To Shave Or Not to Shave

To Shave Or Not to Shave

I shaved under my arms last Saturday.

That’s not a happening that generally merits a tweet, or for that matter an Instagram post. For me, though, it’s a pretty big deal. Because years ago, in my impressionable and dogmatic twenties, I resolved that I would never again shave where the sun don’t shine.

Image Credit: Matt Erasmus

I had my reasons. Feminism was one of them: a steady stream of Ms. magazines (the first issue plopped on our doorstep when I was 10), women’s studies classes and sister rabble-rousers had convinced me that mascara, depilatories and hair dye were all meant to make women feel bad about looking like themselves.

By 25, I’d stopped trying to straighten my naturally kinky hair (left to its own devices, it scrambled into a Jew-fro). I gave the makeup mirror (with three-way lighting) to the Salvation Army. I dressed to please myself — Army-green pants and a polo shirt one day, backless sundress and sandals the next.

But let my leg and underarm hair go wild? That was a harder sell.

I’d been shaving my legs, after all, since age 14; I’d grown used to silky hillocks of calf and thigh, the beautifully bland smoothness once the poufs of shaving cream rinsed away. Shaving was part of the routine, like cleaning my contact lenses or flossing my teeth: wet foot propped on the sink; little bundles of hair spinning down the drain; the inevitable nicked ankle with its scribble of blood, a tuft of toilet paper pressed on to stanch the flow.

It was time-consuming. It was expensive. It was what women did.

Until I stopped, buoyed by feminist friends and a sizzling critique of what we used to call The Patriarchy. I gathered up my remaining Lady Schicks and tossed them in the trash, where they wouldn’t biodegrade for a hundred zillion years.

Did I feel liberated? Sort of. My showers were shorter — something I’m sure my five housemates appreciated. I spent less money on shaving gel and razors. I felt as though I’d joined the sisterhood. But at first, I felt whoppingly self-conscious, strolling the streets of Portland, Oregon, with stubbled calves. I imagined every eye fixed on my legs, with their meadows of lengthening black hair. I imagined the hair growing and growing — Would it stop? It would stop, right? — until my limbs were as furry as a chimpanzee’s.

It was worse when I came home for a visit, and my parents’ eyes traveled from my double-pierced left ear to the tendrils at the armholes of my sleeveless top to the dark down carpeting my shins. Their faces pinched in dismay. Their mouths said, “Hi, honey — welcome home.”

I’d stopped shaving my bikini line, too, and since Land’s End hadn’t yet invented those mixy-matchy bathing suits with modesty skirts, I pulled on my usual one-piece, never mind the hairs waving immodestly from below. Then I braved the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey, in all my hirsute glory.

People stared, jerked their eyes away, then let them drift back in my direction. I saw teenaged girls elbow their boyfriends and whisper. I heard my own cousin reassure my mother that not shaving was “probably a stage Anndee’s going through.” She nodded, apparently relieved.

Except it wasn’t a stage. Gradually, not-shaving became my default position; hairiness, my comfort zone. I started to like the feel, and even the look, of my unshorn body. My leg and underarm hair was soft, not coarse. It kept my armpit from sticking to itself in humid weather. My lovers liked its gentle tickle, its musky scent.

And I did feel liberated, not exactly from The Patriarchy — which, as far as I could tell, was still alive and kicking — but from the Sisyphean task of engaging in a battle I would inevitably lose. No matter how many razor strokes or slatherings of Nair or painful pulls of hot wax (yes, I’d tried that, too) I endured, I was never going to end up with permanently hair-free legs and underarms.

Shaving wasn’t just spendy and labor-intensive, it was a collective lie; I didn’t see the point of colluding any more. Still, I was no purist. I altered my body in ways both fleeting and permanent: the ear piercings (all three of them), the every-other-month professional haircut and — oh, yeah — the nose job I had at 15 to smooth the bump that had earned me the middle-school nickname of “suicide slope.”

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