on female body hair

I made the decision a little while ago that my heroine has underarm hair. Then I spent a couple of months thinking I’d probably change my mind; there’s such a strong aesthetic against body hair.

The first time in my life that I saw underarm hair as not only acceptable but sexy as all hell was when I was eighteen years old and working on a farm in Germany. (I should at this point note: the misconception that German women are hirsute is a hangover from the 20s and not at all accurate.) These two twenty-something-year-old women who worked on the farm were taking a break by the side of a tractor shed. They were tanned, grimy and muscular, and their arms were flung casually out. They had armpit hair and it looked strong. It made them animal and vital. I thought, “Oh, so I don’t have to hide it.”

Ever since then I’ve been happy to have underarm hair, so yes, some of my decision to give my heroine the same is me writing myself, as writers do.

But what does that mean, writing myself? In this case, there’s an aesthetic standard I don’t agree with. I express my disagreement in life, and I express it in fiction.

This brings me to a question I’ve been avoiding for a while: Do my politics belong in my writing? And possibly more to the point: Do I have an obligation to express my politics in my writing?

As soon as I think it in those terms, “politics”, my reaction is a violent No. I’m not writing issues books. I don’t want characters parading through my books trying to teach my readers important life lessons, or giving long speeches about how things should be.

But when I take the word politics out of it, and when I think of it as entering a discussion about femalehood, my reaction is a pretty clear Yes.

Special k and I got into a great discussion the other night (while, irony of ironies, I was doing the dishes and he was standing about not helping) about the way pop culture reflects cultural values, and to what extent pop culture has a responsibility to engage with cultural critique.

Or to put it less obliquely: We were disagreeing about the extent to which people should criticise Beyonce for wearing no clothes and high heels in her amazing “All the single ladies” video. (By the way, some absolutely brilliant trivia: one of those dancers is her male choreographer. My cross-dressing duke approves.)

I started to talk about the cultural responsibility of romance writers, and it brought home to me again what a powerful genre I write in. When I started reading romance I felt empowered by the portrayal of female sexuality as a purely positive thing. I cautiously opened myself to the idea that sex should be all about pleasure, with no shame attached. It allowed me to think about my sexuality in purely heterosexual terms, without attaching shame to that either.

When I read heroines who learn to deal with conflict, I feel encouraged to learn to deal with conflict. When I see heroines who learn to ask for what they want even when it feels uncomfortable, that becomes a possibility to me.

Romance speaks powerfully to women about what it means to be a woman.

So when I wrote the first sex scene between my hero and heroine I thought very carefully about what I believe about sex – and about the ways I would like to see women empowered.

I’m only just beginning to understand all the ways our sexuality is constructed for us, our whole lives. It’s impossible to get the whole picture, because we’re trying to make visible the invisible structure through which we view the world.

One specific idea I’ve been talking and thinking about (and, if I’m honest, confronted by) Β is the idea that women are taught to be the object of desire, not the person who desires. (See Beyonce and her high heels.) Men are taught to see us this way, and we’re taught to see ourselves this way. Good sex = turning a man on because we succeed at striking the right poses and making the right noises. It’s not about feeling and chasing pleasure, or desiring and taking what we desire.

Of course, I have put this in hopelessly simple terms, so please forgive me that.

When my heroine and my hero first have sex, he is described in the language of desire, not she, and she pushes for what she wants from him. It’s still a very “female” want; she demands emotion, as well as sex. But she doesn’t ever doubt that she knows herself and her desires, and she doesn’t doubt her entitlement to feeling them.

I hope that women will read it and think, I can do that too.

So when it comes to body hair – and is there anything worse than that word “pube” – I didn’t want to back down either. I didn’t want to assume that women have bought so fully into the no-hair aesthetic that it wouldn’t intrigue them to see a hero stroke his thumbs up into the dark, warm fur and for it to be right, and without commentary.

I recently watched a documentary about the great French brothels of the 1920s, which was rather creepily told through the memories of a bunch of old men. One of them spoke about how the prostitutes would grow their body hair, and they would only have to raise an arm for the men to go animal, wild. (Have I just contradicted myself by turning body hair into another object of desire? Er. Hold on.)

Here’s a good place to stress that I’m not saying we should all go about hairy. I’m not even saying you’re betraying your womanhood if you shave. God, no. But I do think the no-hair aesthetic is learnt, and that there’s room to transform it.

Because my body grows hair, and every time I hate my body for it – stare helplessly at myself and think I did something wrong – it’s exhausting.

I’ve never really become comfortable with leg hair. It makes me feel like a footballer, or, I dunno, a lumberjack. But recently I really can’t be bothered getting my legs waxed. And because of that, I’ve been noticing a lot of women walking about with hairy legs: The girl in front of the state library; the schoolgirl on the tram, standing with her friends; the waitress at my local cafe.

Every time I see another woman walking around with hair on her legs as though it just doesn’t matter, it matters to me less.

My heroine is poor and she works all day long. When it comes to pure, historical fact, she wouldn’t have had the time or resources to shave (or whatever they did back then – I’ve been having trouble getting any solid info, so if you know anything about 19th century depilatory habits, please speak up!).

I made the decision not to change the facts just to suit a modern aesthetic that I don’t agree with anyway.

Comments 7 Responses

  1. shallowreader

    Thanks for this post. I too prefer realistic depictions of women; hair and all. It makes them much more relatable. I also dislike reading about men who have smooth hairless chests. Hair means maturity to me. Hairlessness, on women and men, is creepy. I don’t want a description of a pre-pubescent’s body, particularly when there is an erotic sex scene being described :/

    1. anna cowan Post author

      The hairless male chest πŸ™‚ – it does make me suspicious. (Although to be fair, I know a couple of men who can’t even grow a good beard at 30!) Apparently the hairless aesthetic came about predominantly in the 50s when beach/surf movies were being made in which women wore bikinis. There was a fear that if teenage boys saw any hair on the women’s bodies it would make them think of the other hair on women’s bodies and send them into a frenzy of lust. (A couple of people told me this, in response to the post.) It’s just amazing to me that it started out as a kind of prudery, because body hair was seen as far too sexualised.

  2. londonmabel

    If it’s historically accurate, then I say go for it. If I read such a thing I wouldn’t feel Hit Over the Head By the Authors’ Politics.

    I’m not sure it would get published within the traditional romance genre. But outside of those confines, that sort of thing is most certainly accepted.

    Like the book Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand–it’s really a romance novel. But the protagonist is a stodgy old man, and the love interest is the Pakistani shopkeeper. It’s not aspirational. But it fits the criteria for a romance novel (the protagonist is changed by the relationship with the woman), it’s a great book, and I think it did well in the Fiction genre. Personally I want to read more of that sort of thing.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      that’s really interesting that you wouldn’t see it being accepted by the tradition romance market. I suspect it will, and that’s what I’m going for, but we’ll see, I guess! πŸ˜‰ I certainly don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s just mentioned twice in passing. Every other part of the novel is quite emphatically “romance”, so I can’t see this one detail derailing it. Also, I’m reading A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant (amazing!!), and she mentions her heroine’s “short, soft” leg hair when the hero strokes her leg (haha, like me she’s making body hair sound as unthreatening and un-pubic hairlike as possible). It’ll be interesting to see what the gatekeepers’ responses are.

  3. Cheryl Nekvapil

    In my early 20s my lover was rather bemused by shaved legs and armpits, it didn’t really appeal to him. So I started wondering to whom it did appeal?? And felt it was a social expectation, but why?? You’ve all hinted at some of the answers. Why are men now shaving their legs?? I look forward to hearing more, and getting some more answers from you all.

  4. samin

    Hi Anna,

    I just read your very interesting post. Right now I am working on my short documentary about women’s body hair and its history and was wondering if you can help me finding any resources on it. Also if you think it is in your area of expertise I’d be glad to get in touch and discuss it with you. Thanks!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      What a fantastic project! Unfortunately, the only expertise I have in this area is having body hair πŸ™‚ – sorry I can’t be more help. I’ve found it hard to get any research on the history of body hair – I presume it was something people didn’t talk about much (they still don’t). I’m not sure where you’re based, but this girl (London) has undertaken a kind of social project to do with body hair, and could be an interesting person to talk to for your documentary: http://vagendamag.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/hair-not-musical.html

      Good luck!

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