Emer O'Toole shows off her under arm hair on morning TV in the UK.
Recently, Irish writer Emer O'Toole issued something of a call to arms in London's Vagenda Magazine. She encouraged women to press pause on their hair removal regimes and contemplate the idea of letting hair do what it does best; grow. An article in the Guardian followed and then an appearance on breakfast television, upon which Emer raised her arms and proudly showed the effects of not taking a razor to her armpits for eighteen months. Effects which are, let's face it, quite natural. Because, let's face it once more, growing hair is quite natural, despite the overwhelming belief otherwise.
The result of Emer's tussocky arms being broadcast to a breakfasting England was an uproar of mixed sentiment. Many people applauded her, revealing their own struggle with the assumption women should be permanently bald, save for their sumptuous lashes and extended head hair but most, predictably, in one collective recoil, yelled 'GROSS.' Men and women alike shrieked, hair should not grow there! That is unnatural! It isn't feminine! There we were in 2012, appalled at female underarm hair and instead of taking a long, hard look at ourselves for being appalled by something quite ordinary and female, behaving as if the the very crux of femininity was under direct attack.
Emer's arms and the public's response demonstrated just how far removed we have come from the idea of women having body hair. So removed, that women who leave their hair – who let their bodies do what their bodies do – are 'brave' at best, 'offensive' at worst. Brave – as if sitting back and saying no to regular, painful procedures involving hot wax, electric pulses and blades is brave. Brave – because it is so terrifying to exist in a natural state in an age that so relentlessly promotes what is unnatural. When you think about it, it is all entirely, utterly bizarre.
Save for patches, history's female landscape is remarkably smooth. Thousands of years before Americans, Australians and the British began shaving their arms for the fashions of the early 1900s, wealthy ancient Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern women were pumicing and plucking, their smoothness symbolic of their class. In these third wave days, off the back of a century of shaving, waxing, Silky Mitting (remember them) and lasering ads - the hirsute 70s the only decade really flying the follicle flag - and the normalisation of porn star waxes that remove every pubic hair you could conceive of growing, we have a different take on body hair. The body hair conversation is no longer just predicated on the knowledge women have hair and the subsequent opinion they are more aesthetically pleasing if they remove or contain it to the line of a classic brief – it now seems to be predicated on the presumption to be female is to be utterly hairless the vast majority of the time and hair that does dare sprout from surfaces not scalp-related should not just be contained, but completely removed. Eviscerated by preferably permanent means.
The latest hair removal 'craze' to have everyone aflutter is the 'virgin waxes' for pre-pubescents, which operate on the basis that ripping out virgin hair will discourage its growth, leading to smoother pins with less maintenance. It is a horrible concept, that feminine hairlessness is being drummed into the malleable minds of pre-teens, but I think I was about twelve when I took a blade to my poor little legs and did a hatchet job of removing their golden hairs. I did it, despite my mother's gentle warnings against it, because I hated having hairy legs - girls weren't supposed to have hairy legs. And I absolutely shredded my shins. But that's by the by, my point is so-called virgin waxes aren't proposing a new, shocking idea; they are just reinforcing an old one via a more painful method. And if most of us are whipping out a pink five-blade-with-gel-pillows at twelve, what chance to we stand of ever fully understanding what a female body looks like when left alone? Not much. Which may go some way to explaining our reactions to the appearance of female body hair in the public arena.
Half the time, when someone breaks ranks and flashes some hair, I can't help but feel we're gasping the gasp of seeing some mythical creature for the first time. We have been smooth for so long, on TV, in film, in magazines – where our armpits resemble bizarre stretches of skin-toned smoothness, devoid of anything that might identify it as an armpit – that reactions to hair are ones of genuine surprise (mixed in with the general 'GROSS'). I know I studied Emer's armpits for a good while, whispering to myself, 'so that's what it looks like' and such a reaction dismays me. Why don't I know what a female arm pit in its most natural state looks like? I know what it looks like when I can't be bothered with a razor for a while, but not what it would look like if razors never became part of 'standard female maintenance.' Who else got a little shock when Kate Winslet hopped out of the bath in The Reader and revealed a hairy arm pit? Who didn't gasp at Julia whose pits in that photo threatened to overshadow an entire career. As for Mo'Nique's legs at the Golden Globes a couple of years ago, they got more coverage than the fact she actually won a damn Globe. Who cares about the Globe! She had hairy legs! No self respecting woman trots hairy pins down the red carpet, it's ugly, it's unladylike, it's embarrassing.
If you ask people, they'll tend to say 'it's a choice'. They'll point to the fact it is largely considered more aesthetically pleasing. That a smooth gam protruding from a short skirt is a more pleasant sight to behold than a hairy one. There's also the idea that the more smooth we are as women, the further removed we are from men, therefore setting up and reinforcing accessible, visible gender norms. But it isn't, really, a choice any more, is it? It's an expectation and that is far, far more unattractive than a hairy arm pit.