"Ew, your legs are so hairy": #everydaylookism and the normalisation of the hairless body

The changing norms of body hair removal are dramatic and illustrative. I have written previously about the rise in body hair removal as the ‘canary in the mine’. We now remove nearly all body and facial hair. 

A survey of 7580 US residents aged between 18 and 65 found that “74% reported grooming their pubic hair, 66% of men and 84% of women” (Osterberg, Gaither, Awad, Truesdale, Allen, Sutclifee & Breyer, 2016, p.162). A generation ago this didn’t happen; few women removed pubic hair and there was a time in 60s and 70s when underarm hair could be considered sexy. (Although there are arguments about how extensive the acceptance of body hair really was. Some think it was limited to the fairly small, fairly affluent, hippy culture.) The change from then to now is dramatic. As Rebecca Herzig argues “within a single generation, female pubic hair had been rendered superfluous” (2015, p.137). 

It’s not just body hair we are obsessively removing, facial hair has also become a source of shame and disgust. It is incompatible with the smooth, flawless, luminous, radiant skin tone we aspire to. Note that these adjectives are more applicable to metal or sculpture than to flesh. Flesh is tactile, leaky, squeaky, bumpy and smelly. It is eminently touchable, but it is not firm, hard and uniform. Yet the skin we aspire to is. It is skin without spots, blemishes, large pores, wrinkles, veins, lumps, and bumps. This kind of smoothness is not human. It is the smoothness of cartoons or the smoothness of dolls. The trend towards seeking to approximate this inhuman face is shown clearly in the emergence of the subset of people trying to be human dolls

Most of us don’t want to go this far. This type of body modification still looks extreme. But it is one end of the spectrum; all of us are seeking to be smoother, to erase our wrinkles and reduce our large pores. Large pores are interesting. Another new ‘flaw’. To see pores as a flaw is the product of the technical gaze, not a human gaze. The smoothness we are seeking is influenced by HD TV and selfie culture. We see our skin as if through a microscope, every flaw is magnified. The smoothness we are seeking is technical-smooth not human-smooth. No one is as smooth and perfect as their Instagram suggests. So while we might not all want to look like dolls (with perfectly smooth, frozen and plastic faces), we are doing more to be smooth. We are using more lotions and potions, wearing more face masks with more ‘super-ingredients’ and seemingly magical powers (whether ‘natural’ or ‘high tech’), injecting more chemicals to freeze and fill our faces, and engaging in ever more plastic surgery. We worry about the ‘extreme’ end, but the routine end can be even more demanding.

The demands of a smooth hair free body are extensive. This is big business and the body hair removal devices market was valued at “USD 1.2 billion in 2017” and is set to “reach USD 3.4 billion by 2025”. Bodies grow hair. They do. But despite this, the hairless body is regarded the normal or natural body. It is the hairy body which is disgusting and unnatural. 72% of US adults think women “should remove hair from their face” (78% men, 67% women) (YouGov, 2017) and 65% of GB men and 35% of GB women think women “should ideally remove all” of their facial hair (YouGov, 2016).

Many forms of hair removal – think waxing or electrolysis – are painful. Hair removal is also time consuming. On average, women with facial hair spend 104 minutes a week managing it (Lipton, Sherr, Elford, Rustin and Clayton, 2006). Hair removal is required. Not regarded as a beauty practice but as a health or hygiene practice. Being hairy is a source of shame as very many of the #everydaylookism stories show:




And this type of body shaming starts young:



For those of you who don’t think this is important – "it’s just comments on appearance”, “it’s trivial”, “it’s normal”, “it’s just a joke”, “brush it off”, “it’s just banter” – it isn’t. It is deeply hurtful, and it stays with you. Shown clearly by these stories: 




These #everydaylookism stories show just how extensive the shame of body hair is. This kind of shame cuts deep. It is shame of the self. In an age where our bodies are ourselves, we need to push back on body shaming culture. Shame is debilitating, destructive and wholly unproductive. #everydaylookism seeks to call out body shaming. To reduce the pressure and change the culture. We need to make it unacceptable to make negative comments about people’s appearance – including their body and facial hair. Such comments induce shame. They are cruel. Stopping body shaming won’t mean we don’t worry about our body hair, we will still feel internal pressure. But if we can’t be called out, can’t be publically shamed, the fear will decrease. If we do this together we can gradually create a kinder and less demanding body culture.

Every story shared with the #everydaylookism story is one drop in the ocean, one person’s experience, but together they are powerful. They show just how devastating body shaming is. We don’t put up with other negative comments, we should not put up with negative comments about our bodies. Share your story anonymously with us at everydaylookism.bham.ac.uk and share the campaign. Let’s end lookism.


Heather Widdows, Author of Perfect Me and Professor in Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham
Jessica Sutherland, Research Assistant and Global Ethics PhD student at the University of Birmingham


Bibliography
Herzig, R. M. Plucked: A History of Hair Removal. New York and London: New York University Press, 2015.
Lipton, M. G, Sherr, L., Elford, J., Rustin, M. H. A. & Clayton, W. J. 2006. Women Living with Facial Hair: The Psychological and Behavioral Burden. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 61(2), pp. 161-168. 
Osterberg, E. C., Gaither, T. W., Awad, M. A., Truesdale, M. D., Allen, I., Sutcliffe, S. & Breyer, B. N. 2016. Correlation Between Pubic Hair Grooming and STIs: Results from a Nationally Representative Probability Sample. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 93(3), pp. 162-166.

Comments

  1. Great post! Shocking how young some of the everydaylookism comments were recieved at. Even just the labour of weekly or more frequently shaving legs adds up - what a burden. When I think of facial hair transplants it does feel like body hair is the latest area of appearance that is so laughably/depressingly being 'mined for profits' (Orbach 2016). Especially found this useful in your post: that body hair expectations come from a "technical gaze, not a human gaze". Reminds me of Susan Bordo's wise words: "This is perceptual pedagogy, How to Interpret Your Body 101. These images areteaching us how to see. Filtered, smoothed, polished, softened, rearranged. Andpassing. Digital creations, visual cyborgs, teaching us what to expect from flesh andblood. Training our perception in what’s a defect and what’s normal. (Bordo, 2003,p. xviii)"

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