the ceremony. Partly I did it for the grandparents, and partly because I just didn't want to spend my wedding day feeling self-conscious. While it didn't take long for my hair  to grow back to its former glory, I never lost my growing sense of frustration that a lot of the people around me just couldn't get on board with my body hair.

And it was only magnified by my move two years ago to teach English in Japan, where female body hair—even arm hair—is just not a thing. Knowing this, I've never flaunted my pits here (and Japanese women don't really wear tank tops anyways, at least not in the conservative countryside where I live). But news of my unkempt underarms made the rounds anyways. During a conversation about hair removal, I confided to a friend that I didn't shave my armpits. "I already know that," she said. Turns out another local had spotted me at the public bathhouse, where nudity is the rule, and word had spread.

And then I got the idea of showing my high school students the music video for the band Chairlift's song "I Belong In Your Arms", which they sing in Japanese. My hope was to inspire my students with examples of bilingual Americans. All they saw, though, were the (gorgeous) singer Caroline Polachek's all-natural armpits, which I honestly hadn't even noticed until she was already twirling around on the projector screen. By then the class had erupted into utter mayhem.

Because women are expected to expend time and effort on their armpits, I replaced the physical work of shaving with the mental work of justifying it.

"Is she a man?!" they jeered, many of them truly unsure.

"Oh..." I faltered. "Some American women don't shave their armpits." As they had the Japanese teacher translate this statement, just to be sure they heard correctly, I silently thanked god that I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt.

"Kimoi," my students—boys and girls—shuddered. "Disgusting."

By the beginning of this summer, when the mercury started rising and the dress code at my school switched to Cool Biz (a nationwide campaign which allows office workers to wear short sleeves in the summer in order to save energy on air conditioning), my confidence in my hairy armpits was thoroughly wavering. I looked longingly at the sleeveless tops languishing in the depths of my closet and finally, one super-humid night before yoga class, I sighed and snapped in a refill pack on my razor.

It's interesting to me that not doing something can be such a contentious style move. I mean, you actually have to take action and commit to other alternative statements like getting a tattoo or piercing, but as all women know, body hair just grows by itself. For that reason, when I first stopped fighting against my armpits, the choice to quit shaving felt simple, like I was choosing the path of least resistance. But because women are expected to expend time and effort on their armpits, I replaced the physical work of shaving with the mental work of justifying it. Ultimately, I came  to feel like not shaving was just as exhausting as shaving had been.

When you're one of three foreigners living in a rural Japanese town, and you're surrounded by high schoolers all day, it's easiest to fit in where you can. But if being hairless once again feels strangely freeing, I'm still conflicted. It reminds me of when I lived in Egypt, where there's a ton of sexual harassment and you have to dress conservatively. Keeping myself covered meant that I could walk down the street to slightly fewer catcalls—liberating, but in a compromised way.

Whether I have body hair or not, I expect others to be cool with my choice, as I would be cool with theirs.

I don't know if I would have made the same decision to go hairless again if I still lived in America. I'm fairly sure the reaction to the Chairlift video would've been the same in any American high school classroom. But it does feel like lately the US is having a conversation about all female standards of beauty, including shaving. When I was rocking hairy pits and someone would bring it up, I always found myself thinking, "Are we still really talking about this?" And at first that's what I thought when I saw Lena Dunham's list—like, I'm so over this.

But how can I complain about the fact that, as headlines on style sites are declaring, hairy pits are kind of having a mainstream moment right now? Yes, a large portion of the comments on Miley Cyrus' Terry Richardson armpit shots and news articles about the Chinese protestors express repulsion, i.e. "Don't care how feminist/hippy you are, having armpit hair like Miley Cyrus is just no." But women who happen to prefer not shaving are becoming more visible. I feel totally inspired by babes like xoVain beauty editor Sable, who unapologetically shows off her unshaved pits while reviewing hair serums and matte lipstick, or the Willis sisters, who confidently pose for armpit-baring bikini selfies.

And, though I never anticipated that I'd learn a lesson about self-confidence from Miley, my inner middle school self was especially stoked when I read this positive mention of her armpits (in a teen magazine, no less): "Loving that Miley isn't putting up with people retouching her body hair and sending such an amazing message about acceptance in the process."

That's the point, isn't it? Whether I have body hair or not, I expect others to be cool with my choice, as I would be cool with theirs. Which means I've got to get back to that place where I'd stopped treating my pits like a dark, hairy secret.

So while it's only been a few weeks since I got back together with my razor, I'm just about ready to let it get rusty again. And that's why, unexpectedly, Lena Dunham and I seem to have ended up with the same goal at the top of our Summer 2015 bucket list. At least I know it won't take me long to cross that one off.

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