By Emily Weisenberger
On the eve of the move from my home state of Virginia to my new graduate school in Florida, I shaved my legs. The motivation to pick up the razor, kick up my legs, and inevitably draw a little blood had been lacking recently, but such a big life event was cause for a some preening and preparing.
During that 15-hour drive, and a few days of hauling boxes and sweating through my shirts, my legs were smooth and silky—just as those commercials promise. Then the smooth faded and turned to a beautiful sort of shimmer. It’s been about a month since the move and in the sunny sunshine state, my strawberry-blonde leg hair catches the rays and shines right back.
I have a faint childhood memory of lying on my bedroom floor reading an adaptation of the Rumpelstiltskin story, Spinners, written by Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen. Whether you know the fairy tale or not doesn’t really matter for these purposes, but you should know that in the book, two characters share an intimate moment. Following their engagement, one of the lovers admires his partner’s beauty, noting the beguiling way the light catches the hair on her legs: “The waning sunlight gilds the downy hair on her arms and calves.”
I’ve read quite a few books in my 22 years (241 since I started keeping track in the 11th grade), but that one stands out as unique. In no other context has the idea that leg hair on a woman can be beautiful been imparted to me. In fact, my cultural indoctrination has been so thoroughly and mentally embedded, that at the age of 11 I asked my mom if I could start shaving. Having barely put even a toe through puberty at that point, I was a few years premature in my need to shave off what was supposedly unruly fur. Whether I was told explicitly or not, I knew that leg hair was unsightly and unfeminine, and conformed to the norms of society rather than question what those norms said about our values.
Now, as the self-proclaimed ultimate director of my own choices, I prioritize talking to my sister, reading fantasy novels and rock climbing, among other activities, over leg shaving. While not shaving my legs seems inconsequential in the scheme of things, I feel more in control because of that choice. I am a liberated woman, secure in her identity, appearance, and aspirations, shorn or no. I ignore the external imposition to remove the leg hair from my body to the chagrin of others. With each new millimeter of hair, I feel more powerful, more rebellious, and more me. Some day soon, I may decide to shave off my leg hair. I will feel just as powerful then as I do now because it will be a decision I make for myself. Unfortunately, the fact that I need to find power in a decision to shave or not is indicative of a greater problem of society’s policing of women’s bodies and choices.
Others have said it better than I that cultural norms emotionally and socially impose on women’s autonomy, happiness, and independence. Doing anything when it is socially expected can feel like a burden or a weight holding one down. Even more importantly, these standards communicate to others that women who do or do not proscribe to them should be treated in certain ways. Being the object of strange eyes and the impotent recipient of threatening “compliments” on sidewalks reduces a woman in society to a thing, not a student walking to class or a lawyer on her way to the office.
We are told to be pretty to look at, but not too pretty to distract. We are told to flirt and dress the part, but not to tease or else we will incur the attention of shady men. We are told our “no” means “try harder,” but that the length of our dress and number of drinks downed mean “yes.”
From my vantage point, society would rather watch us women fill the role we have been given than hear that we like wearing baggy sweatpants, want to own our own company, or find pride in the strength we’re gaining from weightlifting. When we become successful in traditionally masculine arenas, we are seen as less feminine and not real representatives of our gender.
C.J. Cregg, my favorite fictitious White House Chief of Staff as portrayed in The West Wing, said it best, amid allegations calling into question her sexual identity. In Episode 10 of Season Six, “Faith Based Initiatives,” she discusses the treatment she receives from men she has dated, saying, “so he’ll just remain silent, like a submarine under the ice cap, and drift away, drift away like the legion of other cowards for whom I spent my young life staring at the phone, panting like an exquisite collie hoping for table scraps. Until I became successful and suddenly started to scare them, scare them with the very independence they required me to have.”
I think we need to scare our communities with more C.J. Creggs, more women who are unapologetically themselves. We women don’t need to be shy in making ourselves feel powerful. When you feel confident enough to do it, make your unique inner strength your public face and force those around you to rethink their ideas of how women should act. Society tells you to not be ambitious or confrontational to injustices. Ignore it, fight it even though it is almost impossible, and know that you have countless allies (from all gender identities).
From small gestures to large, women who reject traditional expectations while staying true to themselves can feel and show strength. I push the boundaries of an acceptable woman with my “masculine” legs. This isn’t for everyone. Some women love shaving their legs regularly, as it can make us feel clean, beautiful and strong (yes, even me when the mood strikes). Join a protest, sign up for a triathlon, wear bright red lipstick, take the dreaded math classes, hold your head high when you state your opinion, make your needs and wants known, start a slam poetry club, write to your congressman, exercise your right to use contraceptives, and stand up for your friend when she’s called a “slut.”
When we assert our individuality and personal strengths, and find support in these decisions, we slowly begin to expand the expectations of a woman’s place in society. One day, the glass ceiling may be broken, the pay gap eliminated, and school dress codes and Burqa bans discarded. On that day, any amount of hair on legs, armpits, and pubic areas will be beautiful.
Disclaimer from the writer: This piece did not delve into the myriad of ways that women’s health, decisions, and freedoms are controlled, such as laws restricting abortion clinics and sexual assault in work/school or the additional discrimination that women of color face. Sexism is a complex issue and this article is intended to be read by women as support from another woman, and by everyone as a call to attention.
Emily recently graduated from the University of Virginia where she studied public policy and anthropology. Currently a masters student at the University of South Florida, Emily is lucky enough to study applied anthropology, a melding of ideology and action. She believes that anthropology (along with all dogs, baked goods, and small acts of kindness) can be a force for good, and wants to share with the world the human diversity that anthropology celebrates. Emily loves tofu and meat, fiction and nonfiction, and all types of people. Can you tell she likes inclusivity?