I’m on a national breakfast TV show called This Morning, and I’ve been invited so that, ostensibly, I can talk about female body hair. It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, that I’ve actually been invited so that everyone can have a gawp at the crazy lady and her mewling underarm beasts.
They’ve put a beautician called Michelle Devine on the couch beside me, because they want us to fight. Like a good feminazi, I’m supposed to tell everyone not to shave because feminism.
And, like a good bottle blonde, Michelle is supposed to tell everyone that they must shave because ewwww. Michelle is an intelligent, empathetic, modest single mum who has her own business running makeover parties for little girls.
Our gender politics are obviously different, but she’s great. We talk about our preferences and the pressures on young girls to conform to ‘beauty’ standards. All the same, the station offers its viewers a ‘who do you agree with?’ poll, which doesn’t make sense, because we’re not even disagreeing (but maybe I’m just bitter because Michelle won by loads).
I’m getting an easy ride when, by rights, I need to be taught a lesson in appropriate feminine behaviour. Easy rides are not good television. The host, Eamonn Holmes, starts asking me why I’m wearing boots.
I can’t really answer: ‘Well, due to my destructive and all-consuming eight-year education habit, I have no money for anything other than food, booze and rent. I own four pairs of shoes, so it was these babies, stinky Reebok classics, even stinkier Dunlop sandals or tarty stilettos.’
Then Eamonn informs me that the viewers don’t believe I have body hair at all. So I wave my hands around in the air singing ‘Get Your Pits Out For The Lads!’ Take that doubters: I got underarm bush like Care Bears got clouds.
My sparkling television debut was all over in 10 minutes, and I breathed a little sigh of relief as I made my way to the taxi the station had hired to take me to work. Then my phone started ringing. It was the media. It was the entire media.
The media wanted to ask me urgent questions about my hairy armpits. For some reason, ‘Are they real?’ was a particular favourite. The media wanted insider information on the state of my bikini line, and it wanted it now. I don’t know how the media got my number, but it did, and it was not shy about using it.
By morning, the interview requests were coming from continental Europe, South America, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, East Asia and the dwarf planet Pluto. I was faced with numerous dilemmas. Should I, for example, strip for the Sunday Sport?
Confucius say: If hairy woman do not want to be at centre of bizarre media circus, hairy woman should not go on national TV and wave hands around in air singing ‘Get Your Pits Out For The Lads’.
And fair enough, friend Confucius, you have yourself a point, but I suppose I just hadn’t really thought it would be that big a deal. Which was stupid really, because I’d been living in my hairy body for eighteen months at that stage, and I knew first hand what a big deal it had been for me and for many of my loved ones.
All the same, I certainly wasn’t prepared to become what my friends mockingly dubbed: ‘the international face of female body hair’.
Let’s take a little rewind. How does one become the international face of female body hair? Well, first one must stop shaving. I’d become more aware of and sensitive to the ways that differences between male and female bodies are exaggerated; to the ways in which female bodies, in particular, are commodified; and to the destructiveness of the beauty ideals that are such a large part of these gendered processes.
Body hair seemed a particularly potent symbol of the way in which we teach girl children that the changes their bodies go through at puberty are shameful. I wanted to perform differently. I wanted to create a different world for my (hypothetical but adorable) children. But what finally convinced me to ditch the razor?
There was a trigger. Well, actually, at the risk of sounding trigger happy, three triggers. Trigger number one was tugged when I was living in Dublin, circa 2008. It was nearing the end of Ireland’s economic boom and people had more money than sense.
A new waxing place had opened off Grafton Street, charging e50 for a bare arse. Loads of my friends started getting Brazilians and Hollywoods and raving about how great their new porny vaginas were — how much their boyfriends liked them, how lovely and smooth they felt. So I booked in, because I felt like I should.
My mum called and I told her about the appointment. She said: ‘Why in God’s name would you do that?’ And I said, ‘Everyone else is doing it.’ And she said, ‘Tell me, if everyone else jumped off a cliff would you jump too?’ And thus, beaten by the same logic my mother has been beating me with since I was five, I called the salon and cancelled. I felt immediately better and realised that I hadn’t wanted a Brazilian wax at all.
At base, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with having pubic hair. But, suddenly, a significant number of my friends were talking about it as if it was disgusting. I’d just felt under pressure.
Just a little while later came trigger number two. I read a news story about Dublin salons offering waxing treatments to 11 and 12-year-old girls in the belief that ripping out their ‘virgin hair’ would mean they wouldn’t grow as much during puberty, placing them steadily on the road to the requisite smooth flesh of female adulthood. ‘It’s about training girls in good grooming,’ said a beautician offering the treatments.
And I got angry. Because, first, it’s bullsh*t. You can’t stop girls growing hair during puberty by waxing them as children. People grow body hair during puberty. That’s what happens. There’s nothing wrong with it. And, second, surely the only time you should be painfully tearing hair from the limb of a child is when you’re changing the plaster on her scabby knee.
I was uncomfortable with Brazilians and virgin waxing, as though the whole hairless female norm was being taken too far. But then, how could I be angry, when I was participating in it?
At the end of the day, what’s the difference between buying a pack of razors for your 12-year-old and booking her in for a wax? How could I try to claim that my pubic hair was feminine and acceptable, when I was so ashamed of the hair on my legs or under my arms?
Yet I stayed shaven. Experiments in elective baldness and cross-dressing notwithstanding, I was still at a stage in my life where my adherence to a feminine standard was a big part of my confidence and identity. But the seed had been sown. The more I thought about the reasons commonly given for mandatory female neck-down hairlessness, the more unconvincing they seemed.
Watch Emer O'Toole on ITV's This Morning here:
I’d been taught that female body hair was unhygienic and dirty. But the hygiene argument held water like a brick wall holds conversations. Hygiene is about keeping your body clean and healthy. The hair that grows on women’s legs is no less hygienic than the hair that grows on men’s legs. To claim that body hair is unhygienic is to claim that most men in our society are unhealthily bacteria-ridden at all times.
I’d been taught that body hair makes women sweat and smell. I began to wonder how the folks who authoritatively offered up this logic came across their expertise, since most of them had never even met (let alone smelt) a woman with hairy armpits.
Also, I wasn’t sure how it could be used to justify the removal of leg hair. I was unable to find any scholarly studies linking body hair with increased sweating or smell (it’s amazing what you can find the time to research when you’re supposed to be writing your Master’s thesis).
But, ignoring those objections, even if body hair was linked to increased body odour and sweat, why must it be the role of a woman to erase all olfactory evidence of her presence on the planet? If, for argument’s sake, body hair makes people smell, why are male body odours acceptable while female body odours are not? Why does so much embarrassment and shame surround women’s bodies?
I could see all this and it made me angry. I knew it was wrong. Yet I wanted to be pretty and feminine and attractive, so I participated in the normative behaviour and I continued to shave. It’s what you might call a cognitive dissonance — where you hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, causing you unconscious psychological distress.
I moved to the UK in late 2008 to start a PhD in theatre studies at the University of London. And I found it felt safer to explore alternative ways of performing gender there — London’s a more anonymous place. I went home to Ireland pretty often, stopping in to the east-coast capital on my way out west. And it was when I was on a Dublin visit in late 2010 that the third trigger was pulled good and proper.
I was having a drink with friends, and the female part of the cohort started discussing laser hair removal: the pain; the expense; the half-plucked aesthetic of the results; whether it was worth it. I chipped in: It just seemed a bit extreme, and permanent — like you’d never be able to grow your hair ever again, even if you wanted to.
The crowd assembled thought this was a ridiculous comment, why would anyone want to grow their body hair? I pointed out that a good number of people at the table seemed perfectly happy to grow theirs. Again, this was dismissed as the chiming of a cuckoo clock. They were men. It was different.
And so, in a spirit of genuine enquiry, I asked the million dollar question: ‘What, in fact, is wrong with female body hair?’
Never have I heard a group of such intelligent, socially aware people say such stupid things. ‘Boys are just a bit gross.’ ‘Women don’t really have hair anyway.’ ‘Men are evolutionarily programmed to prefer women without pubes.’
When all semblance of semi-logic was spent, they fell back on ‘just ’cause’ and ‘ewwww’.
The answer people seemed to find the most convincing as to why women should be bald from the neck down was that it ‘just looks better’ (which isn’t really anything more than an extension of the ‘ewwww’ argument).
Women must shave for aesthetic purposes. It’s unclear why men are not required to do the same. Perhaps their body hair is naturally more beautiful than women’s, flowing in silken curls from ’neath their biceps, waving like Wordsworth’s daffodils from their knee-caps, falling frond-like from their penises, inspiring joy in the hearts of all. Or perhaps men are not required to be beautiful in order to be considered masculine or socially valuable.
I suggested that the belief that hairless females look better is a culturally conditioned one. We think that bald female legs equal beautiful female legs because we’re not used to seeing beautiful women with leg hair.
If we grew up in a society where hair removal was still a choice for women, you’d probably find people who like hairy legs and people who like hairless ones. At this, one of the guys scoffed ‘Ha ha, grand so, I guess next time we see ya, ya’ll be a gorilla.’
And, frustrated that this bunch of lefty, arty, seemingly equality-aware people were completely unable to engage with the conditioning that had taught them to think of the changes female bodies undergo at puberty as disgusting and in need of permanent erasure from our visual culture, I thought: ‘I will.’ And I was. Gosh but I’m a stubborn mule. Or gorilla. Or whatever.
Being a stubborn mule-gorilla hybrid who believed in what she was doing didn’t make my new grooming regime any easier. I decided that I wanted to hair it up for exactly a year to see what I could learn.
I broached the subject with my then-boyfriend. ‘So, I’m thinking of growing my body hair.’ Silence. ‘How would you feel about that?’ Silence. More silence. Reluctant reply. ‘Honestly, not ecstatic.’ Silence. More silence. Silence unending, representing an unspoken battle of wills, which my boyfriend knew he could not win. He sighed. ‘If it’s something you need to do, I’ll be supportive.’
In fairness, he took it better than the time I called to say I’d just shaved my head. When I actually became one with my goat legs, we were both surprised to find that he didn’t mind at all. Reconditioning myself, however, was not so easy.
Girls Will Be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently is published by Orion, paperback, £12.99