Januhairy: Liberation within limits

Along with ‘Dry January’, ‘RED (run every day) January’ and ‘Veganuary’, ‘Januhairy’ is one of the challenges which comes with the ‘New Year, New You!’ onslaught of how to become a better person. In my last Beauty Demands blog  I commented on the dramatic change which has happened as we see ourselves not as ‘inner’ thinking and doing beings, but as ‘outer’, to-be-looked-at beings. Indeed we have gone so far on this trajectory that a better self now means a better body. In a visual and virtual culture, our bodies are ourselves. Januhairy is a month long challenge which aims to get women to ‘love and accept’ their body hair while raising money for charity. It was launched by students from Exeter University, and has received lots of press, taking off around the world.

Photo: istolethetv (CC Attributions 2.0 license)
In Perfect Me , I write a lot about body hair. I call body hair ‘the canary in the mine’. It is a very clear example of the normalisation and naturalisation of the modified body. Something which can only happen if an ideal is global; a key difference between the emerging global ideal and previous beauty ideals. To illustrate, think of some of the most demanding beauty practices. In very many different times and places there have been very demanding global ideals, with corset-wearing and foot-binding being but two. However, while these were demanding practices, and yes far more demanding than body hair removal, they were not – and could not be – normalising or naturalising. While the aristocratic Chinese women might have regarded the bound lotus-foot as desirable, beautiful and even perfect, she could not have thought it was normal or natural. She knew it was artifice, it was made. It is this normalising and naturalising which a global ideal enables. The hairless body becomes regarded as a normal or natural body, and body hair removal shifts from a beauty practice to a hygiene practice. I have written about body hair and the increasing normalisation of the modified body; and the normalisation thesis is a main argument of Perfect Me.

What then might Januhairy do, and not do, to liberate us from the rising demands of a dominant beauty ideal? Clearly its intentions are great, and there are many positive features. It raises consciousness of the demands of beauty and seeks to reclaim body hair. Great stuff. To the young women who are leading this charge I say “go you!”. But I also want to recognise its limits. To recognise that while empowering, this is still about the body – its form is visual. Also, it may – like some other forms of body positivity – only challenge one aspect of the beauty ideal and so, despite its great intentions, embed the ideal further.

What it does:
  • ·         It calls out the demands of the practice. It recognises that hair removal is time consuming, sometimes painful and unnecessary. Hurrah!
  • ·         It clearly shows that hairless body is not normal. Bodies grow hair. Hurrah!
  • ·         As participants recognise that growing body hair can be uncomfortable, it shines a light on some of the (false) rhetoric about engaging in beauty being mere choice. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
     So much to celebrate, but is it as much as it might appear? Many of those who are embracing Januhairy conform to other features of the beauty ideal. They might be growing hair (so rejecting the ‘smooth’ requirement), but they are still meeting the other three features of thinness (in some form), firmness and youth. The aim is to liberate, and for these young women it may well do this, but others may feel further excluded. It might be OK to celebrate body hair when you are young and thin, but can you do it when you are fat and old too? Like other forms of body positivity, the challenge to the ideal is less than it might appear. So some Hurrah – for sure. But does it – despite its intentions – exclude and potentially shame those who fail to conform in too many ways to be proud and posting?
   
    While there is much to embrace in Januhairy, we must be sure that initiatives like this do not shame and blame, however unintentionally, or make us even more self-conscious. Those who fail to give up the razor should not be blamed or shamed – "why haven’t you done Januhairy?". And those who do it should not be blamed or shamed – "eww body-hair, yuk!". Part of the agenda of Januhairy is to show that growing body hair is a choice. But if it feels required, is it really a choice? At the very least it’s a hard choice under the dominant beauty ideal and one which only some can make. If it weren’t a hard choice and was just a mere matter of taste, we couldn’t be sponsored for it, it wouldn’t be fundraising. Long years of failure to address the growing demands of beauty show the futility of focusing on what individuals do or don’t do. To focus on what we each do divides us, makes us ashamed, and does not work. Collective action, collective protest – yes – go girls, fantastic. But it must always be collective. To focus on what individuals do or don’t do is ineffective, unethical, can be cruel, and does not recognise the power of the dominant ideal. 


Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics, Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham. Follow me on twitter @ProfWiddows 
Find out more about my work here [https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/strategic-framework/Research/perfect-me.aspx] and read the introduction of Perfect Me here [http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/i11281.pdf]. 

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