Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Body Hair And Gender

I was going to write a funny post about the spring fashion trends in armpit hair:  do you bleach it, curl it, braid it or do you just use it as a noose to kill all those men you so obviously hate if you have armpit hair.  That's because of the new Veet ads which tried to argue that not having armpit or leg hair is an innate female characteristic.  But Veet, the honorable rat, pulled the ads, which left me nothing to write about.

Why waste a good post?  Topics having to do with leg hair or armpit hair or shaving off all your pubic hair don't rank terribly high in feminist importance, certainly not compared to stories like this one or this one or even this one.  Still, it is good to understand how we decide what being a woman should look like in various cultures, and body hair enters those definitions in pretty significant ways.  The most common rule is that women should have long hair on their heads and long eyelashes.  The rest of their bodies should preferably be completely hairless (with the exception of lines for eyebrows).

The same rules implicitly define what it means to look like a man in those same cultures, though you cannot get the male conventions as simply reversals of the female rules.

Several things about such rules are worth pointing out:  

First, the societal conventions turn incredibly rapidly into the kind of rear-brain loathing reactions towards anyone who has violated the rules.  This makes people interpret them as natural, as something that has always been true and always will be true.

As an example, I have read several recent Internet comments where the idea of pubic hair on women is used as an insult and as something revolting and disgusting, yet adult women usually do grow pubic hair, just as adult men do.  Likewise, in the US the assumptions that men should have very short hair and that women should shave their legs are both quite recent when put into a historical concept.  But the power those expectations have or have had is out of proportion to their purely cultural nature.

And I think the reason for the strength of such feelings is that they help in making men and women look more different from each other.  They can be added to the list of things one can use to tell someone's gender, and once they are in that list they become identified with biological differences.

Second, what is odd about the way body hair is conflated with secondary sex characteristics is the fact that women and men can both grow armpit hair, that women and men can both grow leg hair and pubic hair.  In some sense the way women ought to look, as biological creatures, is not the way biology has built women!  And that must be fixed.

The usual explanation for that tendency is to exaggerate biological average sex differences.  While I agree that there's something to that theory, it doesn't explain the whole process.  For example, men naturally have quite a lot more facial hair than women.  Why don't we have enormous pressure (outside the group of Islamic fundamentalists) for men to grow luxuriant beards? * Why don't we have beard care creams and beard perms and beard decorations (little swords or baseball team logos?) 

I think cultures assign women most of the work of exaggerating of sex differences, from Victorian wasp waists to 1950s pushup bras to silicone breast implants and the need for Brazilian waxes.  Not all the work, but most of it.

Third, the reason why violating the rules is met with such revulsion by many is not only because they have been merged together with secondary sex differences but also because those violations are then seen as attempts to deny the existence of secondary sex differences and ultimately to fight against the existing gender roles and norms. 

Thus, the so-called feminazis who refuse to shave their armpits or legs are not viewed as biologically natural women (which would be the actual definition) but as not-real-women, because what that rear-brain in some people tells them is that these women are rejecting the social norms for womanhood altogether, and by doing that they are threatening the social norms for manhood, too.  It's an attack, my friends, on everything some hold dear!

It's good to be aware of all this because it teaches us about the cultural coding of gender.  At the same time, we don't have to take it too seriously in our own lives.  Shave if you like the idea.  Leave stripes if you wish!  The body hair will not beg you to live or scream when the razor cuts, and you could always save the cut-off bits for years until you have enough for a pair of nice woolen socks.
*Or bald heads.  That would work, too.  That men often fight against the arrival of baldness is probably not linked to the way we assign gender to people but to the desire to come across younger.  Both men and women spend effort and money on that.