When I shot the second Hairy Stories-film in Palestine, people would talk about body hair removal as “taking care of yourself”.
Initially, I thought it was a strange combination of words. It didn’t make sense for me to couple “taking care of yourself” with that amount of physical pain. My anthropological fieldwork since revealed how the beauty practices’ depth of cultural inscription was way stronger than the actual pain. We live in a world where femininity is closely associated to a hairless body. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote more than 70 years ago, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”  Womanhood is not about your chromosomes, womanhood is a process of becoming: to twist and turn the body and its behaviors into norms of cultural femininity.
When we go through pain and trouble to remove the hairs, we take care of ourselves as social and cultural beings. If you chose to do otherwise, you position yourself in opposition, and will have to deal with the disadvantages of a that. It may have serious social consequences.
Therefore, as sociologist Kathy Davies argues, the idea of the female body-modifier as a “cultural dope” is highly inaccurate . The discourses on femininity and beauty manifest structurally rather than on an individual level. And we living humans do, most of the time, not live our lives structurally. In this perspective, the woman who follows the norms she despises takes a wise decision. She gains the upper hand and create a relative advantage for herself in the world she lives in. She doesn’t need to explain and justify how she can have hairy legs and still be a legitimate woman, who doesn’t hate men or is divergent in other ways. She is relatively empowered in the patriarchy.
So people tend to comply with norms. Not necessarily because they like them, if they were ever asked – but because it is the socially intelligent thing to do. Because we cannot escape culture, and what we do will always be understood in relation to the cultural context we live in. Even our perception, our vision and desires, are culturally shaped and embedded; created and sustained by the capitalist distribution of images.
In this way, even the pain related to hair removal subtly translates into “taking care of yourself”.
– Louise Hollerup, filmmaker and visual anthropologist
Read more about the author at www.louisehollerup.com
This is an old-fashioned topic-based website about body hair. In short essays, I have collected some perspectives on female body hair removal that I find interesting and thought-provoking:
- The problem with hairy women
- A short history of body hair
- The gaze – how power is incorporated into bodily practices
You may also read about and watch the Hairy Stories; three short films about body hair that I made during my education in visual anthropology at Eye and Mind Laboratory, Aarhus University:
With this site, I hope to disseminate my research in a more accessible way for everyone who struggle with cultural ideas about how we are expected to moderate our bodies into womanhood.
These hairs… They are everywhere they shouldn’t be and a never-ending challenge to my public appearance. As a soft fur on my upper lip, as a stiff straw on my breast and as a black shade on my thighs. In an endless, silent stream, they keep creeping out of my skin, invading my body and calling for action.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1973. New York, Vintage Books, pp. 301 (originally published 1949). De Beauvoir argues that the concept of ‘woman’ depends on a male gaze. The woman is ‘other’ because the culturally dominant point of vision comes from the man. Donna Haraway talks about this as ‘the gaze from nowhere’.
 Kathy Davies, Reshaping the Female Body. The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery. 1995. Routledge, New York & London