“Oh, no. I forgot to shave my toes,” Hannah cried, intently examining her big toe. My head whipped around when I heard this, my strong-female-role-model senses instantly activated. I turned and saw three other girls gathered around Kelly intently inspecting their own 12-year-old bodies.
“Wait. What did you just say?” I asked. Shaving legs, armpits, and nether regions? Yes, I had heard of that, but never toes. As their youth group leader, I couldn’t let such an important topic go unaddressed.
“I forgot to shave my toes. I look disgusting,” Hannah huffed, visibly deflating.
“Why do you shave your toes?”
“You don’t?” another girl Emily asked. “I shave my toes and my stomach. Guys aren’t going to like you otherwise.”
We lay on the beach wrapped in warm gusts of wind and spray from the Mediterranean tide. I tried to relax my now contorted body atop the jabbing stones of Nice’s beach. Lisa, a vibrant, carefree Australian girl I met at Versailles, had just returned from braving the cold, forceful waves. I noticed she didn’t shave her armpits or, after scanning down the rest of her body, anything else.
“I know some guys have different expectations of girls’ body hair. What is your reaction from them if you aren’t shaved?” I asked.
“I like the feeling of being shaved, but it’s such a hassle,” she explained. “Most guys are cool with it, and if they aren’t, they aren’t worth it. I don’t do it for them. If I shave, it is for me.”
This week I read a news story about French teen Adele Labo who after being bullied about her body hair created the now popular hashtag #LesPrincessesOntDesPoils (#PrincessesHaveHair in English). My initial reaction was frustration that this even needs to happen, that women feel so uncomfortable in their natural bodies that it is radical and newsworthy when someone does.
Even I am taken aback when I see a woman with unshaven armpits or legs because it is so rare, so I have to pause and ask myself why I feel that way. The answer is that for my entire life, I have been shown and told that women are supposed to be hairless save for their heads and eyebrows.
Really think about this:
Does not shaving hurt anyone? No.
Does not shaving make you less of a woman? No.
Does not shaving make you less desirable? No.
Does not shaving mean you are dirty? No. (According to a study published in JAMA Dermatology, 3 out of every 5 women remove their pubic hair because they think it is unhygienic. Not true! It’s actually the opposite.)
Does not shaving mean you don’t care about your appearance? No.
Does not shaving mean you are a stereotypical hippie? No.
Is not shaving anyone’s business but your own? No.
My heart sank hearing how much effort, anxiety, and self-criticism those 12-year-old girls endured to be acceptable to middle school boys not only because I loathe the standards they waste their time worrying about but also because I feel the same pressures just as acutely. Yes, I know body hair is natural, but it isn’t easy to shake 23 years of messages saying otherwise.
Seeing Lisa in Nice helped, though. As we walked through the streets and danced in bars, men were enamored with her stunning beauty and her spirited confidence; they couldn’t look away. I know that reaction would have been the same whether she shaved that night or not.
I want everyone—including myself—to be able to look at an unshaven woman and find her beautiful; moreover, I want everyone to not be ashamed of the realities of physical humanity.
The most effective way to conquer a fear is to face it, so challenge yourself as I have done to go out one day at a time without shaving something; I think you will quickly realize how little people notice, if they do at all, and how it isn’t as big of a deal as you anticipated.
Now, I’m not saying I have sworn off shaving. Not at all. Heck, I’ve had laser hair removal done, and if it wasn’t so expensive, I would do it again. The point is that we all have a choice of what we do with our bodies, and we deserve to feel beautiful whatever that choice is. I challenge you to love your smooth legs and your hairy legs—I challenge you to love yourself no matter what.