Sorry, I'm a Mammal: A History of Women & Body Hair // ODE TO HAIRY WOMEN FROM A HAIRY WOMAN
By Shaina Joy Malchus
Illustration by Amber Vittoria
Sorry, I'm a Mammal is a new monthly series in which we explore the history of women and body hair.
"ODE TO HAIRY WOMEN FROM A HAIRY WOMAN"
Dearest Hairy Women,
If you are hairy, truly hairy, you know it. To be hairy has little to do with the hairs that stick out from the pores of one’s skin. But more to do with the ones that envelope the heart. The animal insulation. The stuff that makes us brave and kind and smart and special and most of all…warm.
It is not easy being hairy, I should know.
Every culture has its own ideas about what "good" body hair looks like. In current western culture, we have such a tiny window of what qualifies as the right proportion of hair. In my particular case, as a white woman with dark, frizzy, short hair on top of my head and a variety of fine and coarse hair covering literally every inch of the rest of my body, I have lived a life outside of the stereotypically "womanly" levels of hair.
So what is it like to be a hairy woman in today’s hairless society? I can only tell from my vantage point of having fought follicles for literally the entirety of my memorable life. Much like the moon, I could organize my body-hair life in different phases. The bleaching phase, the laser phase, the waxing phase, the shaving phase, the tweezing phase, the electrical tweezing phase, the hair removal phase, the at home waxing phase.
In an act of celebration and as a sort of open love letter to all the other humans blessed with numerous follicles in numerous places, a brief recall of my favorite precarious, hair-ious situations. There will be puns, there will be pubic hair.
The bleaching. Once I bleached my entire body. Not the hair atop my head, not my eyebrows or pubic hair, but everything in between. From the brown hairs above my upper lip, to the ones that cover my back, the trail of black hairs that lead from my belly button to my pubic hair, all the way to the little patch of hair on my big toe. I stood in my room, naked, legs apart, arms outstretched, covered in a tingly white paste for between 15-18 minutes.
At the time the idea was to make my body hair blond, which I thought would somehow make it invisible. However, skin, much like hair, also has the ability to be bleached. Which left my olive skin patterned with bleached white blotches, not dissimilar from a shag carpet. The look was completed with a special white arc above my lip; my former mustache now looked like I had a permanent milk mustache.
Bikini Season. As a pre-teen my body matured very quickly and the tiny bikinis for girls did not fully cover my newly sprouted pubic hair. After having my crotch pointed to and deemed “like a monkey” by Liam at his (not even that great) pool party, I began exclusively wearing boys shorts to swim.
When tiny bikinis became the only available option for women to purchase, I really began to wonder if I was the only human with pubic hair (where does everyone hide it?). Thus began my brief stint in the mad science of hair removal. And the one and only time I tried to wax my own bikini-line at home, in which I wound up accidentally gluing my thighs together.
Connections. Every hairstylist I have ever visited has had the same anxiety when approaching my neckline. I see the sweat forming on their brow as they look down the back of my shirt… If the hair begins at the nape of my neck but does not finish until my lower back, where does one stop shaving?
Strays. While making out and smoking cigarettes, my first ever boyfriend kindly reached over to my neck to brush off what he thought was a stray hair. After a few soft swipes he made an embarrassed ‘oh’ sound and informed me that in fact the ‘stray’ hair was actually attached to my neck. The first of many random black hairs who seem to have lost their way dotted along my neck, chin, and occasionally the center of my forehead (my grandma has the same one, we endearingly refer to it as “the unicorn”).
Sovereignty. Then I went to college, it was a clothing optional school. On the full moon I would dance naked around a fire with the other women at my school. I did that. On the first days of real sun we would wander out into the meadows, the grass up to our waists, lay naked in the sun. I saw so many types of naked women’s bodies and I stopped shaving my armpits and legs because the sexiest woman I had ever met had the most beautiful tufts of hair coming out from everywhere.
Recently. Now thirty years old, I would like to think I inhabit and explore my own personal hair space in a way that I feel comfortable. Hairy armpits and legs, fluffy vagina, eyebrows that can just about hold hands, and an elegant hint of a mustache that accentuates my large lips is my current mood. But there we were the other day sitting at the bus stop, me and my body hair. We were sandwiched in between two very large advertisements; one of a woman in a bikini straddling some sand on a beach and one of a woman wearing a lace bra straddling some sheets on a bed. The women in the advertisements were astoundingly beautiful, and without a single strand of body hair.
I had a hard time recognizing my femininity in their hairlessness. It is frustrating to continually question your physical appearance.
It struck me that not only is it possible for a woman to live their entire life without feeling totally happy with their body, it is a reality for most. Somehow we have been swindled into spending our life being dissatisfied with the very thing that allows us to live. We carry the weight of a deeply ingrained notion that even if you do not compare yourself to other women, society does.
Besides extra warmth and killer eyebrows, my fur has granted me an important gift; I am decorated with this tiny reminder that despite what popular culture tells us, being a woman is infinite, it is a spectrum. It is the women on the billboard and it is you and me. That no matter the message of society, it is a radical act of bravery to love yourself and know that no model of womanhood is more valid, attractive, or ideal than the other.
And this is my message to you, dear hairy women. Hair is only one of the zillions of pressures women face about their outward appearance. In this way, hair can be used as a metaphor for just about anything. But if we internalize the truth that we define and validate ourselves we allow ourselves to shine all the more brightly in all our uniqueness.
Shaina Joy Machlus is a journalist, writer, and translator of suburban New Jersey origins, currently living in Barcelona, Catalunya. A staff writer for Tom Tom Magazine, you can also find her words in publications like Got A Girl Crush, Broadly, La Directa, Shookdown Underzine, and Gent Normal, to name a few. @punimpie