What we tell our daughters about body hair

By Lauren Apfel

I learned to deal with unwanted body hair at my mother’s knee. I am dark and she is dark and this was part of my education in being a girl. I would sit on a low stool in her bathroom, which was big and blue-tiled, and watch as she depilated in one way or another. I was acquainted with the tools of the trade early—bleach for the face and arms, tweezers for the eyebrows, razors or wax for the legs—and when I came of age, 12, maybe 13, I graduated to using them myself. And so began the life of a woman who is constantly shaving, plucking, stripping and lightening the hair on her body, some of which is the very mark of her womanhood in the first place.

I used to be embarrassed by all that hair, as a teenager and young adult. Now I am more embarrassed by the vast number of hours I’ve spent—and the pain I’ve endured—getting rid of it in the name of some ideal of female beauty I did not determine for myself. I’m not embarrassed enough, mind you, that I’ve stopped removing it. That ship has sailed. My aesthetic standards are so ingrained at this point, I can’t shake them. Sculpted eyebrows look attractive on a woman. Hairless armpits and upper lips are desirable. The pubic area should be neat.

I still work on a regular basis to meet these standards. What I try not to do is draw attention to it vis-a-vis my children. And yet they are, as most kids tend to be, savvy little spies. My five-year-old twins, a boy and girl, were both “shaving” their legs in the bath the other day, with old toothbrushes and lavender bubbles. Watching the performance, the question that crept into my mind was this: what am I going to say to them about shaving in the future, especially to my daughter? What grooming habits is she going to learn from me and what will I tell her about why she might be expected to shave her legs, while her brothers won’t be, and about who, in actuality, she will be shaving them for?

At 12, I was content to accept my mother’s implied thesis that this is part and parcel of what women do to be beautiful. At 38, I’m more skeptical about that reasoning and not particularly proud of the vanity it resulted in.

When I ask my friends why they shave or wax, they tend to say, especially the more feminist bent among them, that they do it for themselves. “I love the feel of my smooth legs,” one of them insisted and I’m sure she means it. “Would you love it if your husband’s legs were smooth, though?” I ask and the obvious answer is no. Hairlessness of this sort is mainly the province of women, it is intimately linked with our femaleness. It is our effort to make, our cross to bear. We might now, those of us who are coupled up, do it “for ourselves,” but at some point we were doing it to attract other people or, if not that, to conform to societal expectations.

Women have been removing body hair since the beginning of time. There are pictures of ancient Egyptian females with coiffed triangles of pubic hair, and we know it doesn’t grow like that naturally. Through the ages, “excess” body hair on women was considered, at different times, uncivilized, low class, dirty, and unappealing. While men have not been wholly spared this assessment, and many of them continue to shave their faces, the lion’s share of judgment is reserved for women. A 2013 study revealed that woman are held “hostage” to hair removal, admitting that they spend a total of £8000 and four months of a lifetime in an effort to achieve skin that is “baby soft.”

I find the “baby” part of this equation particularly bothersome now that I have a daughter myself and am reminded of what a young girl actually looks like. Certain body hair, of course, is a hallmark of puberty. The return of a full-grown woman to a state of “baby” softness, of looking like a six-year-old girl in any respect, is theoretically bizarre. And if men want us to look like girls, well, that’s even worse. I certainly don’t want to see a man sport a pubic area that resembles my young son’s. But nobody would ever suggest that.

And yet, 70% of girls ages 12 to 20 say they routinely shave or wax the pubic area (despite however many articles a year herald the return of the bush). Like me, they were perhaps taught the basics of hair removal by their mothers. Even if not, where hair should and shouldn’t be on a woman—and the larger message of what constitutes female beauty—is an aesthetic that is reinforced, over and over again, by the media and now by the Internet, with its dizzying amount of information and graphics. According to Peggy Orenstein, in her excellent new book Girls & Sex, many young women cast removing all of their pubic hair as a personal choice. But “when I pressed further,” she writes, “another darker motivation emerged: avoiding humiliation.”

A friend recently told me that her eight-year-old daughter is adamant she wants to shave her arms. The mother, alarmed, has no idea where this desire came from, and at such a young age to boot, and she has no experience with it herself, as a relatively hairless person. But I could relate. I can remember all too well those 15 minute intervals of perching on the side of the bathtub, bleach slathered over my arms, the skin itching like bugs crawling, the relief when it finally came time to wash the stuff off. I’ve stopped doing that at least, I said to my friend, rolling up my sleeves to show her the dark, plentiful hair there. As with her daughter, the same semitic genes that gave me a thick and lustrous head of hair, the one I’m so proud of, are responsible for hair being visible in other places on my body society tells me it shouldn’t be.

I don’t blame my mother for introducing me to—and indoctrinating me in—the ways of female grooming. As much as we genuinely believe as parents that the beauty of our children lies within, we still want them to be attractive on the outside, by our own standards as well as the world’s (and the two inevitably overlap). We want them to fit in, even if we recognize the conventions to be arbitrary. I don’t believe girls will ever be able to make decisions about these things in a vacuum. Though I’m not exactly sure what I will tell my own daughter in this respect, I’m going to make it clear to her, to the extent possible, that beauty is a cultural construct and, as such, she need not be beholden to the version du jour. And I will take solace in the fact that I suspect fate has dealt me an easier hand than it did my mother. My daughter is as fair and fine-haired as they come.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She lives with her husband and four kids in Scotland, where she is thankful that the perennial cold weather (and the long trousers it requires) means she doesn’t have to shave her legs as often as she might. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

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This piece is part of our Motherwell essay series based on Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex.