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Sticking Culture

The attempt to cross the boundary to the more private or even intimate aspects of human life in ethnographic work is nothing new to anthropology. Almost 100 years ago, in 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski launches Argonauts, the foundational work for ethnography as we know it today, after spending several years of fieldwork on the Trobiand Islands. Here, Malinowski defines ethnography as a science depending on an intimate involvement in people’s everyday life. If the ethnographer wants to bring real life home to his readers, he must take the intimate seriously:

Neither aspect, the intimate, as little as the legal, ought to be glossed over. Yet as a rule in ethnographic accounts we have not both but either the one or the other – and, so far, the intimate one has hardly ever been properly treated.[1]

Whereas for Malinowski, an intimate involvement in everyday life meant to study the islander’s sexual life, today, intimacy can designate practically everything in the near domain of human experience.The anthropological field has expanded towards the anthropologist’s own home. From the 1980s and onwards, there has been a rising awareness on how we, the anthropologists, and our societies are just as cultural as everyone else. This goes for how we think about and treat our body hair as well. We understand our body culturally, and act upon it as cultural beings – in itself, it is void of significance.

The three films in Hairy Stories is made in the domain of the intimate, in a social scientific tradition that has roots back to Malinowski. The films point towards my own society and even my own body as inherently cultural. Culture sticks to the skin. Even when I know the imperative to body hair removal is culturally specific, depending on time and place and changeable; it is almost impossible to “unlearn” how a female body is supposed to look like. And culture sticks to the skin, also in very concrete ways. It takes the shape of a wax strip waiting to rip out a part of you it has deemed undesirable.

 

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Prepare to wax! Anthropologists don’t rely merely on observation and interviews, we need to participate to understand what is going on. As part of my fieldwork I booked a waxing session for my legs.

[1] Malinowski 2002 [1922]:15