Body hair... where do we start, right? It is the thing that everyone has, but avoids acknowledging. Body hair is important to different people for different reasons, being a form of expression. Recently, I researched and wrote an essay, which I hope people can learn from and will help to open a dialogue about such a complex topic.
The questions we aim to answer:
Men and women have societal expectations impressed upon them from a very young age, distinctly when considering what is appropriate for their appearance. Traditionally, American culture has ingrained that men are hairy while women are hairless and that deviation from these body hair norms are inappropriate. Analysis of trends and current studies show that hairlessness is now becoming an ideal in both men and women. This new development now adds pressure to even more diverse groups to conform to body hair removal practices. How and to what extent do America’s expectations of body hair effect expression of gender and sexuality in men and women of multiple sexual orientations? Why does it matter that body hair norms are based on a limited facet of the gender and sexual spectrum?
The effect on society:
Modern humans, like other mammals, are in part defined by the presence of body hair; having about as much as an ape, typically just finer and shorter (Ramsey et al.). For hundreds of years, hair removal has been practiced around the world in order to change this biological predisposition. Depilation, the practice of removing hair from the neck down, has been traditionally based on heterosexual male ideals of beauty. The more recent ideal has changed to include both men and women as hairless (or with less hair than in the past). This standard, however, is unwanted or unattainable for a substantial portion of men and women, and those who do not desire to remove body hair often face hostility for not conforming to whatever the standard body hair appearance should be for their gender and sexual orientation. These body hair expectations often pigeonhole gender as “either or,” and hinder the expression of sexual orientation because of the preconceived notions associated with certain body hair choices (like whether to shave regarding a man, or grow armpit hair as a woman).
With this in mind, the gender norms American society has imposed on the general population are unreasonable and are a contributing factor as to why we have the body hair expectations we do today. Gender norms can be defined as, “a set of ‘rules’ or ideas about how each gender should behave. They are not based in biology, but instead determined by a culture or society.” (National Sexual Violence Resource Center). Every culture has their own, differing depending on where you are in the world. In America, the topic of body hair has an extensive list of “rules” that determines what is “appropriate” for each gender and splinters further within different sexual orientations. Gender norms are taught and reinforced through media as well as interactions with others in a person’s formative years; teaching that to be a man is to be hairy and to be a woman is to be hairless, and more recently that both sexes should remove excessive amounts of body hair. This system has excluded those who do not identify as a man or a woman, or heterosexual. Gender and sexuality when thought of on a spectrum are much broader, and probe the question: What about all the people in the grey areas?
Stay tuned to weekly installments of the essay, each discussing a different facet of the issue.