I’ll take “interesting” over “pretty” any day.
Warm weather is finally here, which also means wedding season is upon us. With it, there is a special burden on the appearance of women and gender non-conforming folks.
The biggest question for me is always: Will I shave my leg hair this time? People have mostly gotten used to my lack of high heels and ever-present glasses, but the occasional comments on those issues don’t get to me like the question of my body hair. Armpit hair comes up as well, but it’s often less visible, or at least less remarked upon in my experience.
My leg hair is not: insulting, unhygienic, a judgment on your choices for your body, a threat, a burden for my partners, incongruous with my occasional eyebrow wax or wearing of lipstick, or a declaration of sexual orientation.
Some days it feels silly, especially when I’m in my cocoon of Social Justice Warriors, especially those of the femme, trans, and women persuasion. After all, letting my body hair grow is the default state, so shouldn’t people who remove it be the ones answering the questions?
But other times, I feel the full weight of it. Like when I find out my body hair has been a repeated topic of discussion among family members, when women confront me on it in public, and when groups of men and women stand around my brother’s kitchen using my body hair as a pretense to dissect every aspect of my physical appearance, tallying whether each choice is a manifestation or betrayal of my feminism.
In a way, my leg hair is political regardless of how I view it. The fact that it is more than stubble, that I often don’t hide it, that I won’t apologize for it, that I wear it with short skirts and tank tops with plunging necklines as well as long shorts, concert tees, and men’s shoes. My leg and armpit hair isn’t an accident or oversight. I was not in a rush, and I didn’t forget my razor.
My leg hair is a visible rejection of the kinds of rigid gender norms that give us gender sex reveal parties, a landscape devoid of action-oriented toys for girls, the expectation that boys never empathize with girls, and the assumption that there are only two options when it comes to gender. It’s a rejection of people who want to interpret my leg hair as a declaration of sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s a way of complicating what many people think it means to be a woman. It’s a way of showing my cousins that there is more than one way to be a woman, and they can choose whichever twisting, turning path works for them. It is simultaneously a way of rejecting beauty standards and reclaiming the word “beautiful” to mean someone who looks like me, just the way I am.
Sometimes I downplay my long leg hair as mere laziness. There’s a truth there; I genuinely don’t enjoy the task, and for the last few years I have mostly forgotten to do it. But forgetting is a luxury that is hard-won, and not a luxury available to all. I can only forget because of how I’ve forged my social circles, because of the time I’ve spent training my brain not to be embarrassed by something that never should have embarrassed me in the first place, because I’m willing to take the risk and because my privilege allows me to withstand the consequences. I know that, like all women, I pay a tangible penalty for the ways I choose not to conform to beauty standards that require not only hours of work but the appearance of effortlessness, adding insult to injury. I also know that it’s easier for me to flout these social norms than other people, such as women of color, trans women, fat people, gender non-conforming people, and visibly queer folks.
I still mostly shave when it’s time for the most traditional landmarks in life: baby showers, wedding showers, and weddings—the same times I am pressured to put on contacts, wear makeup, force my flat feet into high heels, put on Spanx, and try to make myself conform to mainstream white beauty standards as much as possible. There are many things on that list I won’t do, or only do if I feel like it. But at these traditional events, even if they’re hosted by non-traditional people, my decisions regarding my physical appearance rarely go without comment. I know that I get the most compliments when I wear contacts, look the least fat, and do the no-makeup makeup look. The compliments don’t bother me when they’re genuine and from friends or family. But taken in the aggregate, when compared to the lack of compliments the rest of the time, it’s clear how the majority of my family and friends would prefer to see me.
But for me and many others, there is more to life than meeting those expectations. I’ll take “interesting” over “pretty” any day. And when well-intentioned men helpfully inform me that they think women look better without makeup anyway, I know that they’re terrible judges of whether we’re wearing makeup, and that I’d rather have a bold look than something that took hours to look like a “flawless” version of myself. Because my freckles aren’t flaws, and neither are my round parts.
For those of us who want to grow our body hair out but fear the professional ramifications, the ridicule, or just can’t shoulder the emotional weight of it right now, I see you. For those folks with facial hair, an ever more transgressive physical appearance, I see you. For those who already have too many strikes against you just for being who you are, so you really can’t risk it, I see you. For those who cover their body hair, those who want to one day grow it but aren’t there yet, and those who happily shave/wax/Nair, I see you, too.
Let’s raise a glass to valuing each other and ourselves for how we choose to look, not how the world wants us to. For making the outside match the inside, and doing our best in a system that is stacked against us. For compliments focused on our choices, our confidence, and our minds, rather than the genetic lottery. Here’s to the hairy legs, the cat-eye makeup, the people shaking their jelly without any Spanx, and those waxing their faces. I think we look fabulous.
Delia Harrington is a writer, documentary photographer and feminist activist. Her writing focuses on social justice, gender-based violence, pop culture and travel, and can be found on Wanderful, Go Overseas, Stop Street Harassment and her blog. You can find her on twitter and instagram.