Monday, July 14, 2014

Extra Points for Defiant Pits

Hairless/hairy/hairless/hairy students in Prof. Fahs's class
I am giving a huge virtual high-five to Professor Breanna Fahs at Arizona State University. Since 2010, Fahs has offered students in her gender and women's studies classes extra credit to go against the gender grain. For the women, they get extra credit if they don't shave their armpits, and for the men, they get the extra credit if they do shave their armpits. The students have to persist through their gender experiment for the full 10 weeks of the class, and they have to keep a journal about the experience and people's reactions.

According to ASU News, the women in the class had more backlash to deal with than the men. Student Stephanie Robinson explained, "Many of my friends didn't want to work out next to me or hear about the assignment and my mother was distraught..." And her classmate Grace Scale had the experience of "One of my dearest friends--at the time--compared my underarm hair to 'the sludge at the bottom of the garbage can,' and continued on a rant about how growing body hair had a direct correlation to challenging men's authority and position in society."

As you may have noticed from my recent week of gender play at Barnard College, I am really interested in gender experiments. Fahs's assignment lets students take a chance at challenging one of our most pervasive gender norms and letting them see for themselves how untrue it is when people insist, "But people can do whatever they want their body hair." There are absolutely repercussions for 'violating' a gender norm like this one, especially one this country has had in full force since the early 1900s.

I know this because during college, I wrote a paper on the history of women and shaving. Let me just quote my 21-year-old self a little bit (footnotes included):

"Women’s hair has long been a loaded concept. For the Victorians in particular, “it became an obsession. In painting and literature, as well as in their popular culture, they discovered in the image of women’s hair a variety of rich and complex meanings, ascribing to it powers both magical and symbolic,” explains historian Elizabeth Gitter.[1] Contemporary shampoo and conditioner ads feature women swinging their voluminous locks in the camera frame, the ads’ narratives congratulating the brand on its thickening and smoothing qualities. The hair featured is luxurious and never short. We are meant to gather that hair is a coveted good, to still accept the Victorian standard—but only if it exists on the head.

"Hair on women’s armpits and legs, which has the same density as scalp hair, is not admired for its thickness or smoothness, nor its luxurious softness, despite growing from the same genes. Suffice to say there is a major inconsistency within the status of women’s hair. Hair is lovely and “magical,” but with the strict stipulation that it is only so on female’s heads. But who’s stipulation is this? Historians respond, “the norm itself was initially fostered by depilatory marketers, who saw that money was to be made from convincing women that body hair was a flaw.”[2] Through pervasive advertising and framing body hair removal as a necessity rather than a choice, razor companies have successfully make a physiologically arbitrary action a socially necessary habit: Approximately 85 percent to 90 percent of women have unwanted body hair.[3]

"... Corporate gain is a direct result of classifying body hair as shameful. No matter how brightly colored the ads or how cheerily the model smile while holding a razor to their tanned leg, ads for razors at their most basic telling women there is something wrong with one of their natural functions, hair growth. 

"... “I shave because I like it” is a frequent assertion, but a historically inaccurate statement. Women shave because Harper’s Bazaar arbitrarily told them to in 1915."

Through the process of researching and writing this paper, little firebrand college student me actually convinced myself that shaving, waxing and lasering body hair was unnatural, harmful, and a waste of time. But if I had never had a chance to really think long and hard about why we value women's shaved legs and armpits as a culture, I'm not sure I would have questioned my own practices.

The brilliance of Fahs's extra credit assignment is that for students who opt to, they can actually make a choice, and do so along with a cohort. Having your classmates provide solidarity for those inevitable times where people give you disgusted looks or tell you that you look ugly is important. Because that's how gender norms work--they get policed by those who are invested in it, and it takes a bit of grit and friends beside you for you to choose a different way.

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[1] Elisabeth G. Gitter, “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination,” PMLA 99.5 (1984): 936.
[2] Merran Toerien, Sue Wilkinson, and Precilla Y.L Choi, “Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity,” Sex Roles 52. 5/6 (2005): 404.
[3] Marika Tiggerman and Sarah J. Kenyon, “The hairlessness norm: The removal of body hair in women” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 39.11-12 (1998): 873.

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