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How can something as unimportant as armpit hair feel so radical?
Six months after deciding not to shave mine, I still don’t know if I can answer that question.
Rationally, logically, it’s simple: this is my body, and all I’m doing is nothing. I simply stopped interrupting something that has been happening nonstop since I was about 12 years old. That should be the end of the story.
Over the past six months, my decision, a sort of not-decision, has become a weird sort of portal into topics I had no idea were tied to the little hairs growing under my arms. Concepts like femininity and self-love and patriarchy and capitalism and self-worth.
If you’re thinking, “It’s not that deep,” I would have agreed with you half a year ago. And to be clear, this wasn’t a big deal to anyone but me. In fact, few people have said anything to me about it other than, “Cool, maybe I’ll try that,” or, “That’s wild. But whatever.”
When I decided to stop shaving, I was mostly curious. I’d never seen what happens when I just let it go. Never once since puberty had I allowed things to reach their natural conclusion, as in, grow out until there is no more growing out to do. What would it look like? What would it feel like?
It looked—shocking. It wasn’t what I was used to.
And it felt kind of funny, like this part of my body suddenly had extra senses. A little aura of existence that extended into the world beyond what I was used to. So, there were my answers: shocking and funny. That’s a good summary.
I’d heard a lot of women talk about how empowered they felt, how feminine, how sexy, how fully themselves, upon deciding not to shave. I waited patiently for these feelings to strike. In the meantime, I lifted dumbbells over my head at the gym in tank tops and dared anyone to do a double take. I wasn’t sure how much I liked this new part of myself, but I would defend it vehemently. Later, I would go home and look more closely in the mirror and wonder what it was I was ready to defend.
I assumed that because shaving only seemed to last a few days in the past that everything would be fully grown in in a matter of days or weeks. I think it actually took more like a month, or longer. These were good things to know, I thought. I didn’t necessarily feel sexy, or empowered, but I did feel like I knew myself more, and that felt like love. Or at least, acceptance. A stubborn kind of acceptance.
I was first pushed toward my decision after watching a video in which a creator talked about how shaving became normalized for women, and of course, it all came back to someone making money. Razor brands decided to shame women into feeling bad about their natural, normal bodies to keep themselves in business, and it worked like a dream. At that time, the early 1900s, women were more property than people, and bodies were subject to opinion (even more than they are today). Disgusted by this dark, patriarchal history, I tossed my razor (i.e. I moved it to a different side of the shower).
But there’s a trick to all of this, and that is that sometimes it doesn’t matter where things originate as much as what they mean to you personally. No matter how long I went, I never quite got over the feeling that I was wearing some ill-fitting clothing. It felt disingenuous, as if I were advocating for some kind of gender freedom, and yet I didn’t necessarily believe in it myself. I was an armpit hair-having hack. A bad feminist.
So, six months in, I decided to end the experiment. I got my razor back out and shaved everything away. It felt like a betrayal. It felt like giving up. It felt good.
I’m still not sure why it seems so serious. I could grow it out again, anytime. Most people wouldn’t notice, and no one would care. But I probably won’t. I was never able to untangle my own perception of myself against what I guessed other people might be thinking. Were they disgusted by my body, or intrigued? Were they sizing it up as appropriate or otherwise? Could I still be professional? Was I still feminine?
I’d never had to think about these things before, and I thought that maybe doing so would be good for me. The body positivity version of eating your vegetables.
As women, as people with feminine bodies, there’s no peanut gallery required to make us feel watched. We’ve been raised on it, dulled and sharpened by the potential of other peoples’ judgements. I thought that to go against what was expected of me, I could forever shake off that sensation of being watched, but I now know that it’s an impossible thing to do.
Is that fair? Probably not. Does it feel better not to be a walking billboard for a whole host of gender issues on a daily basis? Yeah, it does.
And maybe the whole point is that I do have preferences and maybe those preferences do line up with what other people say is good and that maybe that isn’t a betrayal. The idea that we have some inner essence to unearth within a society that’s conditioned us from day zero now feels flimsy. We’re made up of what we belong to. Sometimes—many times—it is worth parsing out.
I would say my experiment was a success. I know a little more than I did before.
From the outside, I look like the same person I was in April, and for many years before that. But internally, nothing is the same. My reasons for doing what I’ve always done are different, and that feels like progress even if it looks like nothing—even if it looks like bare, smooth skin.