Tag Archives: feminism

Hair Here, But No Hair There–If You’re Female

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Laurie and Debbie say:

As women in this culture, of course we have known since we were teenagers that women are only allowed to have hair on our heads. For Debbie, deciding not to shave her legs in college was a radical decision. Laurie had a close friend who was subjected to severe and dangerous medical treatment in the late 1950s for being too hairy.

What neither of us knew was that since the 1960s, there has been a formal quantitative scale for female body hair. Mona Chalabi, writing in The Guardian, combs through this history brilliantly.

What can be dismissed as trivial is a source of deep anxiety for many women, but that’s what female facial hair is; a series of contradictions. It’s something that’s common yet considered abnormal, natural for one gender and freakish for another. The reality isn’t quite so clearcut. Merran Toerien, who wrote her PhD on the removal of female body hair, explained “biologically the boundary lines on body hair between masculinity and femininity are much more blurred than we make them seem”.

The removal of facial hair is just as paradoxical – the pressure to do it is recognized by many women as a stupid social norm and yet they strictly follow it. Because these little whiskers represent the most basic rules of the patriarchy – to ignore them is to jeopardize your reputation, even your dignity.

Chalabi introduces us to the Ferriman-Galwey scale, which is now 56 years old. It has been simplified since it was first introduced, to the eight areas identified in the picture at the top of this post. It focuses on “terminal hairs” (coarser, thicker), rather than vellus hairs (finer, shorter). Not only did we not know there was a scale, we didn’t know the names for these different kinds of hairs–although, like Chalabi, we certainly know which hairs aren’t “supposed” to be found on women’s bodies.

Chalabi identifies as hairy herself, and she writes about how women react to having what they consider to be excessive hair:

On average, women with facial hair spend 104 minutes a week managing it, according to a 2006 British study. Two-thirds of the women in the study said they continually check their facial hair in mirrors and three-quarters said they continually check by touching it.

The study found facial hair takes an emotional toll. Forty percent said they felt uncomfortable in social situations, 75% reported clinical levels of anxiety. Overall, they said that they had a good quality of life, but tended to give low scores when it came to their social lives and relationships. All of this pain despite the fact that, for the most part, women’s facial hair is entirely normal.

And then there’s the nearly-inevitable racial component. (We never forget that race is a fiction and a construct, and at the same time, it’s sometimes a pervasive construct that can’t be ignored.) Chalabi references a 2014 study (funded by Procter & Gamble) which used predictably false definitions of race and ethnicity to determine that so-called white women have the least facial hair of any group, and that among these so-called white women, northern Europeans have the least facial hair. Because the world does not admit these divisions are meaningless, there can be question why having facial hair is considered less appropriate? And is it any surprise that Ferriman and Gallwey did all their work on white women?

And how old are these concerns? Older and deeper than either of us would have guessed:

When did we sign up to an ideal of female hairlessness? The short answer is: women have hated our facial hair for as long as men have been studying it. In 1575, the Spanish physician Juan Huarte wrote: “Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.”

These signposts are strictest when it comes to our faces, and they extend beyond gender to sexuality too. According to Huarte, masculine women, feminine men and homosexuals were originally supposed to be born of the opposite sex. Facial hair is one important way to understand these distinctions between “normal” and “abnormal”, and then police those boundaries.

Chalabi ends her article with the deeply personal information that despite her research and academic knowledge, she still pays every month to have hair removed.

And we end her article with two questions:

1) Why is it so very important that women have hair on our heads and nowhere else? The omnipresent western identifier of a girl baby is hair. Women with shaved heads, outside of a few urban bubbles, are presumed either to be cancer patients or some kind of weirdos. But that oh-so-important head hair must be limited to the scalp, and not move around to anywhere else, or somehow it stops signifying femininity and starts signifying masculinity?

2) Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a comparable scale for men? Certainly men with low body hair can be tagged and teased as not masculine enough, but it is inconceivable that an endocrinologist and his graduate student (or even an endocrinologist and her graduate student) living in the patriarchy would ever consider quantifying how much body hair on men is not enough.

How many ways can the patriarchy keep women busy worrying about details of how we look, rather than the big picture of how we live? Too damned many, that’s how many.

Thanks to Lisa Hirsch and Tracy Schmidt, two Body Impolitic stringers who thought we should take a look at this article.

Road Tripping: Looking For Sisterhood

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Greenidge sisters and others at Robbins House

Laurie and Debbie say:

We were completely struck by the quality of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times,Sisterhood Felt Meaningless. So My Sisters and I Got in the Car.”

Greenidge was feeling (aren’t we all?) the weight of the 2016 election:

What does the rallying cry of sisterhood and the concept of feminism mean when last year, the majority of white, female voters chose whiteness as a political identity over womanhood? What does feminism mean to each of us, as black women, when we had just lived through an election season of hearing candidates and commentators use that old, unexamined phrase, “women and black people,” skipping over our existence as both? How do we understand women’s history as triumphant when we are still smarting from the very public smackdown of a woman attempting to reach the highest seat of power?

My sisters were the perfect people with whom to seek some answers.

Greenidge sets the scene by describing her sisters, Kerri and Kirsten, and their childhood in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools.

Black womanhood was always centered in our home, so I didn’t look at white women with envy because they were white. And I was rarely instinctively suspicious of them. Like most black and brown people in this country, despite what white people may believe, I was not actively looking for the ways whites slighted me because I was black. Especially when you live and work in predominantly white spaces, you have to hold on to the social fiction that white people are responding to you as an individual. If you do not hold on to that lie, or at least use it judiciously, you risk going mad with grief and anger.

This description of the black experience maps onto the (white) female experience in male spaces: there, you have to hold on to the social fiction that men are responding to you as an individual. If you’re black and female, the challenge increases exponentially.

The three Greenidge sisters went traveling. “We wanted to find women who could remind us that another, more tolerant, hopeful way of being is possible. It was possible 150 years ago, during a time when people supposedly didn’t know any better — and we hoped that perspective would help us in this present time, when people supposedly do.”

Their three stops were all at historically obscure places, also generally obscure to black and feminist historians. Read the article to see Greenidge’s careful descriptions and contexts; here’s a very brief synopsis:

  • The Prudence Crandall Museum (Connecticut) commemorates a white schoolteacher (Prudence Crandall) who enrolled Sarah Harris, a black student, in 1831, and successfully fought intense opposition which only made her a stronger defender of access to education for black people.
  • The Royall House & Slave Quarters (Massachusetts) is the only standing slave quarters location north of the Mason-Dixon line, a crucial reminder of Northern slavery, which many of us tend to ignore, forget, or gloss over. Of particular note here is that Isaac Royall Jr. received reparations for the loss of his slave property, while American black people have received nothing for 150 years.
  • The Robbins House (Massachusetts) is the home of a previously enslaved Revolutionary War veteran. One of his descendants, Ellen Garrison Jackson, fought tirelessly for equality and access to public space.

So the Greenidge sisters saw a mixed story: America’s deeply shameful history, black people committing their lives to working towards equality, and the occasional white person who joined the march to justice. What did this tell Kaitlyn Greenidge about the role of sisterhood in troubled times?

After touring the house, my sisters and I sat on the green, while all around us, people paraded, dressed in the costumes of colonists who believed in freedom with conditions — not necessarily for women, not necessarily for black people and certainly not for black women.

I think about the foresight and sheer leaps of intelligence it took for Crandall, for Harris, for Sutton and Garrison, to imagine a world that most around them could not imagine. It is a world I have to keep telling myself we are almost in sight of, if we keep thinking and planning and plotting as they did.

When polarization dominates our discourse, and much racial commentary — from many directions — is correctly about how most white people have failed to uphold even the most minimal standards of respect and decency, Greenidge’s voice rings out with something else. She knows 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, and she is clear how shameful that is. She knows that her colleagues rarely see her as an individual, and she pulls no punches about what contortions that puts her through. And at the same time, she and her sisters managed to delve into — and she chose to tell — a range of stories which show both racism and heroism, the troughs of human blindness and the heights of human commitment to justice.

We’re grateful to the Greenidge sisters … and we want to take the same trip ourselves.