Several months ago, a friend of mine sent out message inviting participation in a new feminist video-blogging project. This seed of an idea grew into Those Pesky Dames, in which five women say awesome things about body autonomy, self-care, inspirations, intersectionality and pop culture. And then this week, the Dames stepped beyond the realm of YouTube (and Facebook, and Twitter and Tumblr…) to appear on the good ol’ fashioned television.
You can watch them talk about body hair on Cherry Healey: How to Get a Life for the next couple of weeks (it’s available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 18th July).
The Dames’ contribution to the programme is fantastic: they talk about how body hair is entirely natural, and shouldn’t be regarded as unfeminine. Why should women have to spend hours shaving in order to conform to the beauty myth? Why should we feel bad about baring our natural fluff in public? And why regard hairy women as unhygienic, but not hairy men?
I was so happy not only to see my friends on TV, but to see them discussing a vital feminist issue. Michel Foucault came up with this idea known as “governmentality” to describe the relationship between individual people and social rules. We enforce social norms through self-governance, tailoring our actions and behaviour to uphold the status quo. We police our own conformity through the application of self-esteem (when we conform) and shame (when we fail to conform). I felt that the programme beautifully highlighted the governmentality at play in the maintenance of female body hair: our self-esteem depends greatly upon our lack of hair, and when our legs or armpits are hairy in public we feel shame. In this way, women come to enforce sexist ideals of appropriate female behaviour. We can escape by embracing an alternative, feminist ethic of selfhood whereby shaving is not required. I went to bed reflecting happily upon this liberatory potential.
The next day was warm and sunny, and I planned to see my friends in town. I pulled on my shorts…and then took them off again and wore jeans instead, because I didn’t want the world to see my hairy legs. My boyfriend insisted that my short, very thin crop of leg hair wasn’t even visible and that it really didn’t matter. The rational part of my brain agreed wholeheartedly. I still couldn’t do it.
A great part of this response was no doubt down to your bog-standard governmentality at work. I was ashamed at the thought of being an Inappropriate Woman, and tailored my behaviour accordingly. Knowing that you’re a sucker in this way only gives you so much power! But there was an additional element at play: my fear of not passing.
I feel that being trans greatly complicates body hair issues. I don’t really fear being read as different or somewhat deviant, and happily flaunt my subcultural identity as a rocker on an everyday basis. I don’t worry too much about looking feminine or conforming to female stereotypes. But at the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m not a woman, and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I’m a man. I spent 18 years of my life being read as male, and those 18 years were quite enough.
My fear is not that people will look at my hairy legs and think “urgh, a hairy woman”. My fear is that people will look at my hairy legs and thinking “urgh, she’s actually a man!” This is somewhat irrational given how well I pass as cis, but the fear is real, and powerful.
The problem is that passing as a cs woman is important to me. Not because I think it’s better to look cis than trans (I most certainly don’t!) Not because I aspire to some outdated, patriarchal ideal of womanhood. It’s because I hate being heckled on the street, and I fear the violence that can come with transphobic responses. I realise that I’m deeply unlikely to suffer an assault in broad daylight in my home town, but past experiences of violence – however minor – can exert a powerful control. I aim to pass for my own mental and physical well-being.
And so I shave my legs and my armpits when I think they’ll be seen in public, because I’d rather be seen as an Acceptable Woman than not be seen as a woman at all.
The thing is, I hope this might change with time. At the start of my transition, I used to wear eye make-up and straighten my hair daily. I used to shun baggy clothes, instead aiming to highlight what curves I had. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more relaxed about my appearance. This is partly because I’ve become generally more chilled with time: I’m no longer bothered about people who know me being aware of my trans status, and this blog is hardly anonymous these days. But it’s also because of the impact of hormones, meaning that I pass more easily as a cis woman regardless of how I dress. I now wear make-up and dress in a more feminine manner on special occasions, when I want to put on a certain appearance: in this way, I’m now doing these things for me, rather than for others.
One of things I really like about the kind of feminism espoused by Those Pesky Dames is that it leaves room for all these complications. There wasn’t really time for an exploration of this in How to Get a Life, but it’s all there in their vlogs. They argue for a feminism in which you shouldn’t have to shave your body hair…but you should be able to if it’s the appearance you’re going for. A feminism in which you don’t have to wear make-up, but should feel empowered to do so on your own terms. A feminism that accepts that some of us really want to escape the governmentality that leads us to shave our legs, but for now, we remain constrained.
As such, I’m going to keep shaving my legs, despite acknowledging that (in my case) I’m not really doing it for me. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the achievements of those who aim to break down this norm.