Independent

Madonna Has Armpits

A few words on Madonna’s armpits for The Independent.

So, Madonna has armpits. She also has products to sell. Let’s just get this out of the way. Even if that armpit picture was timed to coincide with the release of her new advert, even if that was the case – that is besides the point. The point is, why is it, that still, in 2014, despite woman’s hour and twitter and feminist pop songs, a woman with body hair will get so much attention? Whether that attention comes in the form of a snigger on the street or dickheads like me writing articles about it. Why does it remain one of the unshakable truths of the universe, that if a woman makes the choice not to shave what her mama gave her, the human race, capable of designing video games, and building really tall buildings, and writing love letters, start hyperventilating and cursing and spitting at the sight of any hair below the eyebrows of a woman. What the hell is wrong with people?

The answer to that question dear friends is ‘the patriarchy’. I’ll give you the short version because it’s a really nice day and I’m getting bored of explaining that it is a very basic and very important human right that women be allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, with their minds, and yes, with their pubis. And no, women do not have a choice. If being jeered, humiliated and exposed, if being told you’re ugly over and over again, is the consequence of being hairy, that does not make a woman’s decision to remove it a choice, it makes it a necessity.  If it was a choice, Madonna having a hairy armpit or two would not be news, in the same way that if we lived any sort of half way decent existence, people not wearing make up would not be news. As my friend Ellie put it: “There are quite a lot of people who don’t wear make up. Mostly they’re called men.”

So why then, if women’s big bare faces and furry pits are so totally natural, if they are something that shouldn’t need to be celebrated or shamed but should be allowed to just exist the way that, you know, men’s do. Why did I drop my egg mayonnaise down my dress this morning from sheer excitement when I saw the picture? Because whether I like it or not, it is a brave thing to do. Women’s bodies gross everybody out so much that even for one of the world’s most powerful women, it is a brave thing to do. For some of the fierce feminist warriors that I know, leaving the house without make up on would be a brave thing to do. I believe there is no woman living in the Western world and soon, universe, for whom it is not a brave thing to do. Shall we all just take a quick moment to meditate on that?

I don’t care if Madonna is attention seeking, not least because that’s her job. I don’t even care if she glued it on, what Madonna did is an act of resistance. Now, I know we’re all waiting for Russell Brand to say something funny so we can share the video and call it a revolution, but fuck waiting. This is the revolution. Every time a girl is allowed to make real choices, rather than do what she has to, to survive, that is a revolution. Madonna’s armpit is the revolution. My armpit is the revolution. Beyoncé bringing feminism to millions of young people who otherwise might not have known about it is a revolution. Beyoncé in general is a revolution. Jennifer Lopez making valiant feminist statements to horrific music is a revolution. Men wearing make-up and singing La Isla Bonita on the harp is a revolution.

Madonna has a long history of subverting gender norms, and as she disclosed in this interview, a long history of hairy armpits. She said:

Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further… But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going… And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me.

The issue of body hair is consistently dismissed as something feminists should be over. It will never be over because that girl that Madonna describes will always exist. That girl who wants to be allowed to be herself. I bet that picture is going up on some bedroom walls tonight.

Beyonce, Contradiction & Progress

This is an article I wrote in January 2013 for The Independent about loving Beyonce, before her two secret albums and before I was taught that only Black women should be writing about Beyonce.

Beyoncé, in a high profile interview, has said that men and women are not equal and that simply, that fact is “ridiculous”:

“You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

It is both tragic and hilarious that the most radical thing Beyoncé has said in her 16-year career is accompanied by a photo-shoot in which she’s posing in her knickers for money. Let’s face it, on a website that simultaneously features “The Best Breasts of 2012”, her musings probably won’t even be read. This irony, one that is assumed lost on the pathetic puppet of the patriarchy that is Beyoncé, has been laboured so hard we have forgotten to be constructive. And that is the most dangerous thing of all.

Is this what western feminism has come to? Asks the amazing Hadley Freedman in her damning column. No. It isn’t. This is that cheeky duo, capitalism and patriarchy, doing what they do – and they have been doing it a lot longer than Beyoncé has been providing the beats. Western feminism is amorphous, innovative, and becoming more receptive to individual experience, and more understanding of intersectionality (the radical notion that not all women are not the same). Despite austerity, George Galloway and drinks called Pussy, there is so much out there.  We mustn’t waste time or energy picking each other to pieces. We must support and congratulate each other at every opportunity.

Beyoncé has been working, relentlessly, since she was 15, in a universe that is alien to ours. Anyone who has spent that long under the world’s hungry spotlight will contradict themselves, and that she has. On the much-loved track ‘Nasty Girl’ from the huge 2001 ‘Survivor’ album she sings, “You’s a nasty, nasty, trashy, nasty, sleazy, nasty, classless, nasty… Nasty put some clothes on, I told ya. Don’t walk out your house without your clothes on, I told ya”. Fairly horrific. Beyoncé has spoken openly about her Christian beliefs in interviews and songs, “I’m not gon’ compromise my Christianity (I’m better than that)”, while performing in scantily-clad outfits designed by her devout mother; an unforgivable contradiction in my Muslim mother’s eyes. However, on the same album we find ‘The Story of Beauty’, written in response to a letter from a young victim of abuse, “please dry your eyes, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. It’s not your fault, young girl, don’t cry, you’re beautiful. You’re not the one to blame, soon it will be okay, one day you’ll realize your beauty”. We see what we want to see.

If a superpower of a woman, who has never been known for feminist discourse and has no need to engage with it as long as she lives, chooses to, and is met with scepticism and harshness, why bother? Who are we, to hold it against Beyoncé, that she was not an unwavering feminist in 1996 and make it an inhospitable environment to her in 2013? Who are white middle class feminists to condemn Beyonce’s discussion of the pay gap (bigger for ethnic minority women I might add), to tell her she isn’t feminist enough? She contradicts herself because she is a woman, on a journey, living in a system designed to make women feel that they mustn’t question, that they have to be either, or; Madonna or whore, Angela Davis or Rihanna. There is a middle-ground full of uncertainty and I congratulate Beyoncé for stepping into it.

I contradict myself. You do too. But we get to do it in private. Thinking we have to be all or nothing is another tool of the patriarchy, used to discredit women’s experience and scare them from feminism. I don’t shave my legs but I pluck my eyebrows. That’s a contradiction of sorts, and one I’m happy to live with for now. But it is used to dismiss me. “Unless you’re doing The Kahlo, you’re not doing anything”. I don’t know what’s in my future, how far I will be comfortable challenging the confines of what is acceptable in our society. And neither does Beyoncé. But what I do know is that we need to be kind, open and non-judgemental if we want the message to spread.

Sometimes we contradict ourselves publicly too. Recently, Anne Hathaway has been lauded for her feminism, and rightly so! Her recent takedown of a talk-show host who tried to open an interview about her latest film with a question about her vagina is impeccable: “it kinda made me sad, on two accounts… I was very sad that we live in an age where someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it, and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to Les Mis”.

Hathaway is a heroine. Case closed. No mention of the fact that she has posed nude to advertise her films. No umming and erring. Is this snobbery? She works in film, serious, lasting, dignified film – not the judge-central world of pop music of which everyone feels entitled to a piece. And let’s face it. She knows her shit. She’s also a beautiful white woman. An acceptable, non-threatening, white woman.

The race dimension of the disparity in the way these events have been interpreted is another article, but the fact Beyoncé is a black woman must not be side-stepped. In their criticism of Beyoncé, people have assumed she has brought nothing to feminism. But it is clearer than day that she brings something important to the lives of millions of women, millions of black women.  She might not quote Bell Hooks in interviews, but as one of the biggest icons of the 21st century, she sure has some stuff to say. She has long been a champion of The Independent Woman, especially where finances are concerned, and if that’s how she understands and practices feminism it is not our place to outright condemn her. Remember, this interview comes shortly after she ended her business relationship with her father and gave birth to a daughter.

If we are so intent on building an accessible, inclusive feminism, why don’t we focus on what Beyoncé has to offer, rather than her all-too-obvious failings? For the sake of feminism? And all the women who have been inspired by her? I am one of those women.

When I look at the GQ spread, I do not see tits and arse. I see a formidable singer, performer and athlete who nursed me through my teens, inspired me to sing and dance, strut and survive. I see a woman who belonged to me and the black and Asian girls I went to school with, a woman with skin our colour and thighs we could relate to. I see a club where white people were the guests – a precious space in our homogenous media. I see the first woman in 20 years to headline Glastonbury. In Beyonce’s contradiction I see hope and progress. In the backlash I see negativity and narrow-mindedness. Next time, let’s look a little deeper.

Armpits 4 August Isn't Movember

This, on armpits, for The Independent.

tabita rezaire

tabita rezaire

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.

Body Hair As Direct Action

This is the first time I tried to explain my thoughts on body hair, published by The Independent.

Body hair is everywhere! At least it will be soon. In the two years since I stopped shaving, we have seen a feminist movement build and, frankly, mock the idea that it isn’t needed any more. Women today are told to be afraid of our legs and feel guilty for eating on the way to work, to hate our vaginas and our skin colour at the same time, and are even made to deal with anti-abortion protests outside of clinics because the men with power choose to regulate women’s bodies instead of the climate or, erm, the banks. We have voices. We have bodies too, and body hair is fast becoming our war paint.

A few days ago I was invited to the facebook group, “Women Against Non-Essential Grooming”. After some initial confusion as to the meaning of “grooming” in this context, I saw it was a forum for women to discuss and support each other in the trials and tribulations of growing their hair. Last week, Dr Emily Gibson made the headlines with her plea for women to leave their pubic hair alone. This sort of chat is no longer a product of my entrenchment in feminist circles. This is becoming a Thing. A Thing that’s no longer confined to postgraduate reading groups or homophobic/European stereotypes. It’s breaking out of the exuberant feminism that is emerging – onto talk shows and into parks, bars and public transport.

This month has seen the Armpits4August campaign encourage women to get sponsored to grow their underarm hair to raise money and awareness for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), symptoms of which can include obesity, acne and excessive hair growth. But this campaign is not a charity gimmick. The aim to challenge beauty norms is stated unapologetically – not whispered, or inferred:

“Armpits4August believe that we should be deeply concerned that we live in society where hair on adult women is seen as shocking and disgusting, to say nothing of the pressure this places on women to uphold this idealised image of beauty, and the time and money it takes to maintain this illusion…”

The sponsorship aspect is not being used to equate the act of growing body hair to a unicycle ride to Bournemouth dressed as one of the power puff girls. It is being used as a hook, to build a safe and supportive space for women who may not have ever considered letting their hair grow, or considered themselves feminists, to experiment. This campaign, unlike much of the feminism before us, acknowledges the differences between women, and works against the activist trap of preaching to the converted. It understands that the experience of body hair for a white, blonde woman in an office is a very different one from that of a Middle-Eastern woman on a university campus. We are individuals, but we can be united in this joint experiment – the blessing of social media.

More and more women are seeing what it feels like to save that money, pain and time. And that’s not just the time it takes to remove hair, but the time spent thinking about it. Planning it so you’re freshly hairless for your date on Tuesday, but that it has grown back enough to be waxed before your holiday the following week.

This stuff is so deeply internalised, that for many women, feminism and activism begin alone, looking in your bathroom mirror. It comes in that moment when you gasp – you realise how weird, how completely nuts it is that every single woman you know scrapes and pulls out her body hair, unquestioningly and forever. Like robots. Like sexy little fembots; the greatest marketing success in history.

Direct action is not just the forte of groups like UK Uncut. When a woman stops completing the routine that all of the women she sees and knows have been completing diligently since puberty, it is direct action. A private rewiring of her brain, or a public protest, a declaration to everyone who is watching (and at rush hour on the Central Line, that’s quite a few people, trust me) that so many of women’s choices have been buried by heavy expectation and societal norms. This is Everyday Feminism. This is the personal becoming political. This action has a ripple effect. It’s a war cry for a critical eye. And that eye is contagious, as we have seen from the consistent gender critique of the Olympics, and the incredulous coverage of waxing kits for under fifteen-year-olds being described as natural and ‘PLEASANT’.

This is not about condemning other women. We must be kind to each other and easy on ourselves as we draw our battle lines. When I say I’m having a bad hair day, I’m usually referring to my moustache and on the way to remove it, with some sort of cream that burns and smells like eggs or threading, that pulls it out in little clumps. That’s my personal limit and that’s OK.

As the government cuts come into full swing, it looks like more women will leave work to look after their children and girls will be deterred from pursuing higher education and enjoying the privilege that the creators of Armpits4August and I have had. But as our choices continue to be limited by the Government, we will find choices we never even knew we had. Body hair begins to cut through the privilege that has caged feminism. It is simple. We all have it. It says: you have the freedom to make a choice. And what’s feminism if not that?