In 2019, I stopped shaving my armpits completely. Before that summer, I had only gone unshaven a few months at a time. The first time was the summer break before my senior year of high school. I couldn’t go to school without shaving or else it would be a uniform violation and I would be forced to shave with a dirty, used razor in the principal's office.
Shaving becomes part of one’s life in an unhealthy way. You’ll cancel plans or nick the skin shaving too quickly just to rid yourself of the unwanted, prickly little hairs. They stand up, poking through fabrics and itching uncontrollably. We are taught to make them disappear. An adolescent self in a hot shower, running the razor over the skin to make sure it’s completely bald. It’s a cheap, plastic thing with no more than two blades. The cost of it is the pink tax and a cluster of razor bumps. You could have bought the nicer metal razor from the men’s section if you had picked it out yourself.
A razor, a shaver, whatever one might call it, is a tool introduced at the beginning of puberty. It’s right around the time you hate everything, and then your mom gives you a Pepto-pink pack of dull, disposable blades. You will probably overuse them because no one tells you how long a disposable razor lasts.
A proper shave requires a high-quality razor, shaving cream, hot water, towels, and time. But a shave usually doesn’t happen until the last 30 minutes of getting ready. You realize you forgot to shave and so you do it with lightning speed, using only cold tap water and some Bath & Body Works hand lotion. Now you have a red constellation of razor bumps and flaky skin.
Shaving is a routine for all people. Most people, wherever they fall on the gender spectrum, have a relationship with a razor. But for those who identify as female, shaving is considered especially important during development. The shaving industry is a scam because it’s led us to believe our hygiene and desirability are hinged on shaving. However, women had unbothered body hair until 1915. Just a little more than a hundred years ago, it was normal to be unshaven.
By the early decades of the 20th century, women were beginning to shed layers of their clothes and show more skin. At the same time, women were claiming independence in their social life which led to a lot of modern dancing.
From this combination was born an ad campaign that encouraged women to “smooth” their “limbs” of “embarrassing and unsightly” hair. With precise wording and tone, the ad’s purpose was to make certain that hair on female bodies seems offensive or akin to being unclean. Nude stockings became popular, but leg hair removal was advertised within another decade or two.
When I stopped shaving my armpits, I was doing it for the badassery. To show that I was not one of those 1915 women ready to destroy myself for the preferred look. But I would shave it whenever I wanted to. Of course, with a decision like this, everyone must weigh in with their opinions about my personal choice.
The first comments that stuck with me were from my mother. She asked if I would regret it in my wedding photos. I thought it was strange for her to ask. I hadn’t told her I was getting married anytime soon. And if the decision was to get married in the next 24 hours, I am lucky enough to be with someone who wants to marry me, armpit hair and all.
The handful of people in my life who feel the need to say something about my body hair goes beyond my personal circle. I was once told by an employer of mine that it was not professional or businesslike to not shave your armpits. A statement like this is hard not to laugh at because most large corporations are run by men who do not shave their armpits. So where is the correlation between professionalism and having unshaven armpits? It’s in the power of keeping a whole gender in control.
In truth, there is power to my armpit hair. It makes me feel in control. I also realized that I was always more comfortable, and my armpits less irritated, whenever I left the hair to grow. This was part of the reason why I quit shaving that area. If you have ever been a person who at one point routinely shaved their armpits, I am sure you can attest to how sensitive the armpit is compared to the legs.
Over shaving can cause MRSA infections if you cut into your skin, along with ingrown hairs and rashes. I am glad to have that mess behind me.
The reason why I hound on the risks of over-shaving is because most women do over-shave. You shave to look like you never had any hair there to begin with. The moment there is hair, you shave. There is never a period where you let the hair grow out. Body hair isn’t just some random useless thing on the human body. Unlike nipples on dudes, hair actually has a purpose. Armpit hair in particular is meant as a barrier against friction during activities.
Hair grows out of individual follicles, which are essentially (sorry trypophobes) tiny little holes on your skin. Wherever hair grows and has been shaven makes the skin incredibly porous and sponge-like. If you use antiperspirant with aluminum right after shaving, all those nasty toxic chemicals will be sucked into your skin. Doing this routinely over time can actually increase your risk of breast cancer by six times. Shaving creams also have artificial fragrances that can make your skin even more irritated.
And the pros for keeping the hair there continues! Body hair keeps us comfortable and it also creates pheromones, which increase your desirability. This is because a pheromone is like a hormone that works externally and affects other people by triggering sexual arousal. The pheromones in body odor can be magnified by hair. And with all of that being said, there is no logical defense for expecting women to shave more than men, or at all.
If you are looking to stop shaving here is my advice: throw out the razor. Feeling the “pricklies” can make you want to grab that razor right away. My suggestion is to condition the hair while it grows out. It’ll make the hair softer and less like a cactus.
And I promise you, an unshaven armpit will not smell more than a shaven one.
Before that fateful year of 1915, the notion of hairlessness being preferred came from Darwin’s Descent of Man book from 1871. In it, there’s a study showing how other races, compared to white people, grew more hair that was usually thicker. The conclusion in this book on the study was that those races were “primitive.”
In the late 19th century, women were thrown into asylums for any reason. One of these bogus “symptoms” of female hysteria was growing coarse, black hair. Back in that day, seeing specifically a white woman growing dark facial and body hair was grounds for declaring her insane. This was due to that Darwinistic idea of racial and hair relativity. Put simply, white women were considered medically insane for growing hair like women of color. There are about 271 documented cases of this happening.
As a white woman on the body-hair-by-rejecting-shaving journey, I have an easier time not shaving and getting away with it because my hair grows thinner. If I leave it to grow, it’s not as noticeable as someone with dark black hair that grows much thicker than mine. Shaving as a part of the feminine hygiene routine was brought to the world through colonization. It is a way to further control those who are not white, by making the beauty standard that marginalized those who were not smooth, hairless white women. To not acknowledge this would be to whitewash the larger purpose of rejecting these generational beauty norms.
And speaking of the norms, Joysheel Shrivastava writes for Feminism in India about the gaining traction of body hair, “between 1940-1980, body hair removal crystallized as the norm in the USA. As a result of multiple factors such as increasing globalization, colonialism, ‘modernisation’ and Westernisation, the practice slowly and gradually permeated into parts of the world as well.”
With time, we have slowly crawled away from this patriarchal myth of baby smooth, hairless skin on adult women. The key word here is slowly because we still see the alternative in few and far between beauty campaigns. From my observations – as part of that demographic that gets targeted with beauty ads – it’s only been the last few years of seeing the breakaway from the heroine chic era of fashion models. There are definitely some new, more comfortable beauty norms in town brought about by the movement of body positivity which includes the unshaven. More women today are rejecting these ridged myths from centuries ago to live their lives more freely.
There is nothing brave about not shaving. “Bravery” implies that you are doing something most people would not do without considering the risk. But I see no risk in living life with hairy armpits. Sure, not shaving can be a feminist act. It can be misinterpreted as a desire to look more like a man or less like a woman. For me, it’s about lassoing body autonomy. It’s about not feeling pressured by what was handed to us as routine by old white men from over a century ago. There is an association between the feeling of unshaven skin and freedom. And so I’ll chase after that feeling without hesitation. If I don’t want to shave, then that’s it. I choose what I shave and what I don’t shave. It’s no longer about shaving for other people. So please leave this lovely, hairy lady and her unshaven armpits alone.