Eighth grade was the year I tried to remove my upper lip hairs in three different ways.
First, I leaned into the mirror until my exhales fogged over my reflection. I wielded cuticle scissors to cut short, one by one, the longest and thickest hairs at the upper edges of my mouth.
Second, after I grew dissatisfied with the tediousness of trimming, I slipped a spool of sturdy sewing thread from my mom’s closet. I cut a length of beige, fuzzy thread and tied it into a loop which I spread into a rectangle with my thumbs and index fingers. I twisted it one, two, three times until I saw myself holding the shape of a large bow tie in the mirror. When I separated my right thumb and index, the twists in the thread darted left. I brought the twisted thread to the right edge of my upper lip until it touched my skin. I inhaled, bracing myself for pain. My right thumb and index finger snapped apart, and the twists flew left, pulling a few hairs out by the root but cutting most off at the base. Those ones would only grow back thicker, or so I thought.
Third, I stopped by a Walgreens on my way back from school—one of the few times I was alone—and, heart pounding, bought a box of lime green wax strips. When I got home, I hid them in an old shoe box in my closet for several days. The night I finally summoned the courage to use the wax, I carefully followed the steps I learned from YouTube: Press a strip between your hands and rub them together to start to melt the wax. Cut the strip in two, one for each side of your upper lip. Carefully peel open a half strip. Place it on the right side of your upper lip. Apply pressure with a finger in the same direction as hair growth.
Inhale. Pinch the excess paper by the corner. Remember to keep the hand close to the skin.
Immediate redness. I stared in awe and pain at the thin black hairs and their translucent roots dotting the wax.
The first time I felt acutely humiliated about my upper lip hair was several weeks, maybe even months, before I began my attempts to remove it. It was snack time at a local summer camp, and my friend was drinking milk. She looked up to ask me and a younger boy sitting with us: “Do I have a milk mustache?”
“No,” the boy said. He pivoted his head to look at me, his expression blank. “But you always have a mustache.”
My friend laughed, I think in surprise. I blushed hard. Even at nine or ten years old, this boy had been taught to believe it was weird for a girl to have mustache hairs. Also, at only nine or ten years old, he didn’t know to keep quiet.
Of course, he didn’t plant the seed of self-consciousness about body hair. Growing up, I had absorbed hours of TV ads displaying women sexily shaving their hairless, pale legs and lifting their arms to reveal childishly bare armpits. I had online shopped and, in addition to being sold underwear, was also sold the norm of hairless tummies and hairless thighs. I had long been conditioned to think of body hair as abnormal and unwanted, so when the summer camp boy voiced aloud silent observations of my mustache hairs, I was propelled to action.
Professor Anneke Smelik remarks that body hair is “a marker that polices significant boundaries: between human–animal, male–female and adult–child.” As society has tried to define and dictate gender through norms and rules, body hair, which is categorized as masculine, has long been seen as inappropriate and dirty on women.
Before 1915, American hair remover ads for women targeted “hair on the face, neck and arms,” as women’s clothes at the time covered the rest of their bodies. It wasn’t until World War I that female body hair removal as we know it rose in popularity. As women increasingly wore sleeveless tops and shorter bottoms that revealed hairy legs and underarms, shameless ads pressured them to remove their newly visible body hairs. One particularly bold anti-armpit-hair ad—featuring a drawing of a concerningly stoic, shaven woman—proclaims, “The fastidious woman to-day must have immaculate underarms if she is to be unembarrassed.” To-day, I laugh at this absurd and sexist wording, but I still feel embarrassed in exactly the way the ad prescribes.
I think I was so fixated on my upper lip during puberty because the rest of my regularly visible girl body was remarkably hairless where it was “supposed” to be. In seventh grade, the girl assigned to sit next to me in math class remarked in awe at the smooth hairlessness of my arm next to her softly hairy one. But instead of relishing in the general hairlessness of my arms and legs, my self-consciousness swelled even stronger in response to the body hair I did have.
At the beginning of eighth grade, both of my parents tried talking me out of shaving. After months of secretly trimming my armpit hair with cuticle scissors in the shower to avoid feeling self-conscious at ballet and at school, I finally asked my mom to buy me a razor and (many) extra cartridges. That night, my dad came into my bedroom just before I went to sleep. His voice gentle and urging, he said, “The hair there is natural. You don’t need to remove it. In China, you know, no one removes hair like that. It’s natural. Just leave it.” My embarrassment for wanting to shave turned my cheeks pink, but I was already decided.
Armed with my new (pink) razor, over the course of the next seven years, I shaved my relatively hairless legs a couple of times and, upon one man’s insistence, my pubic hair, but mainly I removed my armpit hair. Switching out my razor’s cartridge every couple of months, I fell into an easy pattern of shaving in the shower every few days. I used whatever bar soap was around as shaving cream, as if to prove to myself that I didn’t care that much about it, and I shaved quickly, almost furtively, as if embarrassed of my childishly bare armpits that showed how I, too, bent under this absurd social and gendered pressure to remove my body hair.
I’m certainly not alone in feeling this pressure. Historian and researcher Rebecca Herzig estimates that 99 percent of American women have removed body hair at some point in their lives, and 85 percent “regularly remove hair from their faces, armpits, legs, and bikini lines.” Women spend an average of $15.87 per month on shaving, amounting to almost $200 every year, or over $10,000 in a lifetime. After all, a 1998 research study found that “both men and women view a woman with body hair as less sexually attractive, sociable and intelligent than the same woman without body hair.” As someone who, of course, wants to be seen as sexually appealing, socially adept, and intelligent, it’s obvious to me why so many women—especially women with visible body hair and trans women—are motivated to spend huge amounts of money and to experience the pain required to be perfectly hairless.
While the removal of hair on the legs, arms, face, and underarms has been motivated by visibility, the removal of pubic hair evolved separately. Because pubic hair was already perceived as sexual and lascivious, it wasn’t considered inappropriate in early pornography, according to Professor Smelik. In fact, female sex workers did not remove pubic hair until the 1990s when pornography became mainstream and they, too, were expected to fit feminine gender norms. Former model and porn actress Kelly Nichols says, “I was a Penthouse model in the early 1980s, and I posed with a full bush. No one in adult entertainment shaved back then. Now everyone does.”
To perform womanhood acceptably and appealingly, women are expected to remove underarm and pubic hair, natural markers of adulthood. This upholds the male–female boundary while blurring the adult–child boundary, dangerously sexualizing a girlish aesthetic to a largely adult male audience. It’s no coincidence that “teen” was the most searched term on Pornhub in 2014 and has been among the most popular searches every year since.
When Covid-19 hit and I spent months at home changing into various pajamas, I stopped shaving completely. As long, soft tufts of hair grew and remained under my arms, the comfort of not caring—of not having to care—about the presence of my body hair was uncomplicated and relieving. But when I returned to campus in the fall, I carried with me my same pink razor. In the spring of 2021, I was having dinner with a friend who wore a tank top and, I noticed, whose expressive arm movements unhesitatingly revealed armpit hair.
“Can I ask you a question that might be personal?” I asked.
“Sure,” they said.
“I noticed that you don’t shave your armpit hair, and I also want to not,” I said, “but I never feel comfortable letting it grow out. How did you decide to?”
My friend (who at the time used she/her pronouns) said they knew that the only reason they shaved previously was because of the social expectation to do so. Being perceived and judged, specifically by men, had motivated them to be hairless, and they didn’t want that pressure to dictate their actions anymore.
I feel the same way. Removing certain body hairs for fear of external judgment feels weak and ridiculous. And, yet, the act is continuously difficult to let go of. An early stereotypical example of a “bad” feminist, or perhaps a misunderstood feminist, is one who proclaims that women shouldn’t shave. “Good” feminists are quick to correct that we should all be free to choose what we do with our body hair. But this choice is not simple. I do not feel free to publicly display the hair on my armpit, tummy, and thighs simply because feminism supports it. I still feel more comfortable choosing to shave, even though I recognize that by doing so, I continue to follow sexist, societal pressures.
As I packed my suitcases before flying back to campus, I spotted my pink razor lying at the bottom of my toiletries bag, where it had been for most of the summer. I hesitated. Having used this razor since the age of thirteen, the handle sheen had faded and now felt sticky in my palm as I turned it over. Finally, I got up and went to the bathroom, opened the lid of the small blue trash can by the shower, and dropped my well-used pink razor inside. I’m committing, as of now, to the discomfort and the pleasure of not shaving. That’s not to say that I don’t feel self-conscious when I wear a sleeveless top and raise my arms, and it’s also not to say that I will never remove my body hair again. But for now, simply because I want to, I’m trying to present myself as if the expectations around body hair didn’t exist.