By Karly Stilling
In my mid-twenties, I spent some time at an ashram in the Kootenay mountains. Picture days spent doing yoga in rooms overlooking a scenic lake, pulling weeds in the large kitchen garden, and quiet reflection filling up every spare moment.
It was lovely.
While I was there, I noticed the other women—many of them my age—were all sporting hairy legs. Having shaved almost every day since puberty, I was curious and decided to try growing out my own leg hair.
It was miserable. I was constantly itchy and uncomfortable. I pushed through to the two week mark, then—in what felt like a glorious act of eschewing social norms in favour of self-love—I took razor to fuzz and waved goodbye to my little leg hairs as they swirled down the drain.
Having tested my choice to shave my legs against social expectations, I realised that I do it for no one other than myself and I’ve never looked back.
But my armpits? That’s another story.
A few months ago I found a small lump under my arm. Being proactive about my health, I knew that I should get it checked out so I booked a doctor’s appointment.
(Breast cancer PSA: ladies, don’t forget to check your armpits while doing your breast self-exams!)
The lump turned out to be nothing, just a minor infection in one of the hair follicles, but the doctor advised me to stop shaving that armpit until it cleared up.
I’ve never gone more than a couple of days without shaving my underarms—even during my hairy ashram days—so this seemed like a golden opportunity to challenge myself to grow out my armpit hair.
I don’t remember the first time I saw a young woman rocking pit hair in public, but I know that I stared. I couldn’t help it: there’s something mesmerising about a woman who’s not afraid to flout social norms. But there’s something else to it, too. I was—I admit—probably a little grossed out.
What is it about armpit hair, particularly on a woman, that society (and myself) finds so disgusting?
Underarm hair seems unhygienic. For me, the thought of growing my pit hair conjured up feelings of sweatiness, itchiness and smelliness.
Writing about reactions to a 2019 Nike ad featuring a model with underarm hair in The Guardian, Yomi Adegoke notes, “‘Hygiene’ was a recurring cause of perturbation, which of course raises the question: why is hair only a health hazard on female armpits?”
It’s a good question.
As my underarm hair grew, I became increasingly fascinated by it.
I would pull up my shirt in front of the bathroom mirror to look at it, slip my hand under my pyjama top to stroke it while lying in bed. I was deeply conscious of its presence, even when wearing a long-sleeved shirt. It was like a little carry-anywhere pet.
A slightly gross one.
Underarm hair is a hold over from our full-body-hair days when we needed fuzz for warmth. But evolution has done away with much of our other hair, so why do the pits remain?
The general consensus amongst scientists is that pit hair, along with pubic hair, grows above the glands that produce much of our natural scent.
The hair acts as a diffuser, helping us spread our scent—and our mate-attracting pheromones—far and wide.
A week or two into the experiment, I asked my partner what he thought about my new armpit hair.
“It kind of weirds me out,” he said in a tone that was half-joking.
“Your pit hair kind of weirds me out too,” I told him. (It’s true; I find male pit hair just as gross as female pit hair.)
I mentioned that I might wear a sleeveless dress on an upcoming night out just to see his friends’ reactions at my hairy pits.
“I’m not sure the world is ready for them,” he said.
At the gym, I wore t-shirts instead of my usual tank tops. I wasn’t ready for my hairy armpits either.
In the middle of my experiment, I was sent to Singapore for work. Perfect, I thought. It wasn’t going to be much of an experiment if I was swathed in knit jumpers in wintry London for the entire duration. It takes a warm, sleeveless kind of environment to really test my hair-growing experience.
In Singapore, I learned three things:
1) Hairy underarms are way more uncomfortable in the heat (though still not as sweaty, smelly or itchy as I expected).
2) I’m a wimp. I wore sundresses with sleeves for most of my time there, and when I did sport sleeveless tops, I self-consciously kept my arms glued to my sides.
3) Everyone has their own body hair story.
One female coworker joined me in the hotel jacuzzi and raised her arms to reveal an amazing underarm bush without batting an eye, while a male coworker told me that he’d hated growing out his beard because it felt so conspicuous and he didn’t enjoy knowing that people were looking at him.
Which makes me wonder: where do our feelings about our body hair come from?
Women have been removing their body hair for centuries, but it really ramped up in the 1900s as fashions changed and it became acceptable for women to show a lot more skin.
First hemlines crept up, then sleeves. Women were encouraged to remove ‘unsightly’ hair on their legs and underarms and Gillette got in on the act with the first safety razor designed specifically for women, the Milady Décolleté, in 1915.
Then came the 40s and the war, which meant a shortage of nylons—and even more pressure on women to shave their legs. By 1964, says the Women’s Museum of California, 98 percent of American women regularly shaved their legs.
That changed a bit during the feminist movements of the 70s, but not for long. In the 80s the Brazilian wax craze hit America, and soon the only safe place for a woman to have hair was on her head.
In the 21st Century, social perception of female armpit hair is changing fast. More and more celebrities, influencers, and hip young women are choosing to happily grow their body hair.
In a 2019 article for The Guardian, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow notes that while this choice to flaunt body hair hearkens back to the feminist movements of 70s, for most women today body hair is more than just an outright rejection of patriarchal ideals.
“The common approach today is for women to curate different elements of their appearance,” she writes, “remaining conventionally attractive while deploying body hair as a feminist fuck-you: half-statement, half-ornament.”
Recently, the feminist ‘body brand’ Billie released an advert showing women shaving actual hair off their bodies, one of the first ever for a company that sells razors. They also launched ‘Project Body Hair,’ a user-generated image library designed to ‘make the internet a little fuzzier’ and rectify the dearth of hairy women on the internet.
(Thanks for the free photos, Billie!)
While I admire the move to destigmatise hair on female bodies, something about the campaign rubs me the wrong way.
Isn’t there something weird about the fact that it’s taken a company that makes money selling razors to start a movement to show female body hair in public spaces?
I had set the timeframe for my pit-iful experiment: I would grow the hair until New Year’s (a little under two months) and then see how I felt.
I chose my special pit-revealing outfit for New Year’s Eve and had my partner take a carefully curated photo of me in all my pit hair glory.
After everything, having felt like it was so noticeable and feeling so uncomfortable with it, this is the photo I wound up with.
You practically have to squint to even see anything there. What was I so worried about?
A month and a bit on from the experiment, I’ve started coming to terms with my hairy body.
I feel way less self-conscious about my pit hair, and now frequently go a week without shaving or waxing. I don’t think twice about having my fuzzy underarms on display when I’m hefting dumbbells at the gym.
It all makes me wonder why I was so uncomfortable growing out my pit hair. I was ashamed of my hairiness, and now I’m ashamed of my shame.
Maybe it’s time I stop giving a fuck. Who’s with me?