What’s the Latest?
A recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly confirms what so many of us already figured — a lot of people are grossed out by female body hair.
The wrinkle in such an assumed notion is that Breanne Fahs, the scholar who conducted the study, focused her research on the opinions of other women. Her write-up, delightfully titled “Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth,” details two separate studies in which she explored womens’ imagined and lived experiences with regard to body hair.
Fahs conducted two studies. In the first, she interviewed 20 women on how they felt about body hair and shaving:
Women overwhelmingly constructed body hair removal as something they, and others, chose to do, even though a few acknowledged the complexity of blending choices and requirements together.
For the second study, Fahs asked 62 female students to volunteer to go 10 weeks without shaving and write about their experience. The results were fascinating when compared to what Fahs learned after the first study:
Many women reflected on how, although they initially framed body hair as a (sometimes insignificant or casual) personal choice prior to doing the assignment, they changed their views once they grew their body hair. Four themes (sometimes overlapping) appeared in women’s discussions: (a) new perspectives on the social meanings of body hair, (b) encounters with homophobia and heterosexism, (c) anger from family members and partners about growing body hair, and (d) internalized feelings of being “disgusting” and “dirty.”
What’s the Big Idea?
Erin Mayer at Bustle wrote an article on the study a few days ago. In it, she reflected on Fahs’ second study and posed what’s really the million dollar question here:
Obviously, the drive for women to shave is embedded in the structure of patriarchal society, but what’s interesting is that plenty of women who reject traditional gender roles and sexist ideals — myself included — feel strongly compelled to shave everything. Why is this disgust for female hair anywhere but the head so widespread, even among many feminist circles?
Mayer turned to Lisa Miller of NY Mag, who offered an interesting science-based theory:
Evolutionarily speaking, sex is the whole game. Sex with the wrong person can kill you and your genetic line – through disease, infertility, misfortune. With the right person, it can assure that your genes are transmitted to the next generation. Armpit hair signals sex because it grows during puberty and is one of the first signs of maturity (and fertility). And it signals sex because it transmits the scents that lead to mating. It triggers disgust because it reminds humans how dangerous sex can be. And that’s why we shave it off. Because armpit hair betrays the western fantasy about sex, which is that sex is fun, pleasurable, innocent, and inconsequential, a fantasy that elides the evolutionary truth.
Although I personally think anti-hair stigma grows more from the patriarchal root than anything else (not that that contradicts any of the above), this sociological theory offers a fascinating glimpse into how cultural preferences and taboos attempt to tackle scientific and evolutionary truths.
What do you think?
Read Fahs’ entire study here.
Photo credit: Anneka / Shutterstock