I can’t remember exactly when I first shaved the hair off my underarms. I’m pretty sure mine had barely begun to grow before I begged my mum to let me have a razor so I could start to shave like all the other girls. Among my friends a kind of pre-teen hive mind had lurched into being. Shaving, along with wearing a training bra for your non-existent boobs and competing to be the first to start your period, was the holy trinity of being, like, super grown up.
The irony is that now I would do almost anything to get out of two of those three. Shaving my pits, however, had stuck with me through teenage angst to my only-slightly-less angsty early twenties without me more than vaguely questioning it.
Even when I went to uni and started to vocally identify as a feminist, I didn’t chuck in the razor. I enviously admired the hippy-lite aesthetic of the girls in the feminist societies on campus. They were all cute pixie cuts, vegan doc martens and and light puffs of underarm fluff. My own body was all unruly curves and my hair even unrulier curls.
Getting a short hair cut and defiantly growing a luxuriant crop of pit-hair would, I feared, make me look less riot grrrl and more, well, ungirly. While I love the androgynous look on other people, I like to think I put the ‘femme’ in feminism.
Even as the wonderful, empowered and fuzzy-pitted women in my feminist social circle encouraged me to try it, I dug my heels. I countered with every argument I could think of.
Hairy armpits belonged to the tired, bra-burning stereotypes of our problematic feminist foremothers I was striving to separate my own personal brand of feminism from. Campaigning for armpit equality was up there with #FreeTheNipple on the list of Stuff White Feminists™ Spend Too Much Time Over. I just liked shaving, okay? It was my choice.
But a year out of university I was beginning to question said supposed choices. Was I a bad feminist? Would letting it grow lead me to a deeper, truer understanding of myself as a woman? My Best Feminist Friend confided that in growing out her own arm hair it had taken her years and at least two love affairs for her to become comfortable with the natural state of her body. Maybe I secretly hated my hairy body.
And so I laid down my razor. And I waited. And waited. Like waiting for your hair to grow back after a bad cut, waiting for my underarm hair to grow when I wanted it to suddenly seemed to take ages.
When it did finally begin to grow, it wasn’t anywhere near as bushy and wild as I was expecting. In fact, I was deeply underwhelmed by the whole thing. I felt no loathing or disgust at my natural form. I was disappointingly indifferent to it. No one stared at me in the street or shunned me on the tube. People did not shrink from me in horror. No evil capitalist advertising executive sprung out from behind a bin to market me a sugar-pink razor designed to keep my horrid, un-womanly arm-pubes in check. There was no journey of personal growth to report over the growth of a few patches of hair.
The only person who did seem to care, it seemed, was my razor. I began to find it sat on the sink next to my toothbrush with a pathetic little Post-It note imploring me to take it back.
It was not in fact a sentient shaver come to life, but my long term boyfriend. He alone was perturbed by Operation Armpit. I gleefully seized the opportunity to denounce him as a brainwashed sexist. If you don’t want me as my naturally furry self, I smugly informed him, you don’t deserve me at my waxed. Could he not see that primped and plucked feminine beauty was a social construct designed to oppress women? Was his masculinity so fragile that it was threatened by his being attracted to a woman with - the horror - hairy pits?
The view from the moral high ground was beautiful. Until he countered with a threat to shave his sexy beard off and revealed me to be a hairy hypocrite. I love that beard, despite the patriarchal constructs of masculinity that lurk in its perfectly manicured depths. When you’re dating someone who gets a haircut once a fortnight and counts David Beckham as his style icon, you can hardly claim to shun the tyranny of gendered modern grooming when you clearly fancy the metrosexual pants off of it. I secretly love it when guys shave their armpits, too; you never risk waking up with hair that smells of slightly sweaty boy.
Still, I persevered with the self-imposed pruning-ban for another month until one day I got bored in the shower.
Reader, I shaved. No one broke down my door to take away my feminist card. I did not feel any more or less sexy. I was pleased to discover that, after a few months sabbatical from scraping my skin with sharp metal the delicate skin of my underarms was soft and healthy. My assiduous shaving had clearly been causing the ingrown hairs and dry skin that previously plagued my pits.
And this constant vigilance against the peril of fuzzy pits, I realised, was a hangover from my days of teenage insecurity. Teen-me had been so cringingly insecure, so horrified by my frizzy hair and terrible acne and braces (why, puberty gods, why?) that shaving off a few meagre patches of hair seemed like a desperate shot at not looking completely gross in front of cute boys. How many times before a date had I done a desperate dry shave over the sink? I remember once I even stooped so low as to nick one of said teen-boyfriend’s own razors to do the deed.
I realised that, when I finally left my underarms to do their own thing, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Somewhere between that first tentative shave and the ripe old age of 23 I had unwittingly become happy with how I look, regardless of the square acreage of body hair I have at any given time. I might shave, I might not, but in the end I’ve got more interesting things to worry about now.