Lately, I’ve been thinking about my armpit hair.
While self-isolating during the pandemic’s infancy, I decided to stop shaving my armpit hair. My normally groomed appearance was in jeopardy, but it was a great relief to unburden myself of this commitment. My daily personal interactions were limited to laptop conversations with my face ironed onto the virtual screen; the rest of my body was shielded by the monitor’s perimeter. For months on end, no one could see how much weight I’d gained or how much body hair I’d grown. So…what was the harm in pausing this small portion of my grooming routine?
In this new world of virtual communication, my obsessive body anxieties were pushed to the periphery of my mind, much like my body itself was pushed to the edge of my computer screen. Tossing out my rigorous grooming routine felt more than just relaxing -- it was cathartic.
Where I used to shave every other day to prevent stubble from sprouting from my otherwise baby-soft skin, I spent my entire sophomore year witnessing the irrepressible growth of my armpit hair. Alone in my bedroom, I would lift my arms and scrutinize the wild and uncultivated curls, fascinated by their length and density. I realized I had never seen my skin so bare, yet so hairy. I was perfectly content with -- even surprised by -- my thick, bushy armpit hair.
Then, a year later, I moved back on campus.
I thought I’d return to school with the newfound self-acceptance I’d nurtured during my isolation; after all, I’d cultivated not only my armpit hair, but a resolute sense of confidence in who I was, sans shaving.
But the day before the start of the semester, I put myself back on the stringent grooming routine I’d halted for an entire year. I shaved off a year’s worth of hair with such vigor that my skin bled from the many small cuts my razor left behind. This was evidence of my “zero tolerance policy”: I refused to accept even a barely perceptible dash of pepper.
Despite my rigorous routine, I was still anxious. Were tiny sprouts of hair peeking out from under my arms -- especially on tank-top or sleeveless-shirt days? At the gym, I tried to stay away from exercises that would require me to raise my arms when I wore sleeveless gym gear. Sometimes I found myself putting on a sleeveless shirt and checking my body out in front of the bathroom mirror, only to toss it back into my closet in favor of something that would cover half of my arms.
I was hugely disappointed by how controlling I had become over my grooming routine now that I was back on campus. I began to interrogate myself. Why was I so compelled to shave off my armpit hair only when I knew I would be in the company of others? What was so repulsive about showing my armpit hair in public? Who was I shaving for exactly?
These are rhetorical questions, the answers to which I already knew. When it came to my public appearance, I was fully aware of my problematic association of “respectability” with “femininity.” The truth is, associations like these are taught from a very young age. I grew up being incredibly self-conscious of my appearance, and I started to shave my armpit hair immediately when I hit puberty. Growing up, I equated my appearance with self-respect: the feeling of having smooth and clean armpits made me feel content and worthy of successfully conforming to what was expected of me as a girl and now a woman. Such conformity meant that my self-worth depended on the level I depreciated my body, and quite frankly, I did not have the self-esteem to be comfortable in my own skin.
Body hair was a nuisance. It was unattractive on women but acceptable on men. In order to feel attractive or complete in my body, I needed to get rid of natural and essential parts of myself that I considered to be indecent and shameful. I was guilty of harboring this internalized shame. I fervently pursued grooming routines for fear of being considered unattractive or singled out for poor hygiene. And yet, I was also left dumbfounded on what comes next. What was I supposed to feel after being clean-shaven?
A few years ago, I remember reading about an Australian campaign called “Get Hairy February” that encouraged women to stop shaving their body hair for the entire month. With the intention of destigmatizing the natural female body, the campaign simultaneously raised funds for a nonprofit called Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia. In a similar vein, many female celebrities around the world leveraged their social media platforms to post natural bathroom selfies and advocate for the normalization of female body hair. Articles from Glamour, Elle, to People would also boast titles such as “Body Hair, Don’t Care! Stars Who Aren’t Shy About Showing Off Their Underarm and Leg Hair.”
What interested and saddened me about this movement was that we even needed a movement at all. Why did we need celebrity selfies and exaggerated headlines to encourage women to free themselves from the shackles of their bodily expectations?
We live in a society in which female bodies are a battleground for liberation, and we are constantly struggling to navigate -- and, with any luck, reject -- the restrictive ideals that are treated as gospels. Like many women, I’m a product of social norms and mores that seek to govern my appearance and ingrain in me how to feel inadequate in my body.
In a perfect world, female bodies would not be mediated or restricted by society; neither would it be considered revolutionary, rebellious, radical, or fearless for women to simply show their bodies in their natural state. Having body hair would not be considered an act of confrontation against society’s rigid idea of femininity. To shave or not to shave would be a simple matter of personal preference.
As I contemplated my sometimes-unpleasant relationship with my appearance, I recognized the need to pursue a path of vigorous love for my body because I do not need to have a “clean-looking” body in order to earn self-respect.
This is a difficult journey, to say the least, and I’ve seen more setbacks than progress. My mind operates in interesting ways: sometimes I am bombarded by my insecurities and find it difficult to commit to this self-love. Sometimes my bushy armpit hair makes me feel undesirable, unhygienic, ugly. Then there are times when I feel a surge of empowerment at the sight of my armpit hair’s resilient growth; this makes me feel more secure, as though my body is asserting itself, and letting me know that it will always accompany me on my journey toward self-acceptance.
Admitting that I am learning to love myself is such a bittersweet sentiment because self-deprecation is deeply ingrained in me. My long-term goal is to be unapologetic and content with the hair in my armpits, and to navigate a restrictive world freely and courageously.
I have not achieved some impressive internal revolution in which I no longer concern myself with beauty standards and social norms. I am also not suggesting that I have grown to fully accept my body or even that I am comfortable with going unshaven. This is not a self-reflection that ends with ownership or bodily reclamation. While I have pared back on my shaving regimen, I still shave occasionally, and I still feel insecure about my body. But I am constantly re-evaluating my habits and routines to ensure I’m not conforming to sexist beauty standards -- and I’m trying to discard the ingrained ruminations that make me feel vulnerable and less-than. I reject the assumption that female body hair is unattractive or unclean, and I remind myself to be more accepting of my appearance.
I have a love-hate relationship with my armpit hair, but I’m cultivating a healthier relationship with it.