Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Feminist Pet Peeve: The Hairy Armpit Wars

A recent wingnut cartoon adventure story (read: incitement towards civil war) has the picture on the left about the horrible enemies of all right-thinking wingnuts: animal rights activists and I guess the animals they protect. They're coming to get you and your Bible!

But look at the stubble on the woman's legs. That is a signifier that she is a feminist, a feminazi, a woman who will probably eat her children. She's having leg hairs! Eek. She probably has hairy armpits, too. Pardon me while I vomit.

The history of the armpit wars is an interesting one. To understand why feminists focused on the womanly body hair requires first understanding how absolutely necessary it was deemed for a woman not to have hair except on her head and in her genital region. All other body hair was deemed as masculine and unnatural. Which is really weird, because women in fact grow hair on their legs and arms and in their armpits.

Now that I re-read the above paragraph I realize that the armpit wars are not at all over. Indeed, they have intensified, because now the only place where women can legitimately have hair is on their heads. The genital area is supposed to be waxed to look like that of a little girl or a porno star.

It is all very weird, because women do naturally grow hair on their legs and arms and in their armpits. The body does this, even in a good wingnut woman, and usually it is the wingnuts who argue that women are ___________ (insert some negative female characteristic here) naturally, biologically and unavoidably, and that the Bible decrees it so, too. But when it comes to the perfectly natural and possibly god-given body hair on women, these wingnuts and many other Americans go bonkers. Shave, you slut!, they screech. Because those who don't shave are Evil.

From a thinking angle the armpit wars are part of the war on accentuating sex differences. Women must somehow look more like women should look if women had been designed properly in the first place: bigger breasts and more torpedo-like breasts, more bare, smooth and hairless skin. And men are supposed to go to the other extreme with body-building work. There are even studies which show that women tend to use a higher voice in societies where femininity is prescribed, and of course we all know how a real man will not wear pink (in this culture and time period) or lace (in this culture and time period) or skirts (in this culture and time period).

Hence what is "feminine" has been socially decreed to include hairless legs and arms and empty armpits, even if Mother Nature disagrees. These things happen. But it is very fascinating that the societal decree is so often interpreted as the real truth, that somehow women indeed are hairless like little Easter eggs and that it is only the evil feminazis who manage to sprout hair everywhere.

Is this enough background to explain why the armpit hair became an issue in Serious Feminist Circles? Because women do naturally grow hair in the armpits and the society states that this should not happen, even though it does happen, and quite innocently, too? And that this is the reason why all woman are expected to spend money and creams and razors on themselves on a regular basis. To refuse to do any of that shaving was a statement that women are just fine as they come, that women don't need to be shaped into totally alien life forms to be acceptable, that even after all that reshaping and plastic surgery and shaving, shaving, shaving, women were still not acceptable in most places.

Besides, making the nonshaving statement cost something to the maker. Unpleasant attention, at a minimum. And this was a way of trying to change the society and to make a sacrifice. Then of course many women just liked the idea of cutting back on all that shaving.

I seem to be telling this story both in the past sense and in the present sense, and perhaps that is the correct way to tell the story. Here comes the twist to the story: The reactions to the armpit hair revolution were swift and of the expected type. The hairy armpit wearers were condemned as ugly (why not talk to Mother Nature about that?), as manly (ditto) and as unable to attract men and therefore giving up on the fight. But the hairy armpit wearers were also labeled as focused on a trivial matter, on something that has to do with body grooming, on something that was so silly as to endanger the whole feminist movement. You may have read the sort of thing I'm thinking about here: Someone writes about the horrible plight of women in some other country and then points out that all American feminists do is to stare into their armpits, and besides, armpit hairs are yucky.

And so this became one of my pet peeves: Because the gesture did not make the point it was supposed to make. Because women are still expected to reshape their bodies to be closer to some fictional (and extreme) ideal of womanliness. And because very few people point out how the whole concept of women's bodies as so faulty is the really ridiculous one and the one that we should discard. After that discarding has taken place, who cares if some women would still shave or not?

I would love to stop discussing the "to shave or not" topic in feminist circles and to start focusing more on what the ridiculing opposition is really saying. Just think about it for a few seconds. Their message is that it is not nature that defines what a woman is, but they, the namers and deciders. And they have decided that a woman in this culture should be without body hair but with very large and perky breasts and basically no hips. It is not some historical or theological concept of womanliness but a purely cultural one, and it is based on the accentuation of gender differences, with a few cultural quirks thrown in.

I see an analogical case in the discussion about cognitive differences between men and women*. The anti-feminist point is always to try to make women and men into two quite different species, two "opposite sexes" as the saying goes, whereas the evidence I've studied and my life experiences all suggest that men and women are like two overlapping Venn diagrams in almost everything. Partly different and partly the same. This messiness, like armpit hairs on women, is unacceptable to the patriarchal mind.
*Today's example of the wingnut tendency to essentialize the sexes (though really only the women) is in this Praeger rant. Note also the strawwoman he erects about how the "left" believes that the sexes are identical.