Appearance, part 5: appearance and sexism

In the last post in my appearance series, I talked about how the patriarchy makes it hard for men to deviate from a masculine gender expression. Men are seen as the norm in our society, and if a man deviates from looking like society’s conception of how men should be, he’s seen as foolish or weak. Because of this, women are able to present in a somewhat masculine way and receive less backlash than men would for appearing feminine. But even though this is the case, there is still a lot of societal pressure on women to look feminine—which often requires much more effort than looking masculine does.

Putting aside whether or not being feminine actually means wearing makeup and shaving your legs, our society at least has an expectation that women will do these things. In general, men don’t have to remove their natural body hair or add color to their faces to be socially accepted. However, how often do you see a woman walking around with hairy legs? What sort of reaction would one get if she did? Women are told that, because they are female, they must do certain things to their bodies—things that have no purpose other than for looks (and why are women’s looks so important? Because men want to enjoy them, of course!), things that take time, effort, and money. Things that men do not have to do. In one of the articles I linked to in the last appearance post, a boy who showed up at the DMV with makeup on was accused of wearing “a disguise”. No one looks at makeup on women in this way; it’s seen as natural, and if a woman doesn’t wear it, that’s what’s considered strange.

I’ve never actually worn makeup, and have mostly been able to avoid any pressure to do so. But as soon as I began growing leg hair, I was anxious to start shaving it off. I saw the smooth legs of my female peers and didn’t want to stand out for not looking like them. I was nervous about asking my mom if I could start shaving, though, so I went to camp at age 12 with hairy legs, and wore jeans all week and just shrugged when people asked, “Aren’t you hot?” I listened to a girl in my cabin call herself a “hairy ape” because she hadn’t shaved for a few days. My camp counselor said she wouldn’t bother shaving except that “it’s not socially acceptable not to.” And then I had to stand with all the other campers in a big circle around the pool before we all jumped in for our early-morning polar bear swim, with my hairy legs on view for everyone to see, and feel an agonizing shame over them. They were ugly. They were wrong. They made me a social aberrant.

When I finally did start shaving, it was wonderful to be able to show my legs without fear or shame. I fit in! I looked okay! But… I kind of hated shaving. I didn’t want to spend money on nice razors, so I ended up with painful, bloody nicks or razor burn. My showers now took twice as long. I let the hair grow out over the winter, since I wasn’t wearing shorts at all then, and that made the first shave of the summer take forever. But I still kept doing it, because, like the author of this article (which provides a great rundown of the ways the stigma surrounding female body hair is harmful, and ways to combat it), I saw it as necessary for my self-esteem and social acceptance. I felt embarrassed for my mom and sister, who weren’t shaving at the time (they’ve both since started), because they were violating a social norm.

But then last year, after 10 years of removing the hair from my legs and armpits, I read Ily’s posts detailing her experience with quitting shaving, which she dubbed the Hobbit Acceptance Project (she actually says she didn’t directly receive any negative reactions to her hairy legs, which is awesome, but she also mentions how there are certain settings, like work, where she doesn’t display the hair because it wouldn’t be acceptable). In one of them she included two links—one to the Hairy Pits Club Tumblr, which showcases images of women with unshaven armpits, and one to a post on the blog I Blame the Patriarchy, which was one of several posts on that site declaring that feminists must eschew traditional markers of femininity (F-word warning for that link), like shaving.* And those three things—Ily’s posts, Hairy Pits Club, and the I Blame the Patriarchy post—combined were enough to get me to finally put down my razor. Whether or not I shaved was suddenly not an issue of social acceptance, but one of feminism. Society said, “People with vaginas must shave the hair off their legs and armpits.” I said, “That’s bull—-.” (Unfortunately, though, as soon as I started letting the hair grow, I took pains to cover it up, because I was still embarrassed. So sure, I had stopped shaving, and I told a few people I knew, but I didn’t show it off in public. Which kind of defeats the purpose. I’ll try to work on that this summer.)

When I pulled up my pant leg in front of my sisters (one of whom used to not shave—but she had blond hair while mine is dark) to reveal my hairy legs, they reacted with shock, and one with laughter. Women don’t see hairy legs on themselves or other women, because they’re constantly shaving the hair off. So when they do see it, it looks wrong and unnatural, even though of course natural is exactly what it is (Ily points out in one of her HAP posts that nobody knows what’s “normal” when it comes to body hair, because we’re always removing it). But when it comes to women’s appearances, unnatural has become the norm. Of course a million things humans do are “unnatural”—brushing our teeth, living in a house. So my point isn’t that natural is automatically better, but that the standards of what’s acceptable are different for men and women. It’s okay for men to let their body hair grow, and to show their natural faces to the world. But that’s not the case for women.

I think this is why, as I mentioned in the last post, there are more feminine-gendered aspects of appearance than there are male. If men are the norm, then to be feminine, you have to deviate from that norm by modifying your body and wearing clothes that men don’t wear, clothes that are impractical in a lot of situations. Dresses and skirts require you to be careful with your movements and not do anything active, and in a comment on my last appearance post, luvtheheaven mentions her difficulty with finding shoes because of the requirement, in certain situations, that women wear high heels. These are shoes that are hard to walk in if you’re not used to it, and that can cause damage to your feet, legs, and back. But in some situations, it’s practically mandatory that women wear them—while men are always allowed to wear comfortable, flat shoes.

I’m not trying to say that high heels are evil or that no woman should ever look typically feminine (the I Blame the Patriarchy article I linked to does explicitly say that, but I don’t agree and you can read why in the footnote)—just that the expectations and requirements our society places on women, saying that there’s only one right way to be a woman, which requires doing things to your body that range from annoying to downright harmful, is a problem, and that men don’t have to deal with this in the same way. Society is obsessed with women’s appearances, and policing them; it seems like the most important thing about a woman in our culture is her looks, while with men, we focus on personality and achievements. How often have you heard a woman introduced as “my beautiful wife” or “the lovely so-and-so”? Now imagine a man being introduced as “the handsome Mr. whoever”—it does happen occasionally, but it sounds like you’re talking about a little boy, because it’s kind of diminutive to call attention to someone’s appearance like that, especially in a professional context. And how often have you seen women and girls greeted, or been greeted yourself if you’re a woman, with, “You look so nice!”—whether it’s on a date, at work, or in the hall at school. In contrast, men aren’t expected to be noticed for their appearances, so if you greeted a guy with “You look so good today!” he’d probably be flattered but a little surprised and confused, maybe even self-conscious, because he wouldn’t be expecting it.

Women do expect it, though, because to be a woman is to be subject to an intense appraisal of your appearance, all the time. No woman is exempt—when a president’s wife appears in public, the talk is all about what she’s wearing, even though unlike with an actress or model, there’s no reason her appearance should matter. People dissect Hillary Clinton’s appearance, when it has nothing to do with her as a politician. Men just aren’t picked apart like this. Compare this article, in which a female comedian details being cruelly criticized for how she looked at an awards ceremony, particularly her choice of dress, to this one, about a male television presenter wearing the same suit to work nearly every day for a year and never once getting noticed for it. The double standard is painfully obvious, and has painful results when women are pressured, ridiculed, shamed, and condemned, all because of how they look.

*The link included above is the author’s most in-depth post on this subject, but here’s the one Ily linked to, and this is another one where the author, Twisty, lays out her opinions of femininity very clearly. In these posts, Twisty asserts that femininity is “for smushing women”, saying that all typical expressions of femininity degrade women and play into the interests of the patriarchy, and that to be a feminist you have to liberate yourself from feminine-gendered things. I read that post and was inspired by it, as I said above, initially feeling inclined to agree, since I’m not typically feminine and don’t understand the appeal of dresses and makeup—saying, “Yeah, these things are bad, and getting rid of them is one way to fight the patriarchy!” sounded good to me. But after thinking and writing more about feminism and gender, I can’t agree that a woman who enjoys wearing skirts is harming other women. My problem with skirts isn’t that they exist, but that it’s only socially acceptable for one sex to wear them.

There was also one major thing in Twisty’s article (the one I linked to in the body of the post) that didn’t sit well with me from the beginning. She says that if a man would look ridiculous doing something, that proves “how f—ing stupid” it is, and that femininity as typically expressed makes women sub-human. But… doesn’t that just contribute to the setting up of men as the norm? She is explicitly saying that we should judge everything by a standard of maleness, which means that men are right, and women are wrong, and that women should be like men. That sounds pretty anti-feminist to me.


5 thoughts on “Appearance, part 5: appearance and sexism

  1. justaddwater11 January 9, 2015 / 8:08 pm

    Wow. I don’t comment much, but I felt compelled to do so here!
    For starters, I have just come up on my own personal one-year anniversary of hairy legs/armpits (woo!) and I too am not very inclined to display it in public usually wearing long pats and shirts with sleeves. Your link to Ily’s HAP posts did give me some good ideas of easing into being a little bit more open about it.
    Secondly, I find your observation in the footnote about “judg[ing] everything by a standard of maleness” to be particularly enlightening. I had a class last semester where one person used an example of a music video that essentially tried to argue Twisty’s point, which made me uncomfortable but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Reading your argument has helped me understand why and I agree completely with what you said.
    Thanks :)


    • cinderace January 11, 2015 / 1:56 am

      Yay for not shaving! Yeah, I liked Ily’s ideas too–starting with rolled-up jeans would definitely be more comfortable than going right to shorts. I’ll see how it goes when summer rolls around…

      Glad I could help! I had to think about Twisty’s post for a little while before being able to put into words exactly what bothered me about it. Thanks for the comment. :)


  2. locoluna77 June 9, 2015 / 7:32 am

    Heyo! So I wanted to throw in my two-cents about the whole femininity-shaving-not-shaving debate. Sorry, in advance, it might be a tad long.
    I am a cis-female who swam in high school, so I have been accustomed to shaving all the way up my legs plus some of my “bikini area” (I’ll never understand why “pubic hair” is so scary for razor packaging) and my armpits for a very long time. But, also because I was a swimmer, I used to go about a month in the fall without shaving at all. (It’s a trick to make you swim faster, hairy skin feels different in the water than smooth so you let it grow then shave it all off right before a big meet and you feel sleek and fast so you actually go faster.) After high school I also participated in no-shave November, but after each occasion I shaved my legs again. All these things meant that I had hairy legs for about a month out of the year for a while, but they were all “socially acceptable reasons” to have them.
    Now, as a feminist, I had been debating not shaving for a while, but after the last time i did no-shave November, I realized something. I really liked having my legs shaved. Sure it’s a little tedious to do, but I LOVE the feeling of freshly shaved legs. However, I had never really liked shaving my armpits. For some reason they always ended up bumpy and a little itchy and it sometimes hurt to shave them. And the last time I was doing no-shave November, while I was looking forward to having smooth legs again, I realized I was going to miss my little armpit fluffs. So I said “screw it” and decided to stop shaving my armpits. BUT, I still shave my legs, because I like it.
    So in the debate of “please the man and shave it off” or “screw the man and leave it on” I chose neither. I shave what I choose to shave and leave what I choose to leave for me, and no one else. Of course this doesn’t stop me from being a little shy about my fluffy pits in public, just like anyone else it’s gonna take a while to get past literal decades of conditioning about female body hair. And it certainly helps that, as an aro ace, I don’t have anyone to pressure me about my body hair because of “what they like in a woman”. But I encourage anyone wrestling with the “to shave or not to shave” question to consider what they want, then leave it at that.
    I commend you for making your decision to quit shaving all together and I wish you the best in the summer months! Also, may I suggest swimming with your furry legs? While I love smooth dolphin-skin I always found that swimming with unshaven legs tickles quite pleasantly when you first get in, and I do miss that sometimes :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • cinderace April 1, 2016 / 12:08 pm

      This is a very late response, but I appreciate your comment! I also liked the feeling of smooth legs, but my laziness definitely trumped that. :P I don’t think I’ve actually gone swimming since I stopped shaving, but I will have to try sometime!

      Liked by 1 person

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