My aunt used that expression with aplomb. Something wasn’t just a big deal; it was a big fat hairy deal. She is going to lose her shit over this.
I just spent half a day deliberately exposing myself to photos of women who do not shave their legs. Fat girls, skinny girls, young and old, rich and poor, of every race, married and single, career girls, student girls, athlete girls, bloggers, models, moms, daughters, Democrats and Republican. Every non-porn related hairy leg on the Internet attached to a biological female human has crossed my vision today. Peach fuzz, check. Black brambles, check. Red, brown, grey (!), curly, swirly, or barely there, check.
It’s one part research, one part preventative medicine. Yes, I had to take a day off from work to do this. Why? I need it to not shock me so much. I need to see hairy women doing normal things (as opposed to posing for photos). I need to reach a point where freely growing body hair and femininity can coexist in my regard. I see a hairy leg and think it looks masculine because I’ve been programmed to think so. I need exposure to female body hair to update my programming.
I checked out the Hairy Legs Club (yep, it’s a thing — an all girl thing). I read tons of articles by women who stopped shaving their legs years ago and still haven’t gone back. I read every reaction every woman who has dared to be hairy has received from the general public. I read about the huge disparity between male and female reactions (spoiler: women are much more offended and grossed-out than men). I read the history of women and shaving, including the timelines and the social prompts that transformed it from a suggestion into a mandate. I even absorbed with interest that Millennial girls are leading the charge to make women’s leg hair normal. Who knew?
Some context; lest you think I’ve developed a fetish. Two years ago I was advised to stop shaving my legs. I did not stop. There have been consequences. There have been medical consequences. I’ve managed those consequences relatively well. I did everything else I was told to do. I switched to a non-detergent, fragrance-free soap. I keep products with coconut oil off of my legs. I keep both artificial and natural fragrance oils off of my legs. I make my own moisturizer in my kitchen with natural shea butter. And I did reduce shaving but I never stopped altogether.
The shortened version of the story is that years of exposure to conventional beauty products had a cumulative effect that threw my skin into crisis. The chemicals in regular body washes, perfume, soaps, lotions, bubble bath, etc. never bothered me until one day they did. My skin took it all like a champ until one day it said Enough! Stop! Combined with stress and age and my insistence upon shaving my legs every single day since I was thirteen years old, the worst of the crisis manifested on my legs. Because I shave them. Every damn day. And I almost never wear pants, even in the winter.
Shaving breaks the skin with tiny tears and cuts. Shaving every day damages the skin and compromises its ability to protect (that’s skin’s JOB, by the way) and to resist infection. Shaving irritated skin irritates it more. Keep at it and the skin will erupt, infect, and threaten to die. Put it through this vicious cycle enough times and it will become so sensitive it will become a full-on diva. You know, over-reacting to every little single freakin’ tiny thing with excessive drama and hysterical behavior. So I treat the skin on my legs like a high-maintenance diva, and with the exception of the shaving, I do okay. Until I get a bug bite. (Sigh)
I mentioned yesterday that the past winter in Arkansas did not get cold enough to curb insects of the biting, stinging, and sucking varieties. Bites and stings from these insects trigger the diva. I’ve already been bitten by fleas, mosquitoes, ticks, and several spiders and it’s only the second week of June. This summer is predicted to be much worse. Sunday I went hiking and came into contact with all of the above plus plants that probably don’t bother the average person with non-diva skin problems. My feet, ankles, and legs are now a mess. I can apply ointments and therapies but the advice to stop shaving my legs has been sternly repeated.
I’ve got to stop shaving them and there really is no argument. Nothing I put on them is going to help until I stop breaking them down with shaving. And friends, this feels like whatever would be worse than a big fat hairy deal. A big fat hairy nightmare? Except it shouldn’t. This is my wellness at stake. But I’m not going to lie. I haven’t shaved in three days and it’s not even noticeable yet, but the idea of going another day, and another, and another feels more daunting than any hard thing I’ve ever done.
That’s utterly ridiculous when I really think about it, because I don’t have to DO anything. My body will do all the work. All I have to do is go about my business and wait for it to grow in. Why freak out? Because I’ve been programmed to think of hairy legs on a woman as undesirable, unacceptable, unfeminine and unattractive. If I let my leg hair grow it won’t matter that it was medically necessary. I will be undesirable, unacceptable, unfeminine, and unattractive. Me, the woman who once designed a hand-mirror that reads “I am the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” will believe I’m not anymore — because of my own naturally occurring hair.
The only times I’ve ever encountered hairy women, they were women of color. I know some black ladies who don’t shave. I’ve met some Hispanic women who don’t shave. I saw lots of leg/armpit/upper lip hair down in the Yucatan and on olive-skinned Europeans when I lived in DC. That feels like a long time ago in a land far, far away. I don’t know a single white woman with leg hair. I’ve never seen one in public. Women who look like me do not go out in public with hairy legs. They joke about letting it grow in the winter but they hide it under pants and then shave it off in a panic if they are forced to be a bridesmaid out of season or go on a beach vacation. No one in my social environment is out and proud with her hairy legs, which I why I had to turn to the Internet in order to see it, read it, and consider it.
Do you understand what this means? I WOULD BE THE ONLY ONE. It isn’t just that I would potentially be seen as a freak; I would be the only freak. I would be The Freak. That hairy woman. It would be me and only me referenced in response to the horror. Even I somehow manage to retrain my own brain to decide I’m desirable, acceptable, feminine, and attractive with hairy legs, I will stand alone in that belief.
And before you rush to counsel me that it shouldn’t matter what people think, slow your roll. Unless YOU are brave enough to do this with me you don’t get a vote on what should matter to me. I’m probably not going to let it matter enough to stop me from opting in favor of my wellness, but let’s not pretend that the way people react won’t matter at all. Of course it matters. Dealing with reactions to a woman who wears makeup, accessorizes her hair, wears dresses and jewelry, yet lets her leg hair grow out will be part of my practice moving forward. I’m not a hippy chick. I’m not a homesteader. I’m not a fundamentalist congregant. Not a militant gender-role abolitionist. There’s no complimentary lifestyle to apply to my hairy legs that help people make sense of it. My hairy legs will be weird and out of context. It’s going to matter.
I confronted my husband, in case you’re wondering. His advice was, “I think you should do whatever you need to do.” When I pointed out that I would be doing it in public, sometimes alongside him, he said, “Okay. Do what you need to do.”
Yeah. That sounds great except it felt like my last excuse not to do it went up in flames. The prospect didn’t horrify my husband. Shit. No patriarchy to oppress me. No fodder for false rationalizations or lame cop-outs. The only person holding me back is Me. (Sigh)
Notice how many times I keep typing my hairy legs. My hairy legs. My hairy legs. I need to get used it. As if it’s a foregone conclusion, even though it’s only day three and I only have stubble. It’s not too late to reconsider. I could go shave right now and delete this draft as if the whole hairy business never crossed my mind. But I’m tired of itching so badly I scratch until I bleed. I’m tired of angry red welts and oozing bumps and burning strawberry blotches. I’m tired of the stinging when I sweat, bathe, or apply cream. Ironically, I’m tired of looking down and thinking of how awful my legs look. They can’t get better if I don’t let them.
Head in hands.
Tears in eyes.
Heart in arrhythmia.
Trying like hell to release my own previously unchallenged standard of beauty.
I’ve got to be brave enough to get well.
Brave brave brave.
Brave brave brave.
It won’t cost me anything that wasn’t already conditional upon my agreement to conform and submit to an idea that did not and does not serve me.
Brave brave brave.
I won’t cost me anyone who isn’t already afraid that accepting me will make them unacceptable too. I can’t really afford to keep people like that around me. I need bravery.
The only reason not to do it is fear. Am I going to keep crippling my skin’s wellness out of fear? Or am I going to show mercy?
Brave brave brave.
Brave brave brave.
Mercy is my name.
Brave is my new game.
— Mercy Of The Short Legs With Long Hair