What’s your current Facebook profile picture like? Is it you with your fella, or a favourite holiday snap? Well, my chosen pic got some pretty harsh comments. It’s a selfie of me in a vest top, with my arms behind my head. Showing off my long and dark armpit hair to the world. That’s right – I don’t shave. And it’s not just my underarms, I don’t shave anywhere.
Do you think that’s ugly, dirty or disgusting? Well, you aren’t the only one. I faced a bit of a backlash online because of it. Growing up, I thought that painstaking hair removal was part of being a woman. My beautician mum Jenny was always immaculately well groomed. And from the age of 12, so was I. ‘I’ll show you how to wax your own bikini line,’ she offered.
For years after, I put myself through the painful process. I even gave myself a totally bare Hollywood wax from time to time. Of course, shaving my legs and underarms were part of the package too. For 16 years, I carried on that way, just like every other woman I knew.
By the time I turned 28, I lived in London with my boyfriend of five years, Jimmy Price, 30, and worked as a TV researcher. I never gave a second thought to my perfectly plucked bikini line, smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom legs, and hair-free underarms. Then, on my tube journey to work one day, I read a magazine article that changed everything. It was about women with unshaved armpit hair and how it disgusted one man so much it made him want to vomit. Suddenly, my face flushed red with anger. ‘How dare he?’ I wanted to scream out loud. After all, hair is natural, it’s what you’re born with. If a woman wants to shave it – or not – how is that anyone else’s business in the slightest?
Plus, men don’t have to shave and wax their way to looking like a plucked chicken. Nobody even bats an eyelid if a bloke has a moustache or a beard. Why should women’s body hair be any different? That’s it, I thought. No more shaving and waxing for me. Curious what all the fuss was about, I thought I’d experiment by, well, doing nothing. Next morning, when I stepped into the shower, I didn’t so much as touch my razor.
And over the next few weeks as my dark bikini line grew in, I did nothing to stop it from turning into a beautiful bush. Not that I told anyone what I was doing. Because the truth was, while I was comfortable with my new body hair, I was nervous about how friends and family would react. I certainly didn’t declare it on Facebook. Only I couldn’t hide it forever, especially not from Jimmy. ‘I stopped shaving,’ I blurted out, lifting up my arm to flash the dark down as I got dressed one morning. ‘You’re not exactly hairy now, are you?’ chuckled long-haired, bearded Jimmy.
His relaxed response gave me the courage to tell my dad John the next time he popped round. ‘I’m growing my armpit hair,’ I said. I held my breath and waited for his response. Would he gasp in horror and snarl in disgust? He laughed. ‘Typical Charlie,’ he said. I suppose I did have a habit of doing things on a whim. When I was 23, I went a year without make-up, and I was a vegetarian for a while too. So to the people closest to me, I was just Crazy Charlie, going through some daft new phase. Still, I stuck with it.
Even after five months of growth when my hair got thicker and more tufty. Not just under my arms, either. My legs were covered in soft downy fuzz, and as for my bikini line… compared to my Hollywood wax days, I may as well have been hiding a small woodland creature in my knickers. Especially considering the way strangers reacted to me, like when I went swimming at the local leisure centre. I was standing in the changing room one day, putting on my high-cut swimming costume, when I noticed a woman staring at it.
Pit of Despair
I prickled with embarrassment. Imagine having a stranger stare at your lady garden! Except in my case, it was more of a forest. At least she didn’t say anything, I thought when she finally looked away. But it made me realise not everyone was as chilled out as Jimmy and Dad. And what I did with my own body might actually be a problem for some people.
By now the spring weather was warming up and, digging out my strappy tops, I started feeling self-conscious. It got worse when I stepped into a hot, crowded London Underground carriage one morning. There were no seats available. And the only place I could hang on was a handrail along the ceiling! I can’t lift my arm to hold on, I thought, nervously. Everyone will see. I wasn’t ashamed, I just didn’t want dozens of strangers staring at my armpit.
Instead, I stood in the middle of the packed carriage with my arms pinned to my sides. Only as the tube got moving I was jostled about, bouncing off fellow passengers and muttering ‘sorry’ at their frowning faces. So embarrassing. Was that enough to make me reach for the razor? No way! I liked my new natural look and the freedom that it brought me. I hadn’t meant to become the poster girl for hairy pits but it seemed to be happening in any case. That’s it! I thought. If I’m going to do this I can’t hide it any longer. So I snapped a selfie, showing off my armpit hair in all its glory, and then I anxiously posted it on Facebook and Twitter.
Dear Friends, I typed. I haven’t shaved my armpits since January. I’d like to know what everyone thinks. The replies came in thick and fast. Brilliant! Sexy! Womanly! the first comment read. Phew. But as I read further on, I started to bristle. Not good – you are a girl, said someone else. Less likely to sweat without the hair, said another. Those are the source of bad smells on the human body! a fourth friend then commented. I stared at the screen in shock. Sweaty? Bad smells? Was that really what people thought of me? The weirdest replies I got were on Twitter.
Lots of unrepeatable things were sent to me from several different accounts where the profile pictures were just a penis. I Googled ‘hairy woman’ and – yikes! I hadn’t realised body hair was a fetish for some men. That made me feel dirty, not the tufts of hair poking out from under my arms. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I found the Facebook group WANG – Women Against Non-essential Grooming – and joined straight away. The page was full of snaps of women with hairy legs like mine. This is brilliant, I grinned.
Scrolling down, I read posts about how others had received negative comments about their body hair. One was even asked to shave for her friend’s wedding. Finally, I thought. A place where I won’t be judged. Now, I’ve been growing my body hair for six months. I’ve vowed not to shave for at least the rest of summer. I’ve heard of Armpits4August, where women grow armpit hair to raise awareness of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). All women should have the choice whether or not to get rid of their body hair. Nobody should be called disgusting or smelly because of it. So for now, this is me. Hairy and happy.
As told to: Paula Greenspan
As published by Love it Magazine