“It’s like you’re doing the seventies, but in 2013,” my friend said, laughing as I posed in our Istanbul bedroom to display the luxurious dark hair flowing from my underarms.
I twirled a strand thoughtfully. “They had a good thing going there.”
I decided to stop shaving while studying abroad in Nepal in the fall of 2012. My reasoning? Standards of modesty demanded that I cover my arms at all times, so no one would have to confront the increasingly impressive tufts of hair beneath them, including me.
I assumed I would begin shaving again as soon as I arrived at the beaches of southern India.
And then, I changed my mind.
I tossed my razor and let it grow for the remainder of my yearlong journey through Asia and Europe.
Let’s begin with why not?
I did not stop shaving because no one could tell the difference. I have very dark and very thick wavy hair—I will never be one of those women who stop shaving because no one will notice.
My decision to ditch the razor had nothing to do with other people, either. I didn’t care if I offended anyone; I wasn’t trying to send out a certain message or construct a certain image (Here before you is a hippie chick. Exhibit A: armpit hair); I wasn’t trying to repel or attract anyone and any man who would run away from a little body hair was pretty worthless, anyway.
I also did not let my semi-metaphorical hair down in order to make a statement. My mother, when she saw my locks in June in northern Italy, expressed a mixture of distaste and indifference. “You know you’re not the first person to let your armpit hair grow,” she scoffed; “women have been doing that since the sixties.” And for many of those women, decisions about physical appearance fit into a broader political and social context of resistance. But maybe others, like me, had nothing to prove to anyone but themselves.
I let my hair grow not to force others to accept it, but rather because I wanted to accept it.
So long as it was hidden under turtlenecks and long underwear, my body hair was a non-issue; I didn’t truly have to confront it. I had left my legs and bikini line unshaven many times before, but somehow the issue of my underarms exposed a repression of my natural self at a deeper, more obscured level.
Once I arrived in warmer regions, where I donned tank tops and bathing suits and once I migrated to Europe, where I faced more restrictive conventions of femininity (France and Southern Italy aside), I had to come to terms with it. That is precisely why I continued to not shave. I would maintain my hairy and somewhat odorous experiment until I grew to love my body, fully, exactly as it was.
And I did.
The first time I felt the sea breeze ruffle my armpit hair on a beach in Goa I experienced the first, timid buds of appreciation. The first time I went dancing in a sleeveless dress without embarrassment I revelled in this new level of comfort not only in my skin, but also in my hair.
Slowly, I grew attached to those quirky, conspicuous tufts of hair, so expressive of myself in a way I had never even contemplated before. My body announced its humanness, its femininity, its exuberance and slowly I embraced it. I finally shaved in London—my last stop before returning to the U.S.—then immediately found it overrated and stopped for another two months.
Looking back, I begin to see that year as the culmination of a process that began when, at age twelve, I looked in the mirror and decided I was beautiful. It is a process that demanded many steps back from the fashion and beauty magazines that informed my adolescence, the girl at summer camp who first lent me her razor and the men and women who expressed disgust towards female body hair throughout my life.
Untamed hair, imperfect nose, small breasts, full hips—these are judgments that the world may pass on my body, but I refuse to join in. And to finish, I have added hairy armpits to that list of features I choose to love. Culmination may be the wrong word however, for I suspect it is in fact a process that is ongoing and ever expanding.
Looking back, I also see my decision to stop shaving as interconnected with many other developments over the course of my travels. My newfound delight in belching. A propensity for flossing in public. My decision to go back to eating meat. My drift away from routine hair washing and other standards of grooming (‘grooming’ being a term I prefer to ‘hygiene,’ which implies that daily shampooing or shaving is conclusively ‘cleaner’).
I challenge these social demands selectively; there are times when resistance costs more effort or causes more offense than it is worth.
Being back in close quarters at university and not wishing to impose the fragrant side-effect of my experiment on my desk neighbors, yoga students or salsa partners, I have temporarily re-acquiesced to this particular norm.
I know my choice is voluntary.
It stems from a place of self-acceptance.
And that makes all the difference.
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