In the early 1900s, arms were seen as scandalous, and thus, hidden under layers of frilled fabric. There was no need to shave because no one ever saw your bare arms, let alone your pits. Then the sleeveless dress was introduced, and when Harper’s Bazaar decided that underarm hair was “objectionable,” women were easily swayed. American fashion proved to be a tipping point.
It may seem like a more modern trend, but the very inconspicuous and more-often debated removal of pubic hair is actually the oldest practice of hair removal. Hundreds of years before porn glorified the bald look, the bikini wax became a common practice of Muslim women. The act, called Fitrah, was considered hygienic. In the 1400s, women shaved because of fear of pubic lice and would choose to wear a merkin to retain that “natural” look. Customs in cultures throughout India dating back to 4000 BC include the partial or full removal of pubes.
But when it comes to shaving legs, the first smooth leg didn’t hit the streets until the roaring ‘20s, after the first World War, when spirits and hemlines were rising. Today, women shave an average of 12 times a month, with a monthly cost of about $15.95.
I talked to Stephanie Luke, a young woman who has forgone shaving since 2009, for no more reason than “as an experiment to see how it felt physically (like how some woman try new facial creams).” Luke says that she “was inspired by the confidence and naturalness of a woman I consider a mentor. She was the only woman I’d ever seen in person with natural hair.”
When men choose to shave their bodies, the choice is often seen as utilitarian. Bodybuilders, swimmers, male models — they can choose to shave their legs or chests or groin and while questions are asked, judgements are usually passed but rebuffed pretty quickly. Luke explains that she has had her fair share of judgements, but she has stood strong by not allowing someone else’s opinion to define her choices. She talked of a boyfriend that didn’t find it attractive. “I told him his opinion didn’t matter,” she stated bluntly. “He shut up, got used to the look, didn’t say anything again. I bet some women would argue that my partner’s opinion on attractiveness does matter, but [I think it] illustrates how I will never let another have authority over my body or choices.”
“Unshaven-ness, a woman’s natural state, is not the social norm,” Luke says. “People rarely see natural hair or bra-less breasts so the exceptions like myself stand out. Why is shaving the social norm? Because of fashion, the normalizing and enforcement of certain looks, the use of fashion and social norms to control women’s bodies.” It’s a simple enough statement, but the truth rings out loud and clear. “Women may choose to stop shaving because it feels good or they enjoy the aesthetic and later realize or align with a political message that their natural hair projects,” Luke says. “Other women don’t shave in order to make a statement and eventually enjoy the lack of stubble and irritated skin or stinging deodorant. I did it with both reasons in mind.”
But with articles like the Daily Mail’s feature of Tumblr and Facebook groups condoning the no-shave movement, there comes another issue. “Are YOU brave enough?” the headline reads in bolded black lettering, forging the opinion that not shaving in our modern society is an act of bravery, the same way that celebrities are seen as inspirational for posting #NoMakeup selfies. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. The natural state of the female form is something that society tells us takes bravery, gumption, and a concerted effort to put into the world.
The outpouring of support for this no-shave movement is reaching a peak on social media. Commenters have submitted their pictures and stories, explaining how not shaving has affected their lives and what is driving them to keep going. “Two years ago,” one Tumblr user sent in to Hair Legs Club, “I told my boyfriend that I no longer wanted to shave, wax, or do anything to my legs that make them itch, swell or hurt. He was more supportive of the idea than I was at the time. He told me I should be able to wear what I want without having to remove my leg hair, but I was still afraid of how others might see me. Now I’m learning to care less about what others might think by caring more about what I think. Plus, those who criticize me will be those who only know conditional love and the least I can do for them is to let them know that unconditional love exists.”
Another user posted a picture of her legs, with a pen drawing of a razor and the words “Only if u want to,” a message that is shared by many within the community of hairy-legged females.
This push for body acceptance is not new, nor is it unexpected, but the success and driving force behind the no-shave movement is one of pure, uninhibited love. People across the world are starting the conversation around something that had been such an unquestioned, normalized part of growing up as a female. Shaving had become a lesson all young girls learned, and regardless if women choose to give that up, we are still talking. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, because women are no longer being complacent. And that’s what matters.
What has become more of a movement against the “patriarchal duty” of shaving, is also an exploration into those who do. When we push the boundaries of social norms that have been ingrained in us, we also have to remember that there is always the other side. “As I like to say,” Luke says, “everyone in the entire world has hair. Some women in western culture choose to shave it off.”