Why a Little Fuzz Feels Like Freedom
8 February 2017 at 3:37 pm
A new campaign has been launched this month encouraging women to stop shaving in a bid to raise money for The Full Stop Foundation. Pro Bono News talks to Get Hairy February founder and director Alex Andrews about the relationship between female body hair and gender equality.
In 1999 Julia Roberts made headlines when she dared to bare her hairy underarms for the premiere of Notting Hill.
Nearly two decades later and actress Lola Kirke is allegedly receiving death threats for showing off her body hair on the red carpet at this year’s Golden Globes.
But why is female body hair so controversial?
According to recent research, at the beginning of the 20th century women didn’t really care if they had leg or underarm hair.
But this all changed in 1915 when advertisers in Harper’s Bazaar took advantage of a new trend in sleeveless dresses to make underarm hair “undesirable”.
It marked the beginning of a sustained advertising campaign to change the way women groomed and put the depilatory industry front and centre.
Within 10 years, the number of women who shaved reportedly increased by 60 per cent. Today, smooth, hair-free skin has become a Westernised standard of beauty that more than 95 per cent of Australian women conform to, many without question.
But a new campaign is set to change that.
Get Hairy February, the no-shave movement, is encouraging women to go au naturale and look beneath the surface of this beauty standard to the implications it has on gender equality.
Campaign founder and director Alex Andrews says it all just started with her wondering why she shaved every few days.
“Basically for me it started with just wondering why I did this thing every few days… and why I had never seen my underarm or leg hair, because I’d been removing it very diligently since I was about 11 years old,” Andrews says.
“So I wanted to find out why. I did a bit of research.
“What I came to realise was there was a real turning point in, I guess, hair removal. [It] has been around for thousands of years and has a very long history but really what we see is around 1915, the early 1900s, there was a real marketing and commercial push behind accessing that part of the market [and] getting women on board.
“And they did it in a really different way than they did it with men, because they saw it as a bit of a challenge, how were they going to get women to do something that they had never done before… to shave parts of their body that men didn’t.
“So they really wrapped it up with a thick veil of self-doubt and they relied on that to really encourage or pressure women into shaving and removing their hair.”
According to Andrews from 1915 onwards advertisements in the beauty industry began to label female body hair as “objectionable”, “unclean”, “ugly” and “dirty”.
“I didn’t like that at all,” she says.
“I didn’t like that there was that undertone to something which 95 per cent of women did and I wanted to find out if I did it for me, if I liked being hairless, or if I was just told that I liked being hairless.
“And that was where it all began.”
But Andrews admits the question of whether individuals really like to shave or whether they just think they do because they have been conditioned by a centuries-old social construct, has proved challenging to answer.
“It is not a simple answer,” says Andrews, who has been “diligently” not shaving for 18 months.
“It’s not like: ‘Oh yup I do like it, that’s great.’ It’s not that easy. For some people it might be, but it is something that is a challenge.
“Initially for me I didn’t like the look of my hair and every day watching myself grow, I found it to be a very powerful experience.
“I was letting myself be my most natural self and there was something really kind of special with that relationship that I had with myself, letting myself grow against expectations and it was: ‘I am doing this just for me.’
“But at the same time… I had never really seen hair on a woman’s legs or underarms before, I had seen it but none of the women in my life have hairy legs and underarms, you do not see it in the media on a frequent basis unless it is causing serious controversy and so I didn’t think it was beautiful, it was shocking visually to me.
“Even for me that feeling of wind going through my hair on my legs I’d never felt that before.
“I asked my male friends: ‘Do you guys feel that, do you feel the wind?’ And they were like: ‘No, we don’t.’… But I wasn’t used to the sensation, let alone what it is visually.
“So that takes time, that is a process.”
But according to Andrews it is an important process.
She says there is an important link between the campaign and the idea of body positivity and the struggle some people have to appreciate themselves.
“If you’re constantly being sent messages that you should be a certain way, and you are just one individual, it is incredibly hard to come up against that,” she says.
“Not only to come up against that once by making the decision to stop shaving but continuing that on, so that’s where I think Get Hairy February, as well as being such a fun and community driven way of raising money for violence against women, it is also incredibly important because it creates that community of women.
“So that you don’t feel like you are going it alone, you do feel like there’s other people representing you and what you believe and working with you on that journey because it definitely takes time.”
The idea of Get Hairy February is for women to take “one month out” of their normal leg and underarm shaving routines and in so doing challenge expectations, raise money to help eliminate violence against women and find out “why a little fuzz feels like freedom”.
“It is called the no shave movement because for the month of February that’s what the movement is about, but it is not at all about any one way of being, it is about it being a choice,” Andrews says.
“We are focusing on legs and underarms because they are the most common areas of the body that women wax and shave but we’ve got hair in all sorts of places, we remove hair from eyebrows to [toes].
“There is a complete flexibility in what we’re doing and what we’re hoping to achieve.”
It is no accident that it is taking place in February.
“I picked a summer month because it is challenging and people are wearing shorts and singlets,” Andrews says.
“That’s not because I think that there has to be a visual element but I do think it is part of celebrating our bodies. And I think if the campaign had been in winter… it would have sent the wrong message, that it has to be done in the winter months in order for it to be acceptable and that is not in the spirit of what the campaign is about.”
Instead Andrews says it is a question of gender equality and giving women a choice.
“At the base level we see that 95 per cent of women shave their legs and their under arm hair, and studies have shown that women who don’t shave are perceived as less intelligent, less attractive and more aggressive than their female counterparts who do,” Andrews says.
“So that in and of itself is an example where gender has lead to judgement and discrimination on the basis of a woman’s physical appearance and it sends that message that how you act and what you do with your body is something which society [has a say on] and is influencing, and if you don’t conform with that then you are not acceptable.
“That is related to gender and we see that with the pressure for women to act a certain way in the workplace, to dress a certain way, to do whatever it might be, it is that subtle control that is being exhibited by the media, but also friends and family, individuals in the community.
“All of those negative comments, that is an attempt to control women’s bodies and it might be the hair on their bodies but it is what they do with their bodies and that shares a relationship with a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy, a woman’s right to safety, a woman’s right to express her femininity however she sees it.”
Andrews says there has been a mixed response to the campaign so far.
“Public response has been really diverse which is exactly what we expected,” she says.
“I had a family friend say: ‘Oh there was some negative comments on one of your things,’ and I said: ‘That’s the point.’ The negative comments are an example of exactly what is the problem… I see that as being part and parcel of the campaigns existence.
“In terms of positive responses, we have had some incredible responses from people who have already signed up, people who have already been letting it grow for years [who are] just so thrilled.
“I had an older lady email me saying… ‘I’ve been doing this for decades, since my teens, and when I find a hairy sister it is so exciting, there have been few and far between over my lifetime but hopefully there will be more in the future.’
“And that sort of thing is just another reason why the campaign exists.”
All donations from the campaign go to The Full Stop Foundation which works to prevent violence against women and provide support services to those affected by violence.
“We’ve had over 300 people sign up, we’ve had over $10,500 raised …[it is] the first year [so] I am completely humbled and excited,” she says.
“I think it shows that, particularly in this political context, particularly when we see gender equality and violence against women being such prevalent and topical issues, really it is time for something like this, people are looking to get involved in something different and new, and another way of creating and having these conversations that are so important.”
Andrews says she would love for it to become an annual event.
“I am thrilled with the achievements that we’ve had this year so I would love to keep going but who knows, it will depend on if there are people that are willing to get behind it,” she says.
“I founded it with the hope that it would bring a lot of people who have already been working so hard in gender equality, whether it is just personally or as part of smaller groups or bigger organisations, together to do something that is kind of fun and topical, and if that continues and that interest is there, then I would love to keep it going for as long as possible.
“In the second year I will definitely be on the lookout to get more employers involved because we’ve seen such huge take-up for things like Movember in workplaces around the nation. It would just be a real breakthrough to see violence against women being treated the same way in workplaces around the country as we’ve seen men’s health… and other issues.
“Workplaces, have a real part to play in this and it should be something they wear with a badge of honour to support an organisation like the Full Stop Foundation or to get their employees involved in something like Get Hairy February.”
The main aim however is to change the way society sees hair – so it isn’t an issue at all.
“Hopefully what this campaign will lead to is not only significant funding and support for the Full Stop Foundation and 1800 Respect but it will also lead to just a society who looks at female body hair just as we look at men’s,” she says.
“[That] it is not an issue. You can have it, you can not have it, it’s not seen as gross, dirty, ugly or unfeminine. It just is.”
For more information on Get Hairy February, the no shave movement, see here.