If you need proof that female desirability is closely linked to the absence of body hair, you only need to look at shaving and waxing ads. Because not only do they manipulate women into going hairless, the models in the ads are shaving their silky smooth and already hairless legs. Honestly, it would be much more impressive if they could show that the product works on actual body hair.
Any deviation from the complete absence of body hair (along with an unpopular body size) has always met with backlash. The latest example is Swedish model Arvida Byström, who posted a picture of her with unshaved legs for an Adidas campaign. Byström is already popular for posting pictures with body hair and for questioning general body standards. The amount of subsequent negative comments she received was not only staggering — she even received rape threats as a consequence, which is shocking, sad, and also bizarre.
Why, though? It’s because she defied what society considers desirable and decided to go au naturel.
But it’s not just models and actresses who face the consequences of choosing to go the hairy legs and arms route. Swati Suraj, an in-flight attendant with a domestic airline in Mumbai, wasn’t allowed to board a flight because she wasn’t “presentable enough” — that is, she had not waxed her arms and legs. The hospitality industry puts women through rigorous scrutiny and always expect them to be “well-groomed”, but that’s no excuse for actively preventing a woman from doing her job just because she did not remove her body hair. The underlying message is clear — You’re too grotesque for us.
This pressure on women to conform, to be hairless fantasies, starts early. If it’s not at home, then your peer group sets into action passing rude comments about unwaxed arms and legs. Girls then head to beauty parlour to get their eyebrows plucked, upper lips threaded, and the rest of their bodies waxed to make them appear more ‘attractive’.
Especially in India, women are familiar with the hairy legs syndrome — “Can’t wear shorts today because I haven’t waxed” or “How can you wear sleeveless T-shirts with armpit hair?” Shame is also the weapon of choice for waxing ladies in beauty parlours to reinforce sexism, especially with young women. They’ve made a business out of making women feel ‘unkempt’.
Janhavi Shukla, a 17-year-old psychology student in Pune, started visiting a beauty parlour twice a month after the owner remarked how horrible body hair looked on her. “It even made me think if the guy I had a crush on didn’t like me because I didn’t make an effort to groom myself, like the other girls,” she says.
Such supposed lack of grooming does not go down well with society, especially when it reflects a disinterest in making oneself ‘desirable’ to the male gaze. It sends a silent message that certain women are not too fussed about conforming to conventional ideas of femininity. Their quiet assertion is often mistaken to be defiance, leading to harassment.
Men never have to bear the brunt of not adhering to such standards. Sure, the millennial metrosexual man is more hairless than ever before but he’s still under no pressure to look perfect or have his worth based on how he looks. Men in India still roam on streets shirtless and hairless, à la 90s Akshay Kumar. Even in our homes, our uncles and fathers sit shirtless and carefree, arms raised with unshaven underarms. They fear no repercussions and certainly no rape threats.
Women, on the other hand, have to deal with nastiness for embracing body hair.
Ask Miley Cyrus, who received scathing comments for posting pictures of dyed armpit hair. She did it as an act of defiance, but for a lot of women, not shaving body hair is just a way to simply be. Sivakami Sivakumar, a copywriter in Mumbai says, “Many people have pointedly stared at my leg forest, as I like to call it. Mostly, I feel they just pity me or think ‘Oh, she’s one of those feminists’.”
Defiance aside, even women who have a lot of body hair due to medical conditions are not spared from remarks — they are still expected to look a certain way. Author and poet Harnidh Kaur says, “I have Polycystic Ovarian Disease and that means I have a lot of body hair, most visibly facial hair. Once, a lady friend literally took out a small razor from her bag and said, ‘You have hair on your upper lip’ when I’d stepped out with her.”
Even older women aren’t spared from need to look like an airbrushed, unrealistic ideal of female beauty. Chandra Srinivasan, a 70-year-old social worker, attests to the pressure to be hairless and “happening”. She deals with comments about her moustache all the time. “Many have stared at my moustache and asked me if I don’t like to shave it. This, in spite of knowing that I’m diabetic and that facial hair is common in diabetic patients.” Srinivasan believes that the social urge to box women into what they should look like is so deep, even for older women, that it manipulates them into thinking a hairless woman commands respect. “It’s still about how attractive a woman is, no matter her age,” she says.
This insistence on women having ideal bodies and holding up unrealistic standards is the backbone of needing to stay hairless, and this in turn becomes even more pronounced in women’s sexual lives. Cinema and porn have further tied the idea of hairlessness to desirability. There’s never a hairy pornstar in sight in all of PornHub, unless it’s a specific category. No actresses on television and cinema would be caught dead with realistic hairy armpits.
Thankfully, there are exceptions.
Padmini Barua, a 24-year-old legal researcher in Bangalore, says that her previous partner didn’t care if she shaved her body. “In fact, he used to like it when I wasn’t hairless. Even when we’d go out together, it was always about what’s comfortable to me,” she says.
But even with some exceptions, women’s body hair is still deeply tied to ideas of how they should look — clean-shaven women are just more attractive to the opposite sex. The entire women-should-be-hairless effort is centred on trying to exert control over women’s bodies a little more. It manipulates them into thinking they look less attractive with something as natural as body hair.
Instagram artist Indu Harikumar is having none of it. In her project ‘Body of Stories’, Harikumar recounts a tale from a Kerala woman who embraced her body hair. “After many, many years of conflict with my real self, I somehow made peace with my body. I started wearing skirts at the beach and capris at home, irrespective of whether my legs were waxed or not. People still stare, some shower insults, some make fun of my beard and mooch but I am less affected,” the essay reads.
It might sound more feminist to not shave, but many times a non-shaved body is not as much an act of defiance as it is a way to let your hair down and simply, live.
Co-published with Firstpost