Pretty Pressure: The Labor of Removing Your Body Hair
This article is part of Pretty Pressure. a series exploring beauty labor: the idea that our beauty routines are work and should be considered as such. While beautifying can be a source of relaxation, bonding, and self-esteem, for others, it’s a chore — one which can take a real toll on us. Today’s installment discusses beauty labor in the context of body hair removal.
Body hair is a feminist issue. Women are generally expected to remove all the hair that grows on their legs and underarms, and — depending somewhat on trends — most of their pubic hair, too. Men (in particular, cisgender straight men) do not typically face comparable pressure. For women who grow noticeable hair on their upper lips, bellies, chests, pubic regions, and elsewhere, there’s an even greater social prohibition against leaving it au naturel.
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For leg and underarm hair, shaving is a sufficient (albeit very temporary) form of hair removal for most women, but for other area and for different types of hair, shaving doesn’t cut it, which means more expensive and painful forms of hair removal are necessary.
“Having a Mediterranean background means my hair is thicker. so shaving is kind of pointless — I get those [stubble] dots within hours,” explains Marta. a 29-year-old editor. “I also remove hair from my top lip and have to pluck the odd stray from my belly button line and nipples,” she laughs. Her hair removal routine involves cold wax, epilation, hot wax, trimming, and shaving. She is, in her own words, “a verified powerhouse of hair removal routines.”
While some women enjoy the process of de-fuzzing – one of my friends loves the act of shaving her legs, for example – for many of the rest of us, hair removal is a dull job.
Claire, 30, a digital marketing manager, shaves her legs and underarms and gets her bikini area waxed. “I don’t resent it, but obviously it’s painful… getting your bikini line waxed is a painful experience,” she says. “[Hair removal] is just another thing to do. It’s the same as, for me, getting my hair braided or twisting it every night: it’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s just an extra thing to have to fit into your day.”
For Jake. a 23-year-old actress and trans femme in her early stages of transitioning, hair removal is not only time-consuming but agonizing, as well. “I have a lot of body hair — I d say I m only bested by Victorian sideshow freaks in the amount of body hair I have,” she says. “I went through a period of several years where I would get it waxed completely once a month — getting a full back, shoulders, chest, etc. – which was excruciating, and I only did it because I felt like there was no way I was going to get laid if I didn t.”
It’s also expensive to stay hair-free: women spend an average of $200 a year on hair removal, and for women with fewer funds and more (or harder) hair to remove, the price of being hairless can be prohibitive.
Elise Franklin. a psychotherapist who works in Los Angeles with patients in the entertainment industry, says the pressure for women to be hair-free is so deeply ingrained that it’s barely challenged. “That s not to say it isn’t causing emotional and financial distress,” she adds, “but that particular topic is such an unchallenged expectation that I find that [cisgender] women don t even acknowledge the burden of it — just like so many other things women have to deal with.”
For her trans clients, however, it is often a much more conscious issue. “People who are trans are forced to be hyper-vigilant about details such as hair removal (or growth), clothing choices and positioning their bodies for passing, that I often see an additional struggle toward accessing parts of their emotions and creativity,” she says. “Essentially, we only have so much mental bandwidth, and if you re constantly concerned about how you appear, you are losing the ability to focus on other things. This is true for almost all women I work with, due to [beauty] expectations and constant upkeep.”
The question many may be asking: why do it at all, then? If hair removal is an expensive, painful chore, why not abandon it altogether?
Well, because there are very real social consequences for women who do so. Male partners, nosy coworkers, and meddling family members often comment negatively about body hair on women. As Claire discussed, often these messages are deeply internalized, to the point where women don’t feel “right” or even clean until they’re hairless. For women of color, the matter can be additionally fraught. and for trans women and femmes, the removal of body hair is an almost-mandatory component of passing.
The idea that women can simply throw caution to the wind and stop removing the hair on their bodies without repercussion is, to put it mildly, unrealistic.
For women who date men, negative comments from male partners can serve as strong motivation to remove body hair. Marta and I shared stories of men informing us that they “prefer” hairless bodies and scolding us for failing to meet those standards, and Jake and I have both been told our unshaved bodies are “’70s” — despite, you know, just existing in their natural form in the year 2017.
For Jake, body hair is an issue that won’t go away. “Men will be like, ‘Oh, you d be so hot if you shaved!’ or ‘I ll fuck you, but maybe if we shave you first’,” she reveals. “I get five of those for every one person who just tells me I’m hot and wants me for who I am.”
I asked Jake how being trans further complicated the issue. “This is 90 percent of my stress about this whole [transition] process,” she responded. “Firstly, I don t feel like I can experiment in the way that some other [trans] people can, because I can t pass, and, secondly, I literally have ten times more leg work to do if I want to start modifying my body. Whereas most people will have 15 to 20 hair removal sessions, I would need 1500 to 2000.”
I noted that that was really expensive — a single laser hair removal session for just the bikini area costs upwards of $500 — and she said, “Exactly, which is why I’m in a place of just giving up. I’m not a man; I’m never going to be a woman, either. So, I’ve just gotta keep doing what I want.”
There are no two ways about it: body hair removal is expensive, often painful, and always relentless — the hair literally starts growing back the moment you remove it, making hair removal a kind of Sisyphean boulder-push for many women.
While some women have minimally-taxing hair removal routines they don’t think twice about, for others, it’s an expensive, mind-numbing, esteem-destroying process. And, for others still, it’s literally a matter of life and death that is intricately tied to passing and being safe from harassment and discrimination. That’s something worth bearing in mind before expressing a preference for hairless bodies.
This is why equating hygiene and body hair is problematic: