Friday, December 10, 2004

Hairy Legs and All

You know, I slept this day away. I should feel so guilty for that, but life is short and sleeping is fun. However, the slumbertime means that my long and interesting posts are not done. So I have to adlib on something, and hairy legs looks good for that.

The body hair distribution on humans is one of the most mysterious question for any evo-psycho to answer convincingly: how come are people in the cold climates less hairy than those in the Mediterranean area? This makes no sense. We'd expect the Vikings to be completely covered by nice, warming body hair but actually most Vikings are as sleek as seals in this respect, and they don't have the fat layers of seals for insulation. Neither are the Inuits very hairy at all. Don't ask me how I know these things.

All adult humans have some body hair, though, unless there is some medical reason for its absence. Even adult female humans have armpit hair and groin hair and leg hair! This may come as a surprise for some of you: that leg hair is natural for women. In the U.S., especially, leg hair is regarded as a masculine characteristic, and any teenage girl who finds, to her great secret shame and horror, that her legs are sprouting dark hairs, must immediately shave them away and pretend that this unspeakable thing never happened. And female armpit hairs! They are from the Devil.

American women who let their leg hairs be are usually called manhaters and feminazis, so not shaving the legs is a serious political act with possibly harmful consequences. It requires courage and makes the woman stand out in a crowd. It is fascinating when you really think about it, that something completely natural and universal: the female hairy legs, are essentially seen as a complete aberration in this country. Makes you appreciate the powerful effect of culture over nature.

Women do have, on average, less body hair than men, and the desire to see women's bodies without any is probably a desire to accentuate sex differences, to make the sexes more different than they are. This takes extreme forms in some Middle Eastern societies where brides are supposedly plucked free of all body hair before the wedding. Maybe men there actually believe that women don't grow leg hairs? I don't know. What I do know is that I'm glad nobody tried to pluck me.

So all this shaving and plucking and creaming is an attempt to enlarge the appearance gap between the sexes, and so are many other cultural conventions we have, such as the use of bras to accentuate female breasts, the focus on slim female waists etcetera. The fundamental question is naturally why we'd want to do this. Why is it so important to make men and women look more different from each other? I know what the evo psychos say about this: that it's all to make it easier for people in heat to find a suitable mate for sexual intercourse. This is really funny. I imagine all these people blindly groping strangers in some crowd, flaring their nostrils looking for the right smells and stuff. Humans are supposed to have this large brain capacity for some very good reasons, after all, and it's not terribly difficult to spot a person's sex by, say, simply asking them. Well, whatever.

My best guess about the desire for stronger sexual differentiation is that it is mainly driven by societal pressures. We want to box people, and we want it to be very clear what box each person belongs in. This applies to many other things than sex, but sex is especially boxable, because so many rights and obligations are made different by sex. In some societies the boxes for women are really small, and these same societies also tend to have extremely strong rules on how each sex should look. I have in mind the use of burqas or other similar outfits here, but makeup, for example, could have the same effect.

In reality we all overflow our boxes and to certain types of minds this is really uncomfortable and messy. As messy and uncomfortable as unshaved legs on women.