Sunday, December 31, 2006

Underarm hair

Echidne has a good rant about the conservative obsession with female body hair:

A recent wingnut cartoon adventure story (read: incitement towards civil war) has the picture [below] about the horrible enemies of all right-thinking wingnuts: animal rights activists and I guess the animals they protect. They're coming to get you and your Bible!

But look at the stubble on the woman's legs. That is a signifier that she is a feminist, a feminazi, a woman who will probably eat her children. She's having leg hairs! Eek. She probably has hairy armpits, too. Pardon me while I vomit.

Animal Rights Terrorists
(Click for larger image.)

I'm as much a product of my culture as the next person, so I'm not going to discuss the aethetics of body hair (female or male!) except to note that I was surprised to see letters to American Playboy running four to one in favour of centerfolds with neatly trimmed pubic hair instead of completely shaved. What interests me more is the sociology of the armpit wars.

Especially fascinating is the double-standard of the American conservatives, who on the one hand declare that the nature of women is not just biologically fixed but that it is God-given right and proper that it be so -- except for body hair. Woman who choose to keep their natural, "god-given" body hair and not shave it off are at best freaks and unnatural, and at worse evil.

Just think about that. It is unnatural to not actively remove your natural body hair.

How does this belief differ from the horrific tribal belief widespread across Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia that it is unnatural for women to keep their external genitalia? Of course shaving hair off is not the equivalent of permanently removing bits of your flesh, and there is a vast gulf between the social pressure to shave (whether women's legs or men's faces) and the sometimes forced practice of female genital cutting, but I'm talking about the attitute behind it. In both cases, it is natural to be unnatural, or if you prefer, unnatural to be natural.

Of course, it isn't just women who feel the sting of conservative social disapproval. In conservative circles, men who grow their hair long as god intended (why else would hair continue to grow after it reached the length of a short-back-and-sides?) are disparaged and suffer vituperation -- despite the Biblical precedent of Samson, and traditional drawings of Jesus Christ with long hair. It wasn't that long ago that long-haired men risked physical attack if they wandered into the wrong conservative area.

Beards, for some reason, come and go as fashion, and apart from the occasional outlawing of beards by (say) Russian czars, I don't know of any period in recent Western history when men suffered more than the lightest social disapproval for their facial hair or lack of it. (Although that disapproval can be pretty severe: try running for election as president with long hair.)

Another interesting factor is the double-edged way that conservatives use body hair as a weapon against women. If a woman shaves, then clearly she's (at least partially) submitting to particular social conventions. Any particular woman may or may not care about that -- after all, not all social conventions are bad. I don't see the social convention that people of both sexes shower and keep clean as particularly oppressive. But if a woman chooses to buck the convention, it gives conservatives two angles of attack: on the one hand, unshaven legs and armpits become a sign that the person isn't a real woman, that they are ugly, manly, unable to attract a man and therefore their entire motives become suspect: "they're just an angry man-hating feminazi".

But on the other hand, and at the same time, they are also condemned for wasting their time on silly trivialities. To the conservative mind, female body hair is simultaneously a trivial matter of grooming not worth getting upset about and a significant symbol of femininity that colours not only the entire personality of the woman but also the credibility of her message. It is as if somebody said "Oh, I don't care what the mathematics says, Professor Hawking's theories about quantum mechanics are all nonsense -- just look at the tie he is wearing!"

Hmmm. I'm reminded that Australia's Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, rose massively in opinion polls when he started plucking his eyebrows. As Mrs Impala reminds me, we're all baboons obsessed with pink bottoms really.

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