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In my mid-20s, feeling flush with cash and finally ready to commit to something big, I made a life-changing decision: I lasered off all my underarm hair.
Over the course of 11 sessions, I paid a technician at a salon hundreds of dollars to shoot concentrated beams of light at my hair follicles, damaging them until, finally, I was left with nothing more than a few wisps of hair under each arm. It was, I felt, the sensible, adult choice to make. Regular shaving left my skin irritated, and waxing was far too painful to endure, particularly given the short-term results.
What never really occurred to me, however, was the possibility that I didn’t have to remove the hair at all.
I started shaving my underarms at the tender age of 10, less out of a sense of choice than one of necessity. The brief few months that I didn’t shave, I learned some painful lessons about what kinds of secondary sex characteristics were considered acceptable for women. In the waning weeks of fifth grade, a boy cornered me in the hallway and offered to give me a few bucks if I’d keep my arms raised for a full minute. At summer camp, my cabin mates relentlessly made fun of my unshaven state. Although my mother discouraged me from shaving — the only reason she even shaved her legs, she told me, was because she wore stockings — newly pubescent me was loathe to take beauty advice from a middle-aged woman, particularly when it ran so counter to the norms enforced by my adolescent peers.
More than 20 years after I committed to regularly removing my underarm hair, little has changed when it comes to our acceptance of female body hair. A BuzzFeed piece from a few years back noted that, even in dystopian survival narratives, women in movies always remember to shave their underarms; a recent trailer for Wonder Woman made clear that even an Amazonian warrior raised in an all-female society is presumed to be taking the time to eradicate her pesky body hair. Although female body hair pops up as a trend from time to time — as with the brightly colored underarm hair fad from a few years back — it’s almost always presented as a statement or call for attention, rather than merely a way of existing naturally within a female body. (Notably, a Glamour piece on dyed underarm hair ends with the dyee noting that, when she’s tired of pink underarms, she’ll probably go back to shaving — merely having natural, unaltered underarms doesn’t seem to be on the table.) And, of course, even when female body hair is acceptable, it’s usually in the delicate, wispy iteration most often found in white women; the coarse, heavier body hair that grows on many female bodies — particularly on those of women of color — is rarely, if ever, presented as cute.
In some ways, the story of female underarm hair is a frivolous and unremarkable thing, a footnote in the larger story of what it means to be a woman in America. But it’s also a microcosm of the larger narrative about female beauty. We have options, yes, but they’re mostly just different paths of arriving at the same goal. You can shave or wax or Nair or laser your legs, but you’d best make sure they’re silky smooth; if you’re a woman with facial hair, bleaching, waxing, and threading are the “options” you’ll get to pick from. (Pubic hair, at least, is a realm where women seem to actually have choice — but that hasn’t prevented writers from penning trend pieces that present hairless pudenda as a universally expected situation.) Women may have a wide range of body types, but we’re all expected to dress for our body shapes in an attempt to hide “problem areas” and create a visual illusion that mimics the arbitrary “ideal” body we’ve all been taught to aspire to. And the oxymoron that is a “natural” makeup look is yet another reminder that even our “natural” faces are expected to come complete with flawlessly clear skin, well-defined lips and eyes, and lustrous long lashes — expectations that, of course, men are largely free from.
It’s difficult to quantify the effect these expectations have on our conceptions of ourselves, on our ideas of what is normal and desirable and what kind of image we want to cultivate. Anti-Photoshop campaigns have raised awareness of how being bombarded with unrealistic images of bodies can damage our self-image; but even without photo editing, being shown the same type of “ideal” body type over and over can do a number on one’s sense of self (particularly when that “ideal” body can quickly shift from one largely unattainable body to another). When we’re constantly told that there’s a “right” way to be, it’s hard to tell how much of our own personal aesthetic is, well, truly personal, and how much exists as a response to everything we’ve been told about the proper way to be.
So many of these notions of what it is to be a woman are so ingrained, we don’t even think of them as socially constructed. When I tried, for instance, to ask a male friend to imagine what it would be like to grow up in a world where growing a beard was considered shameful and disgusting, where being clean-shaven was presented as the only acceptable male option, he thought I was making a point about pubic hair. The thought of women having underarm hair was such a foreign one, he hadn’t even considered it.
It’s true, of course, that men also face a limited range of options when it comes to fashion and beauty: Shaving underarms and legs has yet to be normalized for men, and those who choose to wear makeup, or pursue feminine fashion looks, are likely to be seen as odd. But there’s a difference between being shamed out of altering your natural body and being shamed into spending copious amounts of time and money remaking yourself in the shape of some arbitrary ideal. There’s certainly an “ideal” buff and muscle-bound male body that’s celebrated in the media — one that requires an immense amount of effort to attain and sustain — and the reality of men who struggle with body dysmorphia and feelings of inadequacy should not be overlooked. But the range of acceptable body types always seems to be broader for men; the amount of work men are expected to put in in order to merely be considered acceptable is always less than what is expected of women. To be an American woman is to exist in a culture where the scale is heavily weighted against just being yourself — and whatever “choices” we make must ultimately factor in the social cost of going against the grain.
I don’t regret lasering my underarm hair. Shaving was always a hassle, and it’s rare that I feel any pang of longing for my eradicated body hair. But I still wish I could say for sure that it really, truly was my choice. I wish that I had been presented with a variety of equally acceptable options and been allowed to choose the one that felt the most in line with my personal style. I wish I had grown up feeling like my natural body was acceptable on its own, without any cosmetic intervention. I wish the sartorial “options” society presents women with actually included just being as we are.