This, on armpits, for The Independent.
It’s here! That time of year! Summer cheer! Parks and beer! And acute self-loathing of body hair, as cardigans and tights come off, beauty rituals increase in frequency and cost and women’s minds are cluttered with meaningless bullshit.
As a loyal champion of body hair growth and experimentation, I am overjoyed to see Armpits4August (A4A), the month long charity event that encourages women to grow out their armpit hair, exploding onto the scene in its second year, with a healthy amount of global press. This event won’t just support women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – a symptom of which is ‘excessive’ hair growth – it will slowly but surely change the lives and perceptions of many, many people. It will change everyday decisions and actions, thoughts and brain chemistry, because it will remind people that women have a choice.
When I stopped shaving four years ago, apart from a circle of dear feminist friends who explored the possibilities of body hair with me, I felt quite alone. Quite freakish. I still thought twice, no, 400 times before stepping out the house hairy, and there are some places I still wouldn’t go today. But things are changing, and in part, thanks to the beautiful, beautiful internet (I love the internet so much). Communities and support networks are forming, and allowing women to feel so much more comfortable in their own skin, hairy or not.
For me, it started when as a young girl. I stumbled upon The Great Wall of Vagina, a work of art that documents the many varieties of vagina by a man who wanted to do something about the anxiety so many women feel about their genitals. I remember looking, fascinated, at how different they all were, side-by-side, and I felt something lift – a fear I didn’t even know I had yet. And this gift continues, with The Belly Project, F*ck! Shaving, Hairy Pits Club, Hairy Legs and Pubes, and fellow charity efforts, Julyna (cervical cancer) and No Shave November aka ‘Movember’ (testicular and prostate cancer).
However, may I take this opportunity to say: Armpits4August isn’t Movember. Throwing no shade to Movember, it's fine, but while the comparisons are obvious, they have been relied upon too heavily in the media. A part of me has been overjoyed at this coverage. Men do the moustache thing for a penis charity and women do the armpit thing for pum-pum charity. Case closed. Sure, it’s a step towards the nonchalance that women with hairy armpits dream of, but we’re not quite there yet, and it’s important to remember why.
A4A has a whole other bit. A bit about the freedom of women to do as they please with their bodies, or at least to have the opportunity to experiment enough with their bodies to work out what they want to do with them. Essentially, if a man decides to keep his new moustache till say, January or March, he might be thought of by a passing stranger as zany, or creative. A character even. Or maybe there will be no thoughts at all. Men are allowed to be funny and outrageous, to look stupid. Men are allowed to be ugly. Women, as we know, are not.
It’s not only the confines of acceptable appearance that are incredibly rigid for women, it’s the way we challenge those confines, and the many other barriers to equality. We are controlled, even in our dissent. (And yes, women who grow their body hair are dissenting – they are activists, campaigners, freedom fighters. They shouldn’t be, but they are.) There’s good dissent and bad dissent. Good dissent is when, like Malala, you get a hole in your head because you want to go to school and you get saved by a white man. Bad dissent is when you take control of your body and do experiments with it that hurt or effect absolutely no-one. When you partake in bad dissent you are considered sub-human. You are shamed and shouted at, told to sit down and know your place. That’s what women who don’t shave, and those joining them this August will be facing.
I have polycystic ovary syndrome, which I discovered when I went to the doctor because my spots had got out of control. Acne was my prominent symptom. I probably have more hair than the average woman too, but considering I don’t shave, and my hair is black, I might as well be an ape as far as society is concerned so I don’t give it much thought. That’s a flippant remark right there. Actually I do. I give it lots of thought. I think about it all the time because for me, body hair has come to symbolise the oppression of women – for as long as we can remember, across cultures and religions, invisible and insidious, perpetuated by women, patriarchy, and its old and trusty friend capitalism.
That’s why women need to actually DO THIS. Thanks to A4A, the set-up is there and waiting. I want it to be bigger and hairier than Movember because there is so, so much to be gained from it. I believe growing your body hair out is one of the most eye-opening and freeing things you can do as a woman, even if you only do it once. Just like you don’t have to stop eating meat altogether to positively impact the environment, you don’t have to throw your razors away to remember you have a choice. It’s just about remembering you have a choice. That’s it. This August, Woman 1 will see Woman 2 and remember she has a choice. End.
No-one says it better than singer India Arie: “Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t” – I want to live in a world where more women live by that mantra, and A4A are helping to make that possible. Good luck! And, if you want me, I’ll be organising Fannies 4 February.