This article first appeared in MIMI.
Summer’s in full swing here in New York, which means that my uniform of spaghetti straps and sundresses has become crucial to my survival in this world of spotty air conditioning and sun soaked cement. Earlier in my life, this also meant that visions of armpits and a vague sense of stress crept into my consciousness on a daily basis. But in spring of 2012 as the solstice approached, I decided to give my decade long shaving routine a break. I haven’t looked back since.
A humanist by instinct, I was drawn to feminism from a young age as I observed the many gifted, nurturing, brilliant, beautiful women in my life. With middle school came the disillusioned beginnings of my awareness of the many injustices against women built into American society. During those emotional years spent in puberty, nursing crushes so intense they kept me up at night, insecurity, embarrassment, and self-doubt entered my psyche like an earthquake.
What I remember of my initial impulse to shave is not introspection or intellectual analysis, but the excitement and anxiety that come with declaring oneself “mature.” It was an induction to the court of glamour and sexuality. From then on, shaving was an integral part of my beauty and hygiene routine. For years I felt more acceptable with ugly bumps and abrasions from the razor than with a visible patch of stubble under my arms. While hairless armpits were essential to all warm weather activities, I was so committed to the habit that I insisted upon hairlessness year round, long sleeves be damned.
Meanwhile and into my college years, I developed strong interests in natural health, social justice, and the mechanisms of structure and authority in American culture. I’m a believer of the invaluable power of personal freedom and the healing effects of embracing people, including our selves, in their natural states. Forgive me if this sounds heavy handed in an essay about armpits (how mundane they are!), but it was as I explored these inclinations that I started to question my habits with a quality of honesty I wasn’t able to access as a teenager.
It turns out that the American practice of women shaving their armpits can be traced to an oft-referenced 1915 advertisement in Harper’s Bazaar for depilatory powder, which exclaimed “Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair.” Capitalizing on the freshly acceptable style of women’s sleeveless dresses and tops, hence was born an industry which has since the beginning utilized language and imagery intended to shame women about their natural appearance.
To me this is symbolic of the two-steps-forwards-one-step-back pattern of society’s acceptance of women as legitimate equals and agents of decision-making. Once women were able to make a little progress at denying the pervasive culture of prudishness and sexual objectification of the feminine form, ditching constrictive sleeves for more comfortable options in the warm seasons, up crops a new dictate for establishing their worth: shave your armpits or suffer embarrassment. It’s a sign of discomfort with womanhood, insisting that the female body is most desirable in its pre-pubescent form. I’m uncomfortable with that standard.
As I continue to lay off the razor, I’ve come to feel empowered by the hair in my armpits. Sure armpit grooming is a relatively small thing, but it’s refreshing to have one less thing to worry about when I get dressed in the morning. Ditching that routine has helped me take other stress-laden beauty standards with a grain of salt, too. Like other style norms, shaving has a manufactured need—it’s the result of social values (sterility, youthfulness, consumption, female imperfection) transferred onto a practice (shaving), which in turn convinces people en masse of its correctness and, thus, aesthetic necessity.
I’ve always done my best to practice non-judgment of others, especially regarding physical appearance, even as I remained neurotically attached to my own unexamined beauty regimen. I am not dogmatic about my choices, and it’s totally cool by me that many women today who do shave are informed about its history and implications but opt to shave for other reasons. But nowadays I find it awfully sexy and cool when girls don’t shave their armpits (or legs or what have you). In general it exudes confidence and projects comfort within one’s own body, and what’s more attractive than that? And, more importantly, through my exploration I have managed to teach myself to stop judging my own physicality.
The axiom of my armpits tale is that we can all benefit from a healthy dose of questioning when it comes to the routines we take for granted. It just may be that you decide to hang on to your habits once you examine where they come from. Either way, in my experience, being informed about my decisions leads to feeling happier in my own skin. With knowledge comes the power to act out of respect for my own values rather than out of shame or outward pressure. So shave away, or don’t, but do yourself a favor and make sure your beauty ideals come from within. Anything that makes you feel that your natural beauty is not perfectly ample is usually not worth the effort.