Choosing to have visible body hair may be unremarkable in the city I live, but it often causes insensitive comments when I travel.
The decision to stop removing my body hair was a simple one. I was sick of wasting time, money, and brain space on the pursuit. I was sick of feeling self-conscious as my hair grew out. Sick of adhering to someone else’s idea of what femininity looks like: smooth and hairless legs, underarms, and bikini lines. I was expected to perform desirable femininity (by removing this hair) and, for a long time, I did because it helped me fit in and be accepted by society. It wasn’t until I was older and started to question my hair removal did I feel compelled to make a change. Yes, I wanted to be accepted, but on my own terms—not everyone else’s.
After moving from Canada, I had been living in the UK for a couple of years when I made the decision to quit removing my body hair. The city I live in is one of the most alternative in the country, so I didn’t anticipate any problems, though I was still cautious. Historically, society has not been very accepting of bucking gender norms. Hair removal as far back as ancient Rome has served as a status signifier, particularly by white, middle-to-upper class women. But people in my city are more accepting of the quirky, strange, and unusual. I’m lucky in that way. Or maybe I chose this place for that very reason.
In the 6+ years since I moved here, I’ve plucked, threaded, or waxed only a handful of times. I’ve never been harassed for being hairy, even when I’ve worn dresses, shorts, and skirts with my leg and armpit hair on full display. Sure, at first I would look around to suss out if it was safe. I was used to men yelling sexualized comments from cars or getting harassed on the street, so I was always aware of my surroundings. But eventually, I accepted that no one cared as much about my body hair as I did. Or if they did, they kept their opinions to themselves like the polite people the British are known to be.
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They Say You Can Never Go Home
I love traveling back to my hometown in Romania and visiting family members. Eating the food of my childhood and developing new memories as an adult. Visiting helped me confront my feelings of not being “Romanian enough” because I left when I was 6 years old, and my mother tongue is anything but fluent. I dressed differently than the other Romanian women, their curious looks signaling that I had not managed to blend in. In a place where the older generation is used to having a full face of makeup, hair styled, and wearing heels high to go to the grocery store, I was an anomaly. And my body hair made it worse.
I was waiting to cross the street once with my partner and I heard a woman talking to her friend. “Can you believe she left the house looking like that?”I knew she was talking about me because I’d seen her look me up and down, staring at my legs and my armpit hair as I raised my arm to shield my eyes from the sun. I was proudly wearing a dress I’d made myself. It was pink with black swallows repeating throughout. It billowed and in the heat of that day, I was grateful for the breeze. I’d brought it especially to show my grandma; I knew she would appreciate it as someone who used to make her own clothes. I don’t know whether that woman commenting on my appearance thought I couldn’t understand her because I was foreign, or if she knew I was Romanian and wanted to shame me. Either way, it was blatant.
I explained to my partner what she’d said and he was shocked. He couldn’t believe that someone would be so rude. I felt sick and shaky. To say that it ruined our day would be an understatement. After I got over the initial shock and shame, I felt angry. Enraged, even. How dare this stranger comment on what I chose to do with my body? Make me feel ashamed because I wasn’t conforming to her idea of femininity?
That wasn’t my only experience of being shamed for my body hair in Romania. After visiting the capital city for the first time as an adult, my partner and I went to an out-of-town flea market. We’d heard good things about it and wanted to carry on our tradition of visiting local markets when traveling. This one was full of fake branded clothes and shoes, with music blaring from every direction. It was clearly for locals and non-tourists. I knew we wouldn’t buy anything but it was nice looking around. Then suddenly someone walked past me and muttered something about how disgusting I was. I wasn’t wearing anything out of the ordinary or doing anything wrong, so I knew she must have been referencing my body hair. It was another hot day and I was wearing a sleeveless top. My critic had long black hair and was dressed like a Kardashian, the reality-star women who are considered the pinnacle Western standards of modern feminity. Again, it was unclear whether she meant for me to understand what she’d said. Either way, it made me vulnerable and embarrassed. We left soon after.
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It’s not just the individual words that hurt (though they did), it was the fact that it made me feel scared to dress the way I wanted. I felt self-conscious and wanted to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself for fear that it would happen again. When we later traveled to Spain and Malta, I would fret over what I was wearing. Was it worth wearing a dress if someone was going to comment on it and ruin our day? On one beach holiday in Croatia, I was terrified of wearing just my bathing suit to go swimming. I began to assume I would get harassed everywhere I went, with the trauma of my previous experiences etched in my mind leaving me on constant high alert.
It wasn’t specific to the country I was in, but I knew that my decision to keep my body hair was not a mainstream one. I imagined mothers yelling at me for exposing their children to a woman’s body hair. I began compiling my defense in my head. I was prepared not to understand their words but imagined I would perceive their sentiment. Luckily, no one said or did anything. I felt relieved but never fully comfortable, the mental hoops I’d put myself through just to prepare for wearing a bathing suit in public was enough to exhaust me and suck the joy out of the experience.
Home Is Where You Feel Safest
These experiences made me realize how lucky I am to live in a city where I don’t have to think twice before walking out of my door. In a place where I’ve had friends and exes tell me they thought armpit hair on a woman was sexy, I am free to be myself.
I’m never more aware that I live in a bubble than when I travel. All of the social constructs, including how a woman’s body hair should look, that I normally lay down must be picked up once again. I am conscious of how I will be perceived, where and if danger lurks. I know that if someone comments on my body hair, I have to be silent to avoid the situation escalating or risk further humiliation. Interestingly, I’ve only been harassed by women. I’ve never felt physically afraid, though their voices were full of vitriol, and the prelude to violence often begins with a verbal confrontation
I am a cis, white, able-bodied woman. I’m lucky I can even consider bucking the societal expectations in place for women because that option is often not a choice for women of color, disabled women, or trans women. Too often, women must conform to societal norms for their own safety, whether at home or traveling. While my body hair may garner the occasional raised eyebrow and insensitive comment, I still have the option of not shaving.
I want to show little girls, teenagers, and other adult women that having body hair is normal and that it should be your choice to keep it or remove it. We teach girls that they have autonomy over their bodies, but is this true when there are unspoken societal constraints that keep them shaving, tweezing, and plucking? I wish I had seen someone who had visible body hair when I was younger. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so ashamed of displaying my own.