“You have more of a mustache than I do!” At the time, hearing this from a boy in my seventh-grade class was devastating, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he was picking on me of all people (I had thought we were cool, honestly). After taking a quick look around, I saw that few other girls I knew had the same kind or amount of body hair that I did, and there weren’t women with body hair on my mom’s copies of Vanity Fair or in my episodes of Wizards of Waverly Place (unless they were werewolves…was I a werewolf?). Even the women in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead were shaving their underarms. This was in 2012, before widespread discussions of gender fluidity and fourth-wave feminism. Have we progressed beyond these middle school taunts? Is openly depicting and discussing body hair enough? I’m glad you asked.
First, let’s talk about the most common representation of body hair in film and television: its removal. In most television shows and movies, discussions of body hair center around the logistics and inevitable complications of getting rid of it (or, in Miranda from Sex in the City’s case, being brutally shamed for not removing it). Don’t get me wrong, this is already a huge deal for women who have silently struggled against the pink tax on razors and painful hair removal treatments. Just seeing a representation of your battle of keeping your body hair at bay can be incredibly validating. Some of the most iconic movie scenes are of men shaving (heck, the entire plot of Sweeney Todd centers around it), and only recently have we started seeing the same treatment given to the other half-ish of the population (who make up the majority of the square footage of total shaved skin, if we’re getting technical).
While depictions of body hair are limited to waxing and shaving scenes, occasionally studios have been “bold” enough to let their hair down. Some period pieces have stayed true to the lack of hair removal of the time in which they take place (Kate Winslet famously wore a merkin to imitate pubic hair while filming 2008’s The Reader, set in 1950s Germany), and some contemporary projects have begun to introduce feminine characters with visible body hair.
In the past ten years, the amount of female body hair (primarily underarm hair) seen in movies and television shows has increased massively alongside the discussions of its removal. Know that I use the word “massively” in the same way that a “massive” increase of 1.5 degrees Celcius (a relatively low amount) can cause irreversible global climate damage. In other words, we have gone from nothing to something, and that’s huge. But a quick survey of the characters who “go natural” reveals an unsurprising pattern.
Only the most radical of women are permitted to grow out visible body hair (think free-spirited, Urban Outfitters-bohemian-chic Jessa Johansson in Girls), creating this inescapable link between being nonconformist and having body hair. This is unsurprising, given that foregoing shaving is often associated with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s (Gwenyth Paltrow even referenced this era when discussing her decision to stop shaving her pubic hair). Does that mean that shaving makes you an anti-women patriarchy-lover? Not necessarily, but the conversation seems to skew that way.
Today, the discussion around body hair and feminism is a tricky one. At its core, feminism strives to present all genders with equal rights, choices, and opportunities. While this includes the right to decide to throw pink plastic razors into the abyss, it also includes the decision to keep shaving. Shaving does not make someone a “bad feminist.” Period. Expecting a woman to shave because her body hair is “gross” or “unsightly,” on the other hand, does make you a bad feminist.
Of course, attitudes are on a spectrum, and the pattern of women who feel comfortable occupying the “natural” side of the spectrum reveals another unfortunate reality. In the overwhelming majority of shows that depict a character with underarm hair (very rarely are other kinds of body hair shown), the character shunning shaving was white. I have white, fair-haired friends who have likewise grown out their body hair in recent years and, on the whole, are given little grief about it. While I can try to tell myself that if they can do it, I can too, the reality is much more complicated.
My body hair is thick, dark, and densely distributed around my entire body. I don’t have whisps of cotton candy under my arms or leg hair that becomes nothing but baby’s breath above my knee. I have to shave my lower face every other day to avoid legitimately prickly stubble and will always have a kind of five-o’clock-shadow wherever I shave. This is the reality for many women of color and is most noticeable on those with high-contrast features (darker hair and lighter skin). Are these two patterns (radicalism and white nonconformity) connected? Unsurprisingly, yes.
It is not a secret that white women are given the most freedom to be nonconformists in a world where conformity matches their skin tone. Since being a woman of color somehow already distances you from conformity, any other steps that you take to “radicalize” are likely to be seen as an offense. If a white woman grows out her underarm hair, it’s radical and eccentric (“I basically am feminism,” says Ella, discussing her armpit hair in Please Like Me S4E1). If a woman of color grows out her underarm hair, it signals a distance from goodliness (see: evil incarnate Lenny’s decaying, corpse-like body sporting unshaven underarms in Legion S1E8). Shocked? Me neither.
While it is difficult to estimate the actual numbers, a 2022 study by market research company Mintel reported that the number of women under 25 who regularly shave their underarms is currently around 75%, a significant decrease from 95% in 2013. With the trend moving in this direction, it would seem to be in entertainment’s best interest to reflect this new standard, but we are a long way from the “au naturale” representation and normalization we need (especially if we look at the other ways that the entertainment industry fails in the representation arena). Finding examples of body hair depiction in popular films and television for this piece alone was pretty difficult.
I want to state for the record: I am not against shaving. I do it when I feel I need to, which means not at all unless I plan on entering a space where I anticipate being judged for not conforming (as I grow older, the list of those places dwindles). Shaving’s not all bad, anyway. It can exfoliate, increase the absorption of skincare products, and decrease body odor and excessive moisture, all of which are essential facets of self-care. But shaving’s position as a staple of femininity and attractiveness is outdated and reductive. Cut it out. Pun intended.