April 16, 2010

"The Great Underarm Campaign" 1915-2010?

So, of course it would fall to me to write this piece as I am the hairy feminist of the bunch. I never shave my armpits and so rarely shave my legs that it’s a special occasion to my partner. Literally. I present my freshly shaven legs as a gift (oh, you only think I’m kidding). As a woman who doesn’t shave AND is a feminist, I feel like it’s incredibly taboo to even be having this discussion, but here it goes.

On Monday an article was published in the New York Times “Unshaven women: Free Spirits or Unkempt.”  It was prompted by Mo’Nique (winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Precious”) lifting her dress at an awards ceremony to reveal her unshorn legs. She is not the first celebrity to make this decision (mistake or not): Julia Roberts, Alicia Silverstone, Gillian Anderson, Britney Spears and Amanda Palmer of the Dresdon Dolls have all done it. I was kind of excited both to read this article and to see what responses it elicited from bothmen and women…the most annoying of which are men complaining about how it’s gotten so hard for men now, as well. I’m not even going to validate that with a response. Of course, the vast majority are men who basically say, “Do what you want, but you and your hairiness would never have a shot at me.”  How about this one:

I’m sorry. I will vote for a woman for president. I will work for a woman. Women should be priests, soldiers, equal pay, whatever. But hairy women are seriously unappealing.

Well, in all your glory, I can only imagine what we’re all missing! There are also a great many women who share a similarly grossed out sentiment, and have been indoctrinated to believe that it is somehow dirty or unsanitary to not shave your body hair. And, not just the ‘pits and the legs….ALL OF IT HAS TO GO! But, I’d like to backtrack and review a little bit of the history of shaving. Here’s a condensed timeline for you……

Around the time of dinosaurs OR 100,000 B.C.E.     -     Neandertal men first start pulling body hair and tattooing (they also enjoyed filing down their teeth. Enjoyed? Yeah….right.)
3,000 B.C.E.      -     Invention of metal tools; Egyptian & Indian priests use copper tools to shave their heads
400      B.C.E.     -      Alexander the Great advocates shaving to prevent “dangerous beard grabbing in combat” (also, Alex hated the five o’clock shadow)
Middle Ages, Rome, and The Crusades OR 300 B.C.E. to 1603     -     Various strange and painful methods of hair removal from plucking eyelashes, to using resin, pitch, white vine, ass’s fat, she-goat’s gall, bat’s blood, and powdered viper to remove body hair are employed
1603 – 1700′s     -     Both women and men shave/remove their eyebrows and forehead hair, and wear artificial wigs and mouse fur for eyebrows…..again, really? : /
Late 1700′s – 19th century      -     Shaving becomes something that only “dandy’s” engage in…and, mostly in London; as well, as “women of the night,” but they only shave to prove to their sirs that they don’t have lice.

And, that brings us to the juicy stuff (no, not the lice)…..the important stuff…..the stuff that still matters and compels me to write this blog. In 1901 King Camp Gillette along with MIT engineer William Nickerson patented their first safety razor. This was the beginning of the creation and domination of the shaving market. In a large and profitable marketing venture, Gillette teamed with the U.S. Army and gave every enlisted man in the army a razor during World War I (for those of you who were asleep during history class, that was 1914-1919). During the same time, Gillette was trying to find a way to expand his reach. He was motivated, of course, by the same thing that motivates any corporate campaign. Greed. That coupled with a seemingly mundane development in fashion - the popularity of sleeveless dresses marked the beginning of “The Great Underarm Campaign.” In 1915 Harper’s Baazar published the first advertisement featuring a woman with shaved “underarms.”

    

From this point the campaign turned female body hair into something “objectionable,” and “the woman of fashion says the underarm must be as smooth as the face.” And, by 1922 (two years after women won the vote), Gillette and the advertising barrage had won the underarm hair fight. They didn’t win the leg hair fight as easily as the length of skirts didn’t mandate shaving. However, by the 1930′s we’re not only shaving it all off we’re waxing it off!

Okay….so almost 100 years later why are we STILL shaving? Why do a lot of women shave, pluck, wax (which can actually be very dangerous), burn, trim, bleach, dissolve, laser or otherwise remove every inch of body hair?? It is not dirty, unsanitary or unfeminine. Contrary to everything you have ever been told, that hair is there to hold in your essence and protect the skin (note: your skin doesn’t develop those annoying little red bumps for nothing). This may seem counter intuitive due to all of the bad press your body hair gets! It has become such an ingrained, unconscious part of our culture that it’s an assumed responsibility as opposed to a choice. The first time a former boyfriend of mine commented on the fact that I hadn’t shaved my legs in a couple of days….it hit me. How ridiculous! And, how dare you! To be rebellious - I stopped shaving. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you have to be hairy to be a feminist. I like the way Amanda Palmer summed it up…..wake up every day and make your decisions. But, I’ll take it a step further and say wake up and make informed, conscious decisions.