What grooming habits is she going to learn from me and what will I tell her about why she might be expected to shave her legs, while her brothers won’t be, and about who, in actuality, she will be shaving them for?
Women have been removing body hair since the beginning of time. There are pictures of ancient Egyptian females with coiffed triangles of pubic hair, and we know it doesn’t grow like that naturally. Through the ages, “excess” body hair on women was considered, at different times, uncivilized, low class, dirty, and unappealing. While men have not been wholly spared this assessment, and many of them continue to shave their faces, the lion’s share of judgment is reserved for women. A 2013 study revealed that woman are held “hostage” to hair removal, admitting that they spend a total of £8000 and four months of a lifetime in an effort to achieve skin that is “baby soft.”
I find the “baby” part of this equation particularly bothersome now that I have a daughter myself and am reminded of what a young girl actually looks like. Certain body hair, of course, is a hallmark of puberty. The return of a full-grown woman to a state of “baby” softness, of looking like a six-year-old girl in any respect, is theoretically bizarre. And if men want us to look like girls, well, that’s even worse. I certainly don’t want to see a man sport a pubic area that resembles my young son’s. But nobody would ever suggest that.
And yet, 70% of girls ages 12 to 20 say they routinely shave or wax the pubic area (despite however many articles a year herald the return of the bush). Like me, they were perhaps taught the basics of hair removal by their mothers. Even if not, where hair should and shouldn’t be on a woman-and the larger message of what constitutes female beauty-is an aesthetic that is reinforced, over and over again, by the media and now by the Internet, with its dizzying amount of information and graphics. According to Peggy Orenstein, in her excellent new book Girls & Sex, many young women cast removing all of their pubic hair as a personal choice. But “when I pressed further,” she writes, “another darker motivation emerged: avoiding humiliation.”
A friend recently told me that her eight-year-old daughter is adamant she wants to shave her arms. The mother, alarmed, has no idea where this desire came from, and at such a young age to boot, and she has no experience with it herself, as a relatively hairless person. But I could relate. I can remember all too well those 15 minute intervals of perching on the side of the bathtub, bleach slathered over my arms, the skin itching like bugs crawling, the relief when it finally came time to wash the stuff off. I’ve stopped doing that at least, I said to my friend, rolling up my sleeves to show her the dark, plentiful hair there. As with her daughter, the same semitic genes that gave me a thick and lustrous head of hair, the one I’m so proud of, are responsible for hair being visible in other places on my body society tells me it shouldn’t be.
I don’t blame my mother for introducing me to-and indoctrinating me in-the ways of female grooming. As much as we genuinely believe as parents that the beauty of our children lies within, we still want them to be attractive on the outside, by our own standards as well as the world’s (and the two inevitably overlap). We want them to fit in, even if we recognize the conventions to be arbitrary. I don’t believe girls will ever be able to make decisions about these things in a vacuum. Though I’m not exactly sure what I will tell my own daughter in this respect, I’m going to make it clear to her, to the extent possible, that beauty is a cultural construct and, as such, she need not be beholden to the version du jour. And I will take solace in the fact that I suspect fate has dealt me an easier hand than it did my mother. My daughter is as fair and fine-haired as they come.
Lauren Apfel is an expat, INTJ, writer and mother of four, who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. She is the co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.