On the face of it, being a rather hairy woman isn’t a terribly big deal in 2019. We live in an era where accepted beauty standards are being challenged, where scars and cellulite and wrinkles and greys have all been welcomed into the realm of not just acceptable, but as something worthy of being celebrated, to be shared across social media, even, should you be so inclined.
But, somehow, it still is sort of a big deal. This, I know personally. I’m very hairy as a result of PCOS -associated hirsutism, which results in extra hair growth thanks to excess androgens in the body, and because I am the daughter of a very hairy Hungarian father who passed that strand of his DNA on to me. The result: much hair. Mostly in the usual places, but with extra prominent ones on my chin and upper lip. I also know it professionally as a journalist; hair and the presence or absence of it is currently the subject of furious debate.
Case in point: only last week, Jameela Jamil pointed her Twitter followers to a shoot for Glitter Magazine in which she was featured with a downy covering of forearm hair. Her gleeful caption read, "hello arm hairs. You used to always be Photoshopped out. Nice to see you again. Because you’re a normal and fine thing to have."
It lead to dozens of comments from women who said they’d been ashamed and bullied at school for their arm hair and that those comments had remained with them in adulthood.
And Jameela’s completely right. Of course she is. We’re mammals. Mammals have hair. End of. But hair, and how much we have, and where it is, and what colour and texture it is, evokes powerful feelings. Because it is incredibly hard to cast off entrenched social norms and years of being told that hair isn’t just hair but that it’s also indicative of one’s intimate habits.
That said, the landscape has changed enormously. Once upon a time, going to a beach or having sex with a new partner without diligently ridding oneself of almost all body hair would’ve been inconceivable. That’s just not the case anymore. A straw poll of ten friends revealed that those who'd once been Brazilian wax-dependent had now embraced a resplendent bush (albeit with neatened edges). The responses from my Instagram followers on the topic spoke of a huge shift in attitude: 41 per cent had given up the battle to be hair-free, with 36 per cent letting not just their bush but all other bodily hairs grow, and eight per cent also letting their facial hair – from peach fuzz to more prominent upper lip hair – grow out.
The question of representation is vitally important when considering who – or what – was behind the belief that hair had to be whisked away. Both porn and pop stars of the noughties created an expectation that every woman should be hair-free. Contrast that with recent movements such as @Janu_hairy, set up by 21-year-old Exeter University student Laura Jackson to encourage women to grow out their body hair and raise money for charity, which went global. And the rise of the term Big Bush Energy, describing the effect growing an abundant pubic bush has on self-esteem and, by extension, the energy you project into the world. It's becoming apparent that voices like these and unretouched bodies like Jamil’s are crucial if we’re to take the taboo out of being a hairy woman.
I was once terribly ashamed of my hairiness because my family are all blonde and barely hairy. I felt masculine, less attractive
Much as I know that hair is natural and a good thing to hang onto when you consider that it is there to help regulate temperature and to provide some protection from the elements, my feelings towards my own body hair are complex. I am a staunch feminist, always have been. But I’ve spent many hours of my adult life plucking, threading, shaving, waxing, and lasering. Oh and unearthing ingrown hairs, which, granted, is kind of satisfying when you get the little sods out. But doing it again and again is frustrating and often leaves scars behind.
I recently had some success with lasers, diligently using a SmoothSkin Muse IPL machine at home every Sunday for 12 weeks in a bid to free myself from the rigours of removing hair and it works enormously well but only for so long. Like zombies in a rubbish horror film, my hairs just act dead until I have put away the lasers and weapons, whereupon they spring up angrily.
Reading this, you may wonder why I ever bother. Writing it, I do too.
The answer lies tangled in my past. I was once terribly ashamed of my hairiness possibly because, my Dad aside, my family are all blonde and barely hairy, and the few hairs they have are pale and so didn’t sit starkly against their skin. When my rather dark hairs started sprouting, I felt anomalous. Being hairy made me feel masculine, less attractive. And so from the age of about 14, I started to shave my armpits, legs, bikini line and took to bleaching my upper lip. My rule of thumb became to leave any downy hairs, but anything coarse and resembling pubic hairs should be ripped out with alacrity. And this became a habit.
Today, my adult, intellectual self knows that my being hairy is just the way I’m designed, but I simply feel more ‘put together’ when I’m not, in the same way that I feel better wearing makeup. Surely the crusade for equality has to encompass the freedom to make choices, and I choose not to feel like I’m failing if I wax or shave or zap my legs with a laser (when I can be bothered, I am a slightly fair-weather groomer, you see).
While I applaud Jameela, not everyone is able to take on every cause, nor should they be made to feel bad for not doing so. I am not about to overturn every part of my routine that makes me feel desirable or beautiful - even if there’s a whiff of societal conditioning in there. And, for me, this is one part of my grooming regime that will remain for now, while those hairs will categorically not.
Follow Madeleine Spencer on Instagram @madeleinelovesthis